Setting Technology Policies That Make Sense in a Web 2.0 World

On Tuesday, September 9, I had the opportunity to speak to the Potomac Employers Roundtable. A group of about 30 people, largely senior HR and Administration professionals from a wide range of organizations (PR consultancies, HR consultancies, nonprofits, and for profits) gathered in the board room of Williams & Mullen bright and early to discuss the role web 2.0 technologies can play in our organizations, and what implications they might have for office policy.

I opened the session by sharing the stories of some of my recent experiencesaround this topic and then talking about what differentiates Web 1.0 from Web 2.0 (short version: collaboration!), and some of the things Web 2.0 allows users to do:

  • Build their own sophisticated web content quickly and easily
  • Pull the information they want to themselves in the way they want it
  • Enjoy a more dynamic, collaborative online experience

We then had a spirited conversation about various Web 2.0 technologies – blogs, microblogs (aka Twitter), wikis, RSS, and SocNets (aka Facebook and LinkedIn) – with attendees weighing in with their own experiences, personal and professional, using them.

The focus then turned to the topic of the day: policy setting. A recent survey undertaken by FaceTime and New Diligence clearly illustrates the extent to which social networks have become embedded in the business environment. Over 93% of organizations have some level of social networking use on their network.

HR professionals have two major areas of policy concern: one, what restrictions, if any, do you place on your publics/audiences in using Web 2.0 technologies, and two, what restrictions, if any, do you place on your staff in using Web 2.0 technologies?

Externally, there is the persistent concern that someone will post something nutty and the organization will be sued. The best (and easiest) three techniques to ameliorate this risk are:

  • Work with your attorney to write a strong disclaimer
  • Let anyone read, but make people identify themselves before contributing
  • Let the community police itself

Another major concern is the issue of voice, or authenticity. Before you start thinking that your organization should launch a CEO blog, because, “Hey, everyone (aka “our competition”) is doing it, right? And we don’t want to be left behind!” think about who’s actually going to write it and what the process is going to be. Sure, if your CEO is going to commit to posting frequently, and she is going to write her posts herself, and she has something to say, go for it. If your “CEO” blog is actually going to be written by your marketing department, then run through PR, then vetted by your attorney, and THEN posted, forget it. People’s BS detectors are particularly strong online these days. Don’t forget – authenticity is the new black.

Organizations also worry about a loss of control – of their image, of their information, of their brand, of the conversation. I hate to be the bearer of bad news, but control is an illusion. Your image, your brand, your conversation is ALREADY shaped by your audience – you just don’t know about it. And until Web 2.0 brought that process out of people’s living rooms and onto the Internet, you had no way of participating, either. Now your constituents can participate in the creation of knowledge and you can participate authentically in their communities.

So let’s say someone does say something bad about your organization in a public (Internet) forum. Hey, he was already thinking it, and probably saying it to people he knows personally. But now you have the opportunity, as an authentic participant in that community, to address it publicly – politely, truthfully, gently, but publicly. You have the opportunity to stop misinformation before it spreads and to address someone’s problems or issues with your organization. You know what you call someone who has a problem with an organization that’s resolved quickly and well? A convert – an evangelist.

Internally, from the purely geek side, because these technologies run (with a few exceptions, i.e., IM and Twitter) completely on the web, organizations aren’t adding network security risk, although there is certainly a risk of bandwidth overload. Yes, you might have to increase your pipe. Or prohibit streaming audio and video. But there’s a lot of really useful stuff on YouTube and other vodcast sites these days, in addition to the monkey races, so you probably want to think pretty carefully before you block them.

But in the end, doesn’t it all come down to a fear that our staff members are going to waste time IMing their friends and updating their Facebook status, rather than working hard at their assigned tasks? Sure, but that’s a management issue, not a technology issue. If Bob is bored and unmotivated in his job, he’s going to goof off whether he has access to IM or not.

You always want to have a reason and a goal for launching into any of these technologies, not least of which because there are so many options people are already starting to experience social networking fatigue. But assuming you had a good business reason for permitting access to Facebook in the first place (and if you don’t, I can give you one – do a search for your company name or profession and see how many items turn up), don’t ban it just because Bob’s manager is doing a poor job. Don’t make technology a scapegoat for a management problem. And by the way? If you block Facebook, Bob’s just going to spend 20 out of every 60 minutes on a coffee break.

The thing is, the world is changing. The young people who are coming into our organizations as employees or customers have different experiences of and expectations about technology. The sharp distinctions many of us have made between work life and personal life, between “professional” me and “real” me, are collapsing. You want to attract and retain Millennials? Then you have to meet them where they live, and it’s not on fax machines and email.