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November 16, 2005
Technology Can Help Distinguish Between Control And CONTROL

Controlling the use of the messaging infrastructure is a fight as old as business itself. The challenges today are more complex, to be sure, but essentially unchanged since the Romans, Egyptians, and Babylonians sent teams of runners covering more than 200 miles per day.

We want our communications to be secure, accurate, and limited to the mission(s) of the enterprise. In my own experience, that quest has led to some rather extreme and unsuccessful attempts at control.

I've worked for a company that installed pay phones on the premise and forbade the use of the company phone system for personal calls. Certain classes of employees could not even receive incoming calls. Receptionists took messages and calls could be returned during scheduled breaks from the pay phones.

I worked for a company in the late 90s that tried for a while to forbid the use of cell phones within the building. This particular company was not technically savvy and its Gestapo techniques included excruciating monitoring of Internet and e-mail usage, fearing that—like the cell phones—the Internet would reduce productivity. The top executives were notorious for their habit of responding to e-mails by printing the messages, writing their response in pen on the documents and sticking them in the interoffice mail.

Their mistrust of e-mail was so deep that on the rare occasions when they actually sent a message, they'd have their assistants contact your assistant to make sure it was received.

That's one extreme, the other being a free-rein approach which can reduce productivity and expose a company to risk. Knowing where to draw the line is a huge challenge, made harder without effective tools to monitor and collect message data. And made harder still by the fact that employees can make use of unsanctioned messaging services.

In our current reader poll we are asking readers what their users fall back on when the corporate e-mail network goes down. So far, personal e-mail accounts are leading the voting by a wide margin. We've all received those messages: "My e-mail is temporarily down, if you need to reach me, use until further notice."

We are all at least somewhat aware these days that personal use of company e-mail accounts and the use of personal accounts via a company's Internet access each present risks to both the company and the employee using the system. If you're not check out a new Harris Survey on the dangers of employee e-mail. The problem is deciding where to draw the line on enforcing those policies.

It's easy to take the hard line and state a no-use policy, period. But there are two problems with that approach. First, it's near impossible to enforce from within the system and second, people do it anyway. Are you going to call your boss on the carpet because he opened an e-mail that said, "Dad, got a ride. You don't have to pick me up after work"? Probably not. Dad/your boss is a busy guy and this probably saved him time. Instead of taking a call or a message from his child, this non-intrusive note allowed to him to adjust his schedule and go right on with his work.

On the other hand, Romeo over in marketing would be extremely embarrassed if his online exchanges of sweet nothings with multiple girlfriends came to light because of an unrelated legal discovery audit. Oh, and by the way, one of those girlfriends works for the competition, so now he's being watched like a hawk.

And that's not even getting close to the real danger of someone logging on to AOL's website and opening up an Internet Mail session, the content of which isn't being monitored. But that is exactly what happens, sometimes out of necessity, as the reader poll is telling us. For many reasons, people are likely these days to maintain several e-mail accounts, and most are accessible via a Web connection.

Of course, communications of any material nature using personal accounts are off the radar, so to speak, and could violate several regulations or put your organization in a legal bind. Any time a company is investigated for any reason, the first thing subpoenaed nowadays are the e-mail records.

With clearly stated polices and a system for monitoring and collecting as much messaging traffic as possible, you reach the point where all you can do is trust. It's not foolproof, but neither are your hiring practices. You can shoot yourself in the foot with a hard line approach and introduce unacceptable risk with softer policies.

On a more humorous note, the rest of the voting for the most popular e-mail fallbacks is shaping up as you might expect. With personal e-mail accounts getting 50 percent of the vote, enterprise IM has garnered 14 percent, commercial IM is coming in at seven percent and the fax machine is a non-player. But so far, 29 percent of the respondents have opted for my low-tech answer: smoke signals!

Posted by Mitch Irsfeld at 04:15 PM | Permalink

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