Analysts: Don't ban social networking sites

The possibility of social networking sites leaking information or compromising employee productivity is causing companies to ban their use--against the advice of analysts.

The possibility of social networking sites such as Facebook or LinkedIn leaking information or compromising employee productivity is causing companies to ban their use--against the advice of analysts.

In a recent survey of 1,200 global HR professionals--conducted by content security specialists Clearswift--79 percent said their company was completely blocking access to social networking sites.

Firms not taking advantage of this new phenomena are at a competitive disadvantage, according to Clearswift MD Peter Croft. He told ZDNet Australia that the use of free instant messaging services and relationship sites such as Facebook, as well as blogging services, can add value.

For example, when recruiting, companies can use Facebook to "validate" recruitment decisions, Croft said. Internally, he revealed that Clearswift employees communicate with one another on blogs or forums, which saves the company money.

Gartner VP and research director Steve Prentice told ZDNet Australia in a video interview at the Gartner Symposium last month, that companies banning social networking sites are guilty of hypocrisy.

Prentice said companies want employees to collaborate and "individuals are using Facebook as their chosen tool for collaboration" but companies are making it difficult by saying to employees "you can't use your tool of choice".

Clearswift's Croft said firms are chary of allowing social networking sites to be used because inappropriate content could be viewed or created using company resources, which could make the company liable. According to the survey, five percent of HR professionals have had to discipline employees for posting inappropriate content on such sites.

The leakage of confidential company information through social networking sites is also a concern, he said.

Analysts agree that if social networking sites are to be made available on company time, their usage needs to be monitored. Unfortunately, the survey also revealed that 41 percent of HR professionals do not understand Web 2.0 sites or have never heard of them, and 30 percent feel that monitoring employee use of the Internet and e-mail was not their responsibility--leading to the monitoring of Internet usage being passed on to the IT department in 68 percent of cases.

This is not effective because "in cases where a breach is less obvious, IT may not recognize what HR would see as a violation", said Croft, who advised HR and IT to work together and develop Internet policies to achieve effective monitoring.

In a video interview earlier this year, Microsoft's chief security advisor Peter Watson said it was necessary to "educate the generation that has grown up with these tools on how to make them secure".

The options for content monitoring are broad and can even be outsourced, according to Gartner VP Jay Heiser.

"There are a growing number of companies you can subscribe to and they'll perform intelligence and trawl through sites like this [Facebook] and see what's being said about your organization," he said.