This week Richard Bowen, technology manager for performance at Compuware, tells you how to ensure that the benefits of internet access in the workplace can outweigh the problems it creates.
Access to the internet within the workplace has been both a blessing and a curse. The 'information superhighway' promised to be a valuable information resource and employees were given unlimited access.
Businesses recognised that the availability of key data (such as statistics, analysis and research) would increase the knowledge and capabilities of their workforce and therefore benefit their organisation significantly.
This is true: since its inception, organisations have found the internet indispensable when formulating strategy or undertaking market studies.
However, employers have found it difficult to ensure that the internet is only used for work purposes in working hours. Furthermore, government legislation means that if employees access illegal or unsuitable material using company property, the employer is liable for prosecution.
According to research by Klegal, in 2002 alone the internet accounted for 358 disciplinary actions, which is more than any other workplace offence.
Unfortunately, many organisations are only just starting to look at ways in which they can ensure that the benefits of internet access outweigh the problems that it creates.
Companies are well aware of the productivity costs incurred if they allow employees unlimited access to the internet and nowadays the majority of HR departments have developed internet usage policies.
However, and this is somewhat contradictory, as long as time spent on the internet is not excessive, employers tend to turn a blind eye. But the hard facts are that major disruption to IT systems is often caused by internet abuse that consumes network bandwidth.
Unfortunately, often very little or no attention is paid to what employees are downloading from the web. Applications including web radio, MP3s, peer-to-peer and Instant Messaging can bring down an entire network and cost an organisation thousands, if not millions, of pounds in downtime.
Businesses need to, and can, control the time employees spend surfing and downloading infected files.
The challenge in addressing this problem is that downloading from the internet is not always filtered through the firewall, so it can be difficult to control and prove that an employee is downloading material more frequently than others.
In order to ensure that organisations control internet abuse, businesses should put the following recommendations in place:
- Remind employees that workplace PCs are company property. Businesses tend to view an employee's computer as personal and may feel as though they are intruding when checking an individual's PC for illegal content.
Organisations should remember that it is them and not the individual that could be held liable for illegally downloaded documents.
- Undertake network analyses regularly to maintain the health of the network, ensure that internet abuse is kept under control and pre-empt business critical downtime.
This way, businesses can put in place early warning signs should a network look like it's at risk of going down due to large downloads or an infected internet file. Businesses can purchase software that logs activity and this can help as a tool to gain an overall view of activity in the workplace.
- Ensure that the IT department works closely with the HR department. All too often the IT department is seen as a separate entity from the rest of the business, but companies should now look at changing this.
IT is privy to key information about internet activity within an organisation. This information is gained by installing network monitoring software which can pinpoint download activity right down to the individual and provide data that can be used to build a case should HR be concerned about an employee's activity.
A word of caution though: organisations must comply with data protection regulations and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act.
While companies cannot ban the use of the internet in the workplace, they cannot entirely trust their employees to use the web solely for business purposes.
Increasingly, companies are putting tools in place to prevent internet abuse and network monitoring software is becoming commonplace to ensure that networks remain stable.
Whatever its drawbacks, the internet is here to stay. But employees will continue to abuse this privilege, so businesses must now put policies and the necessary technologies in place to minimise their exposure to risk.
Losing business while an employee is having fun on the internet is no laughing matter.
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