Executives divided over pros and cons of social networking

Should staff be allowed to use social networking sites such as Facebook at work, or should they be banned?

Should staff be allowed to use social networking sites such as Facebook at work, or should they be banned?

The issue was the subject of heated debate at the Corporate Executive Programme at Gleneagles Hotel this month.

Fifty executives across a range of disciplines and industries debated the merits of allowing staff access to social networking from their desktops.

Many were concerned that allowing social networking could open the floodgates to staff wasting time on a massive scale, or perhaps expose firms to unecessary security risks

At the same time, executives realised social networking could become the way to do business in the future, replacing phone and e-mail as the communication medium of choice.

Providing access to social networking at work will be essential if firms want to compete for top talent among a generation who have grown used to using it for communication.

PR company Edelman is firmly in in the pro-Facebook camp. Its UK CEO, Robert Phillips, told the CEP that the company is already reaping financial benefits by encouraging its staff to use social networking.

Over the past year, the company has shaved 1% off its bottom line by encouraging its staff to use websites as a recruitment tool.

Phillips said recruiting this way was not only cheaper than using recruitment consultants, but has proved to be more effective at finding the right people.

"We get a better quality recruit. They are much more engaged with the firm and who the firm is," he said.

It's also better for the candidates. They can get a much more rounded picture of the company, its good and bad points before they come for an interview, he says.

Formal footing

The company has been recruiting in this way informally for the past year. But Phillips plans to put the scheme on a more formal footing. "I am looking at a model where people can be rewarded for recruiting new staff," he said.

For Edleman, there is another compelling business reason to encourage staff to use Facebook. The company needs to be able to advise it clients on the potential of social networking for advertising and brand building. "Digital and social media make up 10% of our business. Its going to reach 25% in three years," he said.

"We ask people to respect the fact that they are at work and not to abuse the internet. In the olden days people phoned their friends from work. If people want social networking conversations rather than watercooler conversations that's fine," he says. "I think we command better internal relationships because of it. It fosters a sense of openness and trust,"

The international drinks manufacturer, Diageo, takes a more cautious approach. It will allow some departments to access social networking sites, if they have a business reason for doing so. But it is also aware the social networking has the potential to damage the company's reputation if it is misused by staff at work.

"We rule by exception," said Claudia Natanson, chief information security officer. "We don't allow carte blanche. Social networking is fine for creative organisations, but we have social responsibility to deal with as well."

Comliance demands

For other companies the demands of regulatory compliance mean they have to take a tough line on social networking.

Mitsubishi UFJ Securities International took the decision to ban use of social networking and web-based e-mail at work, following a consultation paper from the Financial Services Authority in May 2007.

The FSA intended to require financial services firms to record all all forms of electronic communications used to conduct financial transactions.

Timothy Vaughan, managing director for internal control and quality assurance, said it was the company had no means at that time to identify and monitor trade-related communications going via these sites. In fact, it was not aware then that any deals were being executed over Facebook,etc.

Vaughan was also concerned about the impact of staff browsing at work on the network.

"We were seeing really a substantial increase in the use of sites last year. For instance web-based e-mail started to use up a lot of bandwidth. It does start to have repercussions for overall message speed and information flow," he says.

"People were trying to get data from websites for legitimate reasons, but people were also going onto websites for video streaming, and it was difficult to know what they were doing."

Research showed that a small number of people in the firm were responsible for a large proportion of web use.

"People use the internet and phone for personal reasons, but this was more serious. There were some people making a huge number of website posts a day."

One option would have been simply to increase the bandwidth of the network. But the firm decided to consult its staff first to see what impact removing access to social networking would have on the business.

"We went through a consultation. We wanted to find out if there was legitimate business use, but no one came forward and said there was," he said. "The simplest thing was to prevent access at work, and say let's get connected again in future if there are genuine business benefits."

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