The staggering success of these sites is worth taking in for a second. Facebook, which actively encourages people who work together to interact, signs up 10,000 people a day in Britain with an estimated 1.8m users in the UK alone. Meanwhile the British-born Bebo has 25 million members worldwide, is the sixth busiest site in the UK and is threatening to knock Google off the top spot. MySpace is the most visited website in the United States with a reported 111m users, accounting for 5 per cent of all internet visits. Delving a little deeper behind these figures we can undercover interesting trends. Ofcom’s ‘The Communications Market 2006’ report last August showed that 16-24 year olds in the UK are watching an average of seven hours less TV a week, with the popularity of social networking sites being cited as the reason for the change. The report further revealed that 41 per cent of all UK internet users aged 25 and over have a social website homepage. This is in addition to the 70 per cent of all 16-24 year olds signed-up to social networking sites.
There is little doubt looking at these figures that commercial opportunities exist for the right kind of firms on social networking sites. As a business adviser myself I can see that these sites provide an exciting direct new route to promote a product or service. However, there is the urgent issue of controlling internet use within the workplace. Many big businesses are taking a zero tolence approach by banning Facebook outright attracting big headlines in the process. Lloyds TSB, Credit Suisse and Goldman Sachs are amoung those to have taken high profile action against Facebook. And it is no surprise. Again the figures make stark and compelling reading. The Financial Times reported in September that 40 per cent of internet use is non work related with the average employee spending one hour a day surfing non work sites. This has led, according to the FT, to a massive 70 per cent of employers banning social networking sites.
One of those businesses is CL3, a marketing agency in Liverpool run by managing director Peter Glover. Peter, a former Royal Navy electrical engineer, used to a disciplined working environment, banned staff using Yahoo, MSN and other online chat services four years ago. He believes small firms have to get tough on social networking sites as the phenomenen grows. “I’m paying people to work. If they want to go on Facebook they can in their own time. I take a tough line and feel I have to. As a web agency we need to encourage marketing research on the internet but that cannot spill into non work related surfing.” Peter has extended his ban to mobile phone texting. “I want my staff to pick up a telephone not hide behind email or texting. We are in the people business and we need to build meaningful relationships. With emailing or social networking you cannot express tone and it is dangerously easy to be misinterpreted. There is also a real problem with communication skills. Young kids coming into the work place have poor interpersonal skills. This needs to be tackled by promoting more verbal communication and less time tapping away at computers.”
For small business staff productivity is fundamental. Small businesses simply cannot absorb a loss of staff productivity like big business or the public sector. For this reason we would strongly advise drawing up an internet policy which clearly sets out guidelines for staff. This needs to take into account the further concern about sensitive company information being shared over the internet. Company security was a key concern of the likes of Credit Suisse when they announced their crackdown on Facebook. With cyber criminals on the prowl staff cannot afford to slip out details about themselves or their company. Facebook, in particular, presents its own unique problems as it actively encourages the sharing of information which banks use for passwords such as family names and previous schools.
It is important to stress that small firms are particularly vulnerable to cyber crime. The Department of Trade & Industry’s Security Breaches Survey showed that the cost of computer crime to businesses in the UK has risen by 50 per cent over the past two years. The volume of attacks directed against businesses has grown substantially, with firms reporting an average of eight security breaches a year. More than 10 per cent of the 1,000 firms surveyed reported attempts to break into their networks. Chris Simpson, head of Scotland Yard’s Computer Crime Unit, advised small firms to put policies in place to prevent and detect data theft, in addition to basic security precautions such as firewalls and anti-virus software. Simpson said the most common mistake is for firms to fail to have written security policies for their staff, or to fail to enforce them.
For small firms having an internet policy combined with monitoring of computer activity is the most effective method of controlling the more pernicious influences of the internet in the workplace. Firms cannot afford to be complacent when the astonishing popularity of the web continues to grow so inexorably. It may be a case of taking as tough a line with your staff’s internet misuse as your partner does with your Blackberry addiction.