For the London Free Press – February 9, 2009
In 2007, the Ontario government blocked its employees from accessing Facebook. This is common in many companies and organizations where YouTube, MySpace and various other networking and online applications are also banned.
But banning innovative online tools on the basis of potential misuse stifles creativity and highlights the mistrust of employers.
Businesses and organizations should create web-browsing and technology-use policies that make the most sense for their situation. But it’s important to recognize that exposure to new technologies can often lead to new ideas, valuable information and connections.
And remember that distractions are nothing new for employees. There will always be personal phone calls, newspapers, radio and “meetings” around the water cooler.
The benefits of online tinkering are not always readily apparent, but valuable ideas are often conceived by chance or built upon ideas formulated by others.
For example, Linkedin, an online networking website, is targeted toward professionals “seeking to exchange information, ideas and opportunities” and stay informed about their contacts and industries.
Businesses encourage their employees to network to establish relationships with as many people as they can in the hopes that it might be beneficial down the road.
Linkedin focuses on business networking, but in the virtual world where everyone is connected, the lines between business and casual networking are becoming blurred.
Some businesses can gain more than others by not restricting access. For example, for organizations trying to reach teens and young adults, websites such as Facebook are essential to understand emerging trends in media.
Often an environment that encourages experimentation and the possibilities of using new tools and ideas can lead to new and beneficial ways of doing things. In other words, it can often be better to try to understand new technology and take advantage of it than to simply ban it.
Some employees will always find ways to abuse the tools at their desks, and spend too much time on personal business. But that is the case for anything employees have access to, ranging from phones, to computer solitaire, to photocopiers, to paper clips.
The key to avoid employee abuse of tools or the freedom to tinker with them is to make expectations clear, and deal with problems as they arise.
Blocking sites inevitably leads to exceptions being made in individual circumstances. It can take as much time and effort to block sites and manage exceptions as would be wasted by a few employees.
Businesses spend a significant amount keeping personnel updated with current skills. If there’s a computer at a workstation, chances are good the person sitting there can benefit from staying up to date on current Internet applications. Online networking and applications can be helpful tools for enhancing business skills and people should be encouraged to stay in the loop with emerging trends.
Skills acquired by personnel from online tinkering become skills at the disposal of the company or organization. And let’s not forget the creativity that online exposure promotes.
You never know when a few minutes of browsing the Internet might spark the next big cost-cutting strategy or inspire a new way to go about doing old things or reach customers.