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Network World - As tempting as it may be to block employee access to social networks and social media sites, it's not a long-term play. IT departments across many industries are under pressure to relax bans and enable access to sites such as Facebook, LinkedIn and YouTube.
The pressure is coming from multiple fronts. Sales and marketing teams want to engage and sell to customers through social computing. Users want more freedom to access personal accounts from the workplace. HR teams want to be able to recruit, hire and retain social media-savvy employees, yet they feel hampered by overly restrictive usage policies.
"A lot of businesses, small and large, are moving away from the more restrictive model of blocking social media to a more liberal access model," says Chenxi Wang, vice president and principal analyst at Forrester Research.
The challenge is finding a balance that lets companies use social media to their advantage, keeps employees productive, and ensures the network is safe.
Experts recommend starting with a plan. While many companies have adopted acceptable use policies that address appropriate e-mail and Internet usage, far fewer have adopted procedures related to the use of social media during business hours and while on the corporate network.
"The first thing organizations need to do is to look at extending their existing acceptable use policies to cover all types of Internet communications," says Bradley Anstis, vice president of technical strategy at M86 Security (which recently published a white paper with tips on how to extend usage policies to accommodate social media and networking sites).
Acceptable usage policies should address issues such as the level of access allowed. Not all employees need to post videos to YouTube, for instance, or download Facebook applications. For some groups of employees, read-only access may be prudent. Educating users about the risks associated with social media and providing guidelines related to content sharing are also critical components of an acceptable use policy.
"We need to shift away from being the fun police, blocking access to all the new tools and capabilities. We need to instead become the trusted security adviser to our organization," Anstis says. "We need to talk to the organization about how to safely enable the use of these tools and resources."
That's happening more and more -- but it hasn't always been the case. As recently as a year ago, many in IT were unaware just how pervasive the use of social computing tools at work had become. (12 tips for safe social networking.)
Wildly divergent views emerged when FaceTime Communications surveyed 1,654 IT managers and end users in early 2010. In the study, 62% of IT professionals estimated that social networking was present on their networks, while the actual data from deployed FaceTime appliances showed social networking present in 100% of cases. File sharing tools were found to be present in 74% of locations, although only 32% of IT professionals estimated that they were in use. Web-based chat was also found in 95% of locations, with only 31% of IT professional estimating that it was in use.