The alternative to blocking Facebook

Despite reports that Facebook usage in the workplace has exploded over the last year, IT managers will have to dig deeper to determine the true impact of the social networking phenomenon, says Internet monitoring software firm SpectorSoft Corp.

Nielsen Online recently reported that 87.25 million U.S. users spent an average of four hours and 39 minutes on Facebook at work and home during the month of June. Another report from Nucleus Research Inc. found that 77 per cent of surveyed workers use Facebook during work hours, with “some” office usage reaching up to two hours a day.

These numbers coincide with a May 2009 study from Forrester Research Inc., which indicated that much of the growth in social networks today comes from people over the age of 34 and more than half of adults aged 35 to 44 are in social networks.

While many organizations have used this data to make the unpopular, but likely effective, move to block all social networking sites from their users, one SpectorSoft executive says the numbers don’t always tell the whole truth and blocking these sites entirely isn’t the only option.

“Most Internet Web filtering applications, as well as Facebook itself, can’t determine whether you’ve just launched it and minimized it or whether you’ve launched it and are actually using it,” said Doug Taylor, director of marketing at SpectorSoft, adding that distinction is necessary if IT shops want to get a true handle on productivity losses.

“I bring Facebook up in the morning, check what my friends are doing, minimize it and then go about my work day, before bringing it up for a couple minutes at lunch” he said.

With the company’s Spector 360 corporate monitoring software, Taylor said, companies can determine the difference between active time (meaning your keyboard or mouse is in a browser opened to a social networking site) and inactive time (when a browser or tab is minimized).

“We can actually protect an employee by at least saying he wasn’t using it for eight hours a day, he was using it for eight minutes,” he added.

With Spector 360, employee browsing behaviour is tracked and recorded into a single dashboard for IT administrators. From that dashboard, IT managers can examine anything from which users are spending the most time on Twitter to who’s sending the most files via Web mail.

“It can record virtually every keystroke, every Web site, every program launched, every e-mail sent and received including Web mail, every chat or instant message including those in Facebook and Myspace,” Taylor said, adding that IT administrators can even take screenshots when keywords are triggered or sites are visited.

“Literally you can get a screenshot as to what was on their screen at a given moment, so you can tell whether they got to that porn site by mistake and were trying to get out or whether they’re actively in there using it,” he added.

James Quin, senior research analyst at London, Ont.-based Info-Tech Research Group Ltd., said that while corporate monitoring tools aren’t terribly common today, it is something that’s gaining more interest, especially among companies looking to comply with regulatory and industry requirements.

As for its effectiveness at regulating employee activity, it all depends on how the solution is deployed, he said.

“Monitoring employee activity is one of those things that certainly do a lot to ensure (employees) aren’t doing anything inappropriate and, depending on how the solution is deployed, can go towards established compliance with both policies and regulations,” said Quin.

“That being said, from an employee perspective, this is clearly seen as an invasion. Organizations that are looking at something like this need to be completely above-board.”

Quin added that rolling out such a tool doesn’t just change Web 2.0 use policies, but also IT resource use policies.

“Any organization deploying such a tool needs to indicate to its employees that they reserve the right to monitor all activities and will use technical controls to do so,” he said.

Taylor agreed, adding that companies that have implemented Spector 360 and referenced its use in their acceptable usage policies often see a huge decline in Web browsing among their employees whether they actively use the product or not.

Timothy Hickernell, a lead analyst with Info-Tech, reminded organizations that when they are modifying their acceptable use policy, they should not focus on the type of communication technologies they implement, but rather employee conduct.

“The policies may need updating when a new communication technology is adopted, but you don’t set up separate policies for different technologies,” he said. “You add new scenarios to the examples and train employees on these.”

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