Face value or face ache?

Face value or face ache?

Some businesses embrace social networking while others approach with caution.

Few technologies have divided popular opinion like social networking. Depending on who you speak to, and their age, it is either the best way to mine information from your business contacts, or an irritating and unnecessary burden on the IT department that presents serious risks to employee productivity, data security and internet bandwidth capacity. TechTaxi interviewed two IT professionals to get their thoughts on the matter and found a cautious optimism and willingness to adapt, matched against begrudging acceptance of the inevitable.

The Salvation Army

William and Catherine Booth used more traditional methods of reaching out to potential recruits when they formed the Salvation Army in 1865, but today’s evangelists believe the addition of social networking links to the Army’s web site may prove a catalyst in helping spread their religious message.

The Salvation Army added web links to del.icio.us and Facebook last year, and Martyn Croft, head of corporate systems at the Salvation Army, says social networking has genuine potential to help the organisation raise its online profile.

“Like many organisations probably did, the Salvation Army drifted into social networking, though we did perhaps have a unique position in having a fairly vibrant web site in the first place,” he says.

“One of the first things we did last year was to introduce tagging and social bookmarking onto the site and it proved quite interesting.”

The Salvation Army uses social bookmarking as a tool for existing members to tag and share interesting web pages with each other.

It can also provide a platform for the Salvation Army’s own message, and a way of bringing people into the fold by highlighting members’ thoughts and opinions on important social issues of the day, according to Croft.

“There are 7,000 staff in the Salvation Army in the UK alone, and the membership is organised as a congregation if you like. Social networking also helps us spread the word ­ – we can use social networking as a set of tools to help us reach out, particularly to the youth element,” he says.

“What is interesting is that since the addition of Facebook over the past few months, some people have been using it as a mechanism to denote true presence online. We are moving away from being a web site where people go to find things out, to one where there is live, up-to-date contributions from people who are promoting awareness about a number of issues, such as human trafficking.”

Croft has no way of telling how many people are using the social networking elements of the Salvation Army’s web site at any one time, though the fact that he has seen available wide area network (WAN) bandwidth decline by roughly 10 per cent since the introduction of social networking indicates the technology is seeing considerable traction.

Most of the traffic comes from the ALOVE part of the Salvation Army’s site, a page dedicated to 18- to 24-year-olds with a heavy emphasis on social action.

“At that level of use, it gets onto my radar. It is a question of balance ­ – the risk of compromising essential systems versus the value of facilitating social surfing ­ – but we would love to stand up and say we are evangelising the Christian message using Facebook,” says Croft.

“Like every technology, you have to decide what you want to do with it. If you accept social networking as de facto, it will become a perennial drain on traditional business operations. But for the Salvation Army it is also a way of reaching out to people.”

The Salvation Army has about 25 dedicated employees running its IT department, serving the needs of about 3,500 end users and 2,500 end points, such as PCs and laptops.

Understandably, IT workers at the organisation already have a busy agenda – ­ but Croft is adamant it is worth spending time and manpower on making social networking secure if the technology can be made to serve the Salvation Army’s interests effectively.

“There are vulnerability threats, and we are setting up a team to put the right controls in place,” he says. “We are happy to do that ­ – we are not averse to throwing extra resources into it.”

Croft is positive about the advantages social networking can provide to other organisations, but insists IT managers interested in deploying the technology should have a clear goal in mind prior to implementation.

“Social networking is the archetypal Marmite application ­ – you either love it or you hate it. Some people see it as a sort of elixir of youth, and certainly you have to put things out there that are attractive to that particular segment of the population,” he says.

“But it is whether you can make the best use of it rather than let people simply while away a few hours of their time. If you sit down properly and really think about what you are going to do with social networking, it can be really beneficial.”

Consultant advises Facebook caution

David Hobson is managing director of UK consultancy Global Secure Systems (GSS), which specialises in advising companies on how best to safeguard the integrity of mission-critical data.

While not exactly a fan of Facebook, Bebo or other versions of social networking applications, Hobson believes IT departments must resign themselves to accepting such technology into the workplace and overcome their fear of the relative unknown.

“The reality is that forms of social networking are going to be part of our lives going forward and we might as well get used to it,” he says.

“If we go back in history, probably the concept of the telephone was pretty frightening. Even the PC was frightening, let alone the internet, and until recently lots of companies would still use email, but not web browsing. So thes e things do work their way into our psyche and environment.”

Hobson does points out, though, that social network use can have a potentially adverse impact on business productivity and bandwidth usage. “We did our own internal bandwidth assessment, for instance, and found that 25 per cent of it was being taken by Facebook users,” he says.

“We take the view that there is reasonable use of internet for personal use so we can allow it for lunchtimes and evenings, and we have defences in place because the industry and these sites are major targets for hackers.

“There are other sites which are considered to be more sophisticated for business users, but the principles behind them are not that different from Facebook or Bebo.”

Another problem is data security. Not only are Facebook and other social network sites vulnerable to hacking attacks, the risk of sensitive company information finding its way onto public-facing pages is very real.

“What is going to happen is that as the technology develops internally, the publication of data will start to become a corporate data leakage issue where people are posting stuff they really should not,” says Hobson. “Maybe nine times out of 10, what they are putting up will be OK, but the tenth time it will not, and that will be a problem.”

Despite the fact that it can represent a significant bandwidth overhead, and a threat to both business productivity and security, Hobson’s general feel is that the usefulness of social networking varies according to the industry in which people operate.

“Some parts of the media say they need Facebook, for example, whereas workers in the finance sector are convinced they do not need it. You have to look at the culture and the client,” he says.

Even so, Hobson says many businesses are almost certain to start using social networking sites, if only because the technologies are beginning to be viewed as a potential avenue of recruitment and corporate collaboration.

“KPMG’s version has 10,000 people on it, for example, and IBM has 29,000. Even the civil service has 7,000 people on theirs,” he says.

Hobson says social networking sites provide a forum for business people to get together and exchange commercial information and contacts.

“It is something akin to networks of people who would be interested in the subject anyway, perhaps such as a golf club where deals are often done. People need to network from a business perspective and always have done,” he says.

While GSS has never advocated going out to public sites and setting up social networks, talking about the implications of granting workers unfettered access to such sites ­ as well as being safe online, more generally ­ is a fairly critical portion of the advice GSS gives its clients.

“We tell them that it is about ensuring that people do the jobs they are paid to do ­ the more distractions people have, the less likely they are to do those jobs efficiently,” says Hobson.

“Regulated access to social network sites is OK, and most organisations are quite happy for employees to visit the web because it shows an awareness of what is going on around them.

“But allowing workers to spend too much time on Facebook is not such a good idea.”

For the moment, IT departments must also weigh the potential disruption that social networks can cause against the benefits, not least because the technology appears to interest only a certain percentage of the workforce.

“Neither Facebook or Bebo will give us any details about the demographics of people using them, but I think we can safely assume it is the younger generation, particularly as new people coming into the workplace start to expect this type of connectivity,” says Hobson.