THE E-MAELSTROM

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Cutter IT Journal
THE JOURNAL OF INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY MANAGEMENT


2 October 2002

THE E-MAELSTROM: DEALING WITH APPROPRIATE USE

by David G. Jones

The blurred boundaries between home and office may leave corporate employees in a maelstrom of policy confusion. Of late, it has become downright near impossible to delineate “home” from “work.” It is an area that begs to be addressed. We all know we have to keep our private and official heads about us as we — with Cirque de Soleil trapeze dexterity — balance ever-more-busy schedules and never-ending crises in both domains. Cirque de Soleil succeeds with an inspired blend of poetry — and engineering. We can learn from that.

In the old days, when the telephone burst onto the business scene, managers were doubtless concerned that employees would spend all day yakking on the phone. And some do. But over time, managers and employees came to a sort of “understanding” about the messy issue of use of time and equipment. That understanding was driven by a need to be both realistic and empathetic. Employees have personal lives, and employees do work on their own time. Separation is not easy, if indeed possible in the information age. And controlling use and abuse was felt to be quite impossible.

I recall a Toronto Globe and Mail business article that appeared in December 2001. It spoke of the emerging trend for use rules, surveillance, discipline, and dismissal for inappropriate use of equipment and e-mail service. Lewis Maltby, president of the National Workrights Institute, says employers are able to monitor employee behavior 24 hours a day, and we assume he means that some are doing it.

The issue seems to revolve around teleworking (working at home using the company’s equipment) and telecommuting (working away from your “normal” place of work using electronic connectivity). Being online on the company’s time means for some that it is equally OK to get and send a private e-mail over the equipment as it is to make or take a personal phone call at work.

Workplaces are monitoring traffic and cracking down on such uses. The University of Denver Privacy Foundation (http://www.privacyfoundation.org/privacywatch/report.asp?id=72&action=0) says that a third of the US workforce with Internet access are subjected to regular e-mail and Web monitoring.

You might check twice on your company’s monitoring policy, before e-mailing your partner to pick up some carrots on the way home; the question is raised, “Where is the line between appropriate use and abuse?”

Evidently, employers and employees are deferring to the courts to sort out the alleged mess. And the courts are not going lightly on workers. Courts are holding that “companies’ interests in managing their equipment outweighs any employee expectation of privacy.”

Some workplace commentators rate these use controls as equivalent to the usual rules applied to the use of company cars. But the comparison is not entirely valid. In a physical environment, personal use is evident. In a virtual world, it is not always clear how one delineates the personal from the private. “Surfing” (now a pejorative term in the work world) was in the beginning, and remains for some, a term for legitimate research. Many analysts search and scan online sources the same way that a library user walks up and down the aisles, looking at the book jackets, taking the odd one off the shelf — scanning it — and putting it back. No one would imagine that such a person was “wasting company time” if they happened to pull an irrelevant text off the shelf. In such cases the vast resources of the Internet, and the quite incredible collaboration tool that is e-mail, are not being used to increase employee knowledge and corporate intelligence.

Where the value, power, and depth of the Internet and Web are unknown, managers may be doubtful, fearful, or solidly against external online accesses. They may “manage” access by writing rules, monitoring, and disciplining apparent misbehavior. That would be an unfortunate approach to dealing with the technology of the day: we will fail to exploit and leverage the greatest information resource that has been put at the disposal of managers and employers since the invention of moveable type. Failing to seek new understandings about how private and public use is to be handled could mean that valuable people will be lost to the firm, and those that remain will be driven to find new solutions to a very old problem — how to stay on that balancing wire without falling to the straw-covered circus floor.

Success on the flying trapeze is governed by rules and laws — the health and safety of performers depends upon that. But what makes the audience gasp is when the poetry and elegance of the high wire is blended with the laws of gravity and motion. That’s what we call “relationship management.”

Finding the tranquil eye of the e-maelstrom will demand an equal blend of legal and technical hardwiring, and personal and social softwiring. Effective workplaces do not live by law alone, and conformity is not always achieved when control is overdone. E-mail is nothing more than an office tool. Let’s put it right where it belongs — alongside the telephone.

–David G. Jones


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