Bracing for the Social Media Onslaught

In the wake of a seemingly endless stream of urgent news headlines about Facebook, Twitter, social media, and new paradigms for workplace collaboration, it’s worth taking a moment to think about the risks involved when your enterprise opens up its workplaces to internal social networking that very likely has a link to the big, ugly outside world.

When the Web first came along, the guiding philosophies behind it were all about openness and sharing. Now, Web-based applications like blogs, wikis, and social networks have amplified those ideas. Everyone can contribute, everyone can share, everyone can see, and isn’t that great? Well, maybe, but not if you’re the person put in charge of making the whole shebang secure.

Bracing for the Social Media OnslaughtWhen businesses invite their employees to communicate with these tools or reach outside their walls to interact online with clients and customers, things get challenging. There’s got to be some kind of control over communication and information sharing, or all this sharing can suddenly spin out of control.

But do it the right way, and the benefits of improved communication up and down the line outweigh the risks, and if you’re in charge, you can make yourself look good. Collaborative technologies – everything from wikis, shared workspaces, discussion forums and social networks to online presentations and video conferences – help you save money internally and even help your company discover new customers externally. The trick is to manage all this interaction and channel it toward the company’s overall goals without tripping up on security or productivity. You don’t want to be hearing about information leaks, organized online mutiny, or corporate spying.

And your legal department is watching too. It knows that in times of litigation it’s standard practice for archived e-mail communications to be subpoenaed, and that can happen to all digital communications, including social media. That’s why as an IT expert, you have to find ways to centralize these kinds of apps, even if they first emerged in far corners of the organization in ad hoc ways.

The trick to risk-free collaboration in your workplace, especially when it reaches beyond headquarters to your clients and customers, is to plan wisely, implement carefully, and maintain strict discipline and control. The planning should include legal experts. It’s risky to approach these kinds of interactive apps with a “let’s just try it out” attitude. You should do it right or not at all.

And who will be the guru? You? Many companies use an internal champion, someone who really gets it, to set an example for other users about how to work within a collaborative platform and to begin the process of setting standards for what’s appropriate, and what isn’t, when employees interact and collaborate online.

That means you’ll need some kind of terms of use policy, preferably one that has legal’s stamp of approval. You know the drill: No offensive words, no sharing of photos, no griping about clients. Make everyone sign it, and enforce it. (Heck, some companies even enforce dress codes for videoconferences. Just don’t go overboard.) If your ground rules are too long, they’ll just be ignored.

And don’t you just hate people who overshare? In their private lives, your co-workers have become very comfortable sharing details about their political views, hobbies, and social lives in blogs and on social networks. That simply can’t happen in the collaborative tools that you deploy in your workplace, just as it shouldn’t happen in everyday corporate e-mail conversations. Training may be required, and you may also need monitors who make sure that all posted content, such as documents, comments, and customer posts is accurate, professional and on message.

In these rapidly evolving collaborative environments and social networking spaces, it’s fair to wonder what kinds of pitfalls may lay ahead, but interactive collaboration among employees and with customers and clients isn’t going away. They’re already used to it in their daily lives. Why not take advantage of it in the workplace too?

— Don Willmott