The Lunacy of Restricted Access

1940s keypunch operatorsI’ve recently worked with the marketing organizations at three household-brand companies on their social media strategies. The irony is that the IT organizations at these companies block employees from accessing Facebook and YouTube. In other words, marketers can’t get access to the tools they most need to remain relevant in their profession.

The reasons these companies are blocking the two most important social networks on the planet has nothing to do with security or bandwidth. Rather, someone at the top of the organization has decided that employees will waste their time chatting with friends instead of getting work done.

These executives are morons. They’re damaging their companies competitively and tying employees’ hands at a time of momentous change. What’s more, they’re fighting a losing battle.

This happens at lot when technology innovations come along. In the early 90s many companies refused to give employees Internet access, believing they’d waste time surfing. Some went so far as to disable dial-up modems in office computers. This simply drove employees to cut their work hours short so they could explore the Web at home. Today, of course, Internet access is such a basic right of employment that no business can afford not to offer it.

Instant messaging was blocked in its early days, too. It was thought that employees would waste time chatting about nothing instead of working. Today, instant messaging is essential to communications in the evolving distributed workforce. People had to learn to use it at home.

Back in the early 80s, my ex-wife worked at an insurance company that kept its employees at their desks until 4:30 every afternoon. The company literally rang a bell when it was OK to go home. Walking through the offices at 4:25, a visitor was treated to a bizarre scene: businessmen in suits and overcoats sitting at their desks, briefcases by their side, watching the clock and waiting for the bell to ring.

That company probably thought that keeping people at their desks made them work harder. In reality, it was breeding a workforce of frustrated and demoralized people who hated their jobs. The company shut off the bell years ago.

Are employees going to play on Facebook? Of course they will. Play is part of the discovery process. Only through experimentation do people find value. The faster companies enable their employees to get on top of a new technology, the faster the business value will emerge.

We are in the early stages of a massive re-engineering of our institutions driven by the social Web. Jeremiah Owyang has written eloquently on this recently. Social networking is simply a better way to work. Like the graphical user interface or the spreadsheet, it will become an essential utility for getting tasks done. The faster businesses internalize and promote the use of these tools, the better positioned they’ll be competitively.

10 thoughts on “The Lunacy of Restricted Access

  1. With smartphones it is getting harder and harder for companies to block social networks. Continuing to block will only mean, they accept to be on the loosing side.

  2. As a fellow user of social networking platforms for years, Paul, you know I find value for both work and friendship there. I’m curious about whether you make a distinction between external platforms, like Twitter and Facebook, and internal parallels, like any of the various enterprise microsharing apps (Signals, OraTweet, Yammer, etc) and collaborative software that overlays an intranet. The latter offer many of the same features that allow employees to work together on wikis, blogs and talk about it in iterative, persistent ways. (That latter function is one reason Google Wave may fit in well with their enterprise apps down the road).

    I like being able to dip in and out to external social networks throughout the day but I’m still left a bit curious about what the business case will be for them will be in many industries if comparable platforms are provided internally if an employee isn’t in a customer-facing role. I can make a case of journalists — and I have some ideas for making the case in many other professions — but I’d like learn more from you about how you’d make a case to no-nonsense CIO or to a security officer concerned about employees being spear phished or allowing malware in through a shortened link.

  3. I think they’re used for different things. The internal apps are good for collaboration and project management, but in most cases they don’t reach outside constituencies. Public platforms familiarize employees with all the features and potential applications of social networking platforms, which creates more innovative ideas for their internal use. More importantly, they connect employees with customers and business partners. In the future, businesses will want to expose nearly all their employees to external conversations for a variety of reasons. Denying them that access ultimately limits the potential of the company to engage fully with the people it needs to influence.

  4. That makes sense, Paul. Thank you for answering my question thoughtful, especially given that the prose in my comment ended up unattractively mangled though some bad editing on my part.

    The research I’ve seen cited earlier this year reported that 80% of enterprises surveyed are blocking Twitter and Facebook at work. I’d like to see more substantive research as 2010 begins on whether that move is a competitive differentiator for them.

    The productivity questions seem to come up most often when I’ve talked with CIOs – what business purpose does Facebook serve, exactly? – but they’re rather reminiscent to the concerns I’ve read about the introduction of the Internet to corporate desktops in the 90s or telephones earlier in the 20th century.

    I’m unsure if the telegraph was regarded with chagrin. Perhaps because no vampires or flying sheep awaited their operators?
    The issue is clouded by some gray areas, like the access through smartphones that Adam referenced above, or usage at home that would familiarize them with the external platforms without opening corporate networks to additional risk.

    If, as Professor Andrew McAfee & MIT professor Eric Brynjolfsson have reflected in their books, better use of IT and social computing does lead to demonstrated greater productivity, retention and knowledge capture, we’ll be able to see if more conservative approaches will be consigned to the dust heaps behind the loony bin.

  5. Interesting bit of trivia: When the telephone was first popularized, it was positioned as a way for people to listen to opera remotely. It was thought to be a one-way communications device.

    What’s the business value of Facebook? Well, what was the business value of any new IT innovation of the last 30 years? PCs, local-area networks, PDAs, the Web, open source, instant messaging and blogs all came under a lot of criticism in their early days because they challenged the established order of centralized control or were seen as toys. Second Life was blocked by many companies. It fell off the map for a while, but is reportedly having its best year ever, is profitable and just introduced a corporate version.

    No one knows what the business value of these new technologies is at the outset. If people are allowed to play with them, they figure it out. Twitter befuddled people when it came out nearly three years ago. Now it’s one of the most important tools in marketing and customer service. That’s because people figured it out.

    Most security problems can be dealt with through education. Virtualize the desktop, don’t allow anything to write to the hard disk and tell people not to install apps. That’ll head off most of the problems.

    Blocking new technology presumes that intelligence lies at the center of the corporation. That idea has been pretty thoroughly debunked. Read Doc Searles’ recent post on that. Modern businesses move decision-making to the end points and trust their people to innovate?

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  7. Great post. This very thing is happening in the healthcare realm. Hospitals are shutting out SM platforms over fear of patient confidentiality breaches. While the concern is real it can’t be controlled by excluding the medium. If that were the case we’d have to get rid of telephones.

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  9. I completely agree, Paul. My former company did this but allowed specific access to the Marketing Department. I hadn’t realized we were alone in our ability to search YouTube and FB until I sent a video link about our company to other employees and they all let me know they couldn’t open it because of blocks. I was shocked. To be a fully online company who profits from internet marketing and conducts all business via email, it seems absurd to block basic apps.

    I guess people also fought for the “world is flat” theory. Change is hard to accept.

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