I know of at least one person who would probably lose thousands of dollars in commissions each month if she weren’t allowed to use her Facebook account at work.

When you’re young, starting out and working without the benefit of an expense account, taking clients out for drinks may not be an option. Facebook, and the Web sites like it, are an alternative, and the person I’m talking about regularly logs on to have what may be a more personal relationship than many of her coworkers manage to cultivate in face-to-face meetings. That said, I don’t think the person I’m talking about has told her coworkers about her strategy, nor would they necessarily be aware of the other pictures and posting she has put on her page.

This could become a big a reason as productivity for leading to bans on Facebook and social networking sites, such as the one the Ontario government imposed last week. In the province’s case, I suspect they didn’t delve too deeply into the matter. I’m fairly certain they never explored, for instance, whether there might be a way to use Facebook and similar Web 2.0 services as a vehicle for citizen engagement and dialogue, much as elected officials including MPs have already tried to do. They likely just assumed that civil servants were wasting time again, just as private sector enterprises are starting to keep Web users on a tighter leash.

According to Robert Half Technology, for example, more than three-quarters (78 per cent) of some 1,400 CIOs polled by said they have either installed content-filtering or blocking software, instituted policies that detail acceptable Web browsing or have done a combination of both. Most people would say that’s just good common sense, but common sense doesn’t come out of thin air. Before you start banning technology, you have to know what’s out there, and then you have to know how prevalent it is being used. Then you need to know how it is affecting your organization, and finally, whether there could be any upside to it.

Unfortunately, a lot of companies don’t get past the second step. A lot of CEOs might not know what Facebook is unless they have children, and those who do would likely associate it with personal time. These services are certainly prone to misuse, but it’s not really the same as looking at porn at work, either. And while some companies may draft up detailed policies that explain their bans, the choice of what gets banned is often a lot less structured. Individual incidents of misuse lead to blanket polices that could end up stifling innovative, productive uses of Web 2.0 in the enterprise.

A lot of companies may simply decide to follow Ontario’s lead. If it’s not good allowed in the provincial government, why should it be allowed anywhere? Maybe because the way people communicate varies widely across industry sectors. As with e-mail or even the phone, adoption will take many different forms, and we may find social networking more appropriate for business conversations than we do today.

IT managers are more likely to be the ones who do the site blocking, but they could also play an advisory role in helping business managers understand their potential. Educating users is a lot more pleasant than enforcing policies against them. Taking a little bit of the fun out of Facebook might be better than no Facebook at all.

sschick@itworldcanada.com

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