Westpac has bucked the trend on policing Internet use in the workplace -- allowing staff to access Facebook from work, building a Web 2.0-like portal in-house and a Westpac-branded site on Second Life.
A straw poll at yesterday's Gartner Symposium found that most CIOs restrict employee access to social networking site Facebook as a rule of thumb.
There are ample concerns in the workplace that the use of Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, Second Life and other such "Web 2.0" sites will only at best result in employees wasting time, or at worse result in the introduction of IT security risks.
Not so at Westpac. Australia's oldest bank is not only allowing employees to access Web 2.0 sites, but is building its own social networking capabilities.
"Facebook presents a dilemma for most organisations," Westpac CTO David Backley told a session at the Gartner Symposium, held this week in Sydney. "Some 1,560 of our employees have nominated on Facebook that they work for Westpac. But Westpac has no control of that content."
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But rather than police Facebook use, Westpac has chosen to let Facebook traffic through the corporate firewall. Further, the bank is experimenting with the development of an internal "Facebook-like" application of its own, using Microsoft's collaboration server technology, Sharepoint.
The application, still under development, will have the same look and feel as Facebook and other popular social networking sites, but will feature Westpac confidential data, will be restricted to Westpac staff and be protected by the firewall.
Backley is well aware of the reasons why most organisations are choosing to block access to social networking technologies. However, his team has come to the conclusion that no corporation can control informal networks, which tend to reorganise and morph on a regular basis between different sites and interfaces, let alone around the water cooler.
"The rationale is that people will waste time if they want to waste time," Backley says. "Most people who work for us will do the right thing, and see that others are doing the right thing. Many of these things can be self-managed."
Backley said that there is nothing written in Westpac's terms of employment or IT policy about what constitutes acceptable use of the technology.
"We don't write into the policy how long they can spend having a cup of coffee either," he said. "The only boundaries we have set is that the same rules apply online as they apply in the offline world."
A liberal policy toward access to Web 2.0 sites might become necessary, he suggests, to attract skilled workers in the future.
"There is a war for talent out there," he said. "The next wave of people we hire are going to be used to this kind of technology. In two or three years time, if [these potential employees] aren't provided this technology inside the organisation, or at least a link to it from your network, that may affect their choices about who they work for."
Westpac on Second Life
Westpac has also set up its own island in virtual world Second Life.
Developed by the bank's technology partner IBM, Westpac has experimented with using this virtual space to conduct centralised induction meetings for new staff from branches and offices around the country.
The experiment produced positive results, Backley said. The "virtual presence" element of Second Life meant that geographical and hieratical barriers could be removed. New staff from a branch in Tasmania and a branch in Brisbane could be inducted in the same session by a trainer in Sydney.
"The pilot was successful enough for us to consider the utilisation of the technology more widely," Backley said.
The bank's efforts in the Web 2.0 space have both his endorsement and key executives in Westpac's equivalent of an HR department.
There was little resistance to the initiatives in the executive ranks, Backley said. The only resistance, in fact, was from a few folk within the bank's IT department.
"It really didn't cost a lot of money to do," he said. "And the support came from business areas that wanted it, I was just there to guide and direct it."
Backley acknowledges that the strategy involves some elements of risk. One person can achieve a lot more damage to a brand in a technology-enhanced social network than a physical one but he sees the pros outweighing the cons.
"We think this will drive innovation in our organisation," he said.