Tools to limit access to social networks are available but any move to do so in the workplace is "short-sighted", says an industry analyst, who notes that organizations should instead encourage employees to find ways of using social networking tools to be more productive in their work.
Last month, network security company Palo Alto Networks unveiled its next-generation firewall which allows companies to limit access of Facebook functions to "read-only". With the firewall, organizations have finer-grained control over what apps their employees can access on Facebook, and can apply "read-only" Facebook access to certain staff members.
However, when asked if read-only access to social networks is the right way to go for organizations, Andrew Milroy, industry director of CT and digital marketing groups at Frost & Sullivan, felt otherwise.
The analyst told ZDNet Asia in an e-mail that such restrictions are "shortsighted" and show a lack of understanding of today's business and technology.
"Denying full access to [social networking tools] can cause employees to be less productive than people with access," Milroy said, noting that many organizations have started to use Facebook or other social networks for business purposes including customer service and sharing of best practices for sales activities.
Social graph at work
Peter Borup Jakobsen, Cisco Systems' Asia director of collaboration architecture marketing, equated the read-only approach in social media monitoring to reading newspaper or checking personal e-mail at work, noting that it will do little toward driving productivity, growth and innovation.
"Cisco believes that the community is at the center of the Internet experience," Jakobsen said in an e-mail interview with ZDNet Asia, noting that the company encourages employees to be familiar with social media tools such as Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook.
He added that in today's hyper competitive business environment, it is important to consider the social graph of employees as it will not only bring in real benefits but also expand the company's reach tremendously.
"Research shows that consumers are more likely to trust companies that interact and respond real time," he said. This is especially true in Asia-Pacific where consumers rely on their social graph when making decisions, he added.
Regardless, companies should have access to the right tools if they do decide to limit access to certain applications at work.
In an earlier report, Larry Link, the vice president of worldwide sales of Palo Alto Networks told ZDNet Asia that the company creates products that can be deployed in a variety of ways. "We're not in a position of saying, 'you should block this' or 'you should not block this'," he said. "We're in a position of giving the IT organization a tool that they can use to administer their business policy."
The network security company itself allows employees to access social networking tools.
"We have many young bright engineers who embrace all the new applications," Link said. "We understand that in order to be relevant to our customers and more importantly to our employees, you can't just block everything."
"But, at the same time, we like to help organizations meet their business goals in an effective manner as a security product," he added.
Some organizations block access to social networks out of fear that information may unintentionally leak.
However, Cisco's Jakobsen said such concerns have always existed. He added that it is important for companies to leverage a policies-driven approach in their network, especially for those in highly regulated operating environments such as the public sector or banking industries.
Enterprises often struggle to adapt their existing policies to employees' preferred use of technology as consumers are often early adopters, he said.
Jakobsen pointed to a midyear security report released by Cisco last week which found that 50 percent of end-users admitted to ignoring company policies that prohibit use of social media tools at least once a week. Another 27 percent confessed to changing settings on corporate devices in order to access prohibited applications, he added.
Thus, he noted that companies should look at using policy-based on their corporate network to provide a level of security around user activities.
Best practices in social networks
Milroy compared the use of social networking tools at work to the office phone. "It is OK to make the odd personal phonecall, but obviously not [to make] too many using work phones," he said.
"Companies simply need to reinforce the view that [employees] are using work time and assets when accessing these sites and, for this reason, they expect employees to act accordingly," the analyst said.
Milroy added that companies need to ensure employees comply with company security and privacy policies when using social networking tools.
The U.S. Defense Department and State Department recently permitted the use of social networks on work computers alongside a set of guidelines for their employees. These include directives not to disclose classified information, to maintain a distinction between an official and personal account, and to be alert to the potential targeting of users for intelligence-gathering purposes.