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Allow Social Media vs. Ban Social Media at Work

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The pull of social media is proving hard to resist. Even some of the most buttoned-down institutions are rethinking bans and relaxing access to social networks and social media sites.

The highly regulated financial services industry, for instance, has been slower than most industries to adopt social media, but the potential to tap new prospects via social networking has firms moving past the "wait and see" stage. When Socialware surveyed 144 financial advisers this year, 84% said they use social networks for business purposes, up from 60% in 2010. Another 10% said they plan to use social media in the future.

The traditionally tech-lagging public sector, too, is lifting access restrictions and wading deeper into social media. When Market Connections polled federal, state and local government employees, just 19% said their agencies ban some or all social media web sites such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and YouTube, down from 55% in 2010.

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Among government employees with access to social media, 37% are permitted to represent their organizations using social media, and another 30% are allowed to do so, but with some restrictions.

"A lot of businesses, small and large, are moving away from the more restrictive model of blocking social media to a more liberal access model," Chenxi Wang, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research, summed up earlier this year.

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Inside organizations, the pressure to expand social media horizons is coming from multiple sources. Sales and marketing teams want to engage customers through social networking sites, users want to access personal accounts from the workplace, and HR wants to be able to recruit, hire and retain social media-savvy employees.

Right in the middle of the action is IT, which bears responsibility for making sure that social media activities don't expose the company to unnecessary risk. While the financial analysts polled by Socialware and the government employees surveyed by Market Connections suggest that social media is becoming part of everyday work life, IT executives paint a less permissive picture.

Just over half (51%) of 1,400 CIOs polled in May by Robert Half Technology said they allow employees to use social media sites like Twitter and Facebook on the job as long as it's for business purposes, up from 19% in 2009. On the flip side, 31% prohibit it completely at the office. The remainder said social networking is allowed for limited personal use (14%) or any personal use (4%).

[SECURITY WATCH: IT pros say social media at work is good but risky]

The disparity between what end users say they're doing with social media and what IT departments say is allowed isn't unusual. Wildly divergent views emerged when Actiance (formerly FaceTime Communications) surveyed 1,654 IT managers and end users in 2010. In the study, 62% of IT professionals estimated that social networking was present on their networks, while the actual data from deployed appliances showed social networking present in 100% of cases. Web-based chat was found to be in use in 95% of locations, although only 31% of IT professionals estimated that it was in use.

Software security vendor Clearswift likewise received mixed messages about social media when it polled 1,529 employees and 906 managers for its annual research report, WorkLifeWeb 2011.

Clearswift highlighted what it says is a new phase in the social media journey: extra caution and a retreat from social media, in some cases.

According to Clearswift, the proliferation of high-profile data breaches is leading businesses to clamp down on social media use. Its survey found 19% of companies worldwide are outright blocking employee access to social media sites, up from 9% in 2010. A significantly higher number of managers said their companies are selectively monitoring employee Internet activity (cited by 72% of managers, up from 65% in 2010) and blocking access to certain social networking sites (cited by 61%, up from 54% last year).

Security fears are behind this seeming retreat from social media. Half of the managers surveyed (50%) think employees are oblivious to security concerns, and a nearly equal number (48%) is worried about the loss of confidential data via employees. Paradoxically, 80% of managers acknowledge the business benefits that social media tools generate.

In interpreting the study's results, Andrew Wyatt, Clearswift's COO, says the backlash is likely a short-term reaction to some highly publicized data leaks. "The research also provides evidence that businesses do recognize the importance of new technologies, which leads me to believe that this is a knee-jerk reaction rather than a long-term trend," Wyatt states.

Attempts to suppress social media activity wouldn't sit well with end users, Clearswift notes. If a company were to introduce stricter social media guidelines, the employee backlash would be significant: 26% of employees said they would become demotivated, 14% would work around the policy, and 3% would consider leaving.

Nonetheless, for the sake of security, risk management and regulatory compliance, enterprises need to craft -- and enforce -- acceptable use policies that govern the use of social media during business hours and while on the corporate network.

These days, social media policies are more common among financial services firms than they were a year ago. In 2010, 57% of financial advisers knew of their company's social media policy, and 32% said there wasn't a policy, according to Socialware. This year, 80% said their firm has a social media policy and just 16% said there wasn't one (the remainder didn't know).

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Likewise, in the Market Connections survey, 79% of government employees said their social media use must fit within predetermined guidelines. Roughly a quarter of respondents said preapproval is required before posting (27%) and only certain sites are allowed (27%).

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But security controls are lacking. In a recent a Ponemon Institute survey, 63% of respondents said use of social media puts the organization at risk, and 52% said their organizations suffered increased virus and malware attacks as a result of employees' use of social media. Yet only 29% have security controls in place to mitigate or reduce the risk.

To help get control of social media use, organizations are increasingly adopting enterprise tools from vendors such as Socialware, Erado, Actiance and Hearsay. The tools bundle compliance, content management and analytics features so companies can stay on top of content created by employees and measure the effectiveness of their social media activities.

The compliance capabilities enable companies to archive messages, flag improper words, and create workflows for reviewing content. They'll also check for compliance with regulations from the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the Financial Industry Regulatory Authority (FINRA) and the Federal Trade Commission (FTC), for instance.

In the big picture, letting the reins out on social media use is tough because it requires trust. While it's critical for IT to address security and compliance, social media thrives on uncensored communications. Finding the right balance is key.

Read more about lans and routers in Network World's LANs & Routers section.

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