Web access and wayward workers

The race is on for ways to improve workplace productivity, preserve dwindling bandwidth and reduce company liabilities that may be incurred through the illegal viewing of unsavory Web sites and surfing the Internet on company time.

The latest buzzword — employee Internet management (EIM) — seeks to do all that by simply restricting wandering employees' access to Web sites.

With EIM, gone are the days when a government employee could simply establish his or her own "My MSN" account through a workplace computer and get on-the-spot stock quotes while draining away bandwidth.

Similarly, try reading certain articles, and the automated filtering software may deny you access should a particular article fit a widely interpretable category. For example, filtering software blocked access to a recent article titled "The Times is wrong, Gore did win" because the page is categorized as "entertainment." And you may find access blocked to a site such as the one operated by Trek bicycles because the site is categorized as "sports." Never mind that you may just be taking a few minutes during your lunch break to look for a holiday gift.

EIM focuses on the corporate or government market and excludes private home business, schools and library markets. EIM and Internet access controls (IAC) software have become big business in corporate America and increasingly with governmental agencies. It is expected that this market will grow substantially in the next three to four years.

Among the leaders in the EIM market is Websense Inc. Websense Enterprise software enables businesses and other organizations to monitor, report and manage how their employees use the Internet. According to company information, Websense has 255 of the Fortune 500 as customers, and Cisco Systems Inc., Check Point Software Technologies Ltd., Inktomi Corp., Microsoft Corp. and CacheFlow Inc. as partners.

Other vendors involved in EIM include SurfControl, Symantec Corp. (I-Gear), Elron Software (IM Web Inspector) and Secure Computing Corp. (SmartFilter).

Statistically speaking, during the 9-to-5 workday:

* 30 percent to 40 percent of Internet surfing is not business-related (source: IDC).

* More than 60 percent of online purchases are made (source: Nielsen/NetRatings).

* 70 percent of all Internet porn traffic occurs (source: SexTracker).

Thus, there appears to be a legitimate requirement for an EIM plan in today's workforce to pursue the ever-elusive "productivity" of the wayward employee.

The big sales pitch behind Internet filtering products is boosting "employee productivity." Some believe that employees will be more productive simply by restricting Internet access to the loosely defined "business-only" areas.

However, I say that if an employee is pursuing copious amounts of time surfing the Web and not producing work for which he/she was hired, then this is really a management problem. It is more associated with the business process of the organization, with loosely defined goals and objectives, low morale and employee expectations, and poor management techniques.

The bottom line is that employees who have that much time on their hands really have no jobs. The same applies to an employee who is constantly playing computer games. By addressing productivity concerns through the restriction of Internet access, the organization is deliberately bypassing the issue and creating a false sense of having dealt with the problem.

Is it so wrong for an employee, while on his or her break, to execute an online purchase? Take the case of a smoker who spends on the average of one hour of company time taking cigarette breaks. Would this individual be considered "nonproductive" along the same lines as one that may use the same amount of time to surf the Web?

There is one "success story" among many in favor of EIM technology. In the past, action has been taken against employees who have used the Internet for illegal purposes and viewing pornography. With new EIM technology in the workplace, such use is now effectively stopped because users cannot gain access to such sites.

EIM technology must be used wisely, tailored to the organization and have certain restraints, including the impact it has on one's right to privacy.

Organization also should take into consideration that not all non-business-related Web surfing should be categorized as bad for the organization.

Ramos is a graduate of the federal CIO Certificate Program, National Defense University.


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