Straddling the great divide

Some recent research findings from professor Avner Levin of Ryerson University in Toronto may prompt CIOs to re-examine their views around employee privacy.

Dr. Levin is co-author of the study The Next Digital Divide: Online Social Network Privacy, which explores the attitudes and perceptions of young social networkers to privacy and security, as well as organizational policies, practices and attitudes around the use of online social networks. Dr. Levin and his team interviewed more than 2,000 undergraduate students in the largest quantitative research study to date on the use of online social networks by young Canadians.

“Young people believe that information shared with their personal social networks is considered private as long as its dissemination is limited to their social network,” said Levin.

This flies in the face of established policy in many organizations, which hold dear the right to examine employees’ emails and in some cases monitor their Web activities – and justifiably so, many would argue, as the abuses of these IT-based activities can have catastrophic consequences for the organization.

The CIO is smack in the middle of this budding controversy. On one hand she must safeguard the corporate interest and satisfy compliance obligations, and on the other she must avoid alienating the Gen Y employees who will eventually be the lifeblood of the IT department and the organization as a whole.

Dr. Levin noted that none of the employers represented in the survey had a policy specifically related to online social networks unless they had experienced a related incident; all assume that their existing policies on the use of the Web will handle it.

It now seems increasingly apparent that the old policies will not suffice. Attitudes were much different when those policies were constructed, and the social networking phenomenon adds a complex new layer to the privacy debate.

It’s evident that things will have to change, whether CIOs like it or not. Rather than take a reactive position to the issue, this may be a good time to be proactive. Forward thinking policies around social networking and privacy may go a long way towards helping you attract young tech-savvy employees. And it may help you some avoid some nasty situations in the future.

When you’re looking at rethinking your policies, make sure you get some input from those same young social networkers. Despite their incautious networking habits, they still hold strong views on privacy and it will be important to get those views on the table.

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