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CIOs get March Madness sanity check

Employees watching NCAA games on company time may create countless problems for CIOs. But denying access to the Net is not the answer.

March Madness is in full swing -- and sapping the productivity out of your employees.

Thanks to a deal between CBS and the NCAA, for the first time the games can be viewed live for free online -- and most fans are watching while they work. As a result, U.S. businesses stand to lose a staggering $3.8 billion in lost productivity, according to some reports.

But experts say it's more than just a productivity problem.

The hoopla over the basketball tournament is just the latest example of the threats that Internet use, e-mail, instant messaging (IM) and other technologies pose to both the security and productivity of a company. These technologies are a boon to businesses, but when abused by employees for personal use they can cause problems.

You can't be a traffic cop all day long.
James Craig
CIOCooper Communities
Experts say CIOs must ask themselves just how they can strike a balance between maintaining a positive working environment for employees and safeguarding the company from abuse of these technologies.

A CIO's first instinct might be to ban all use of the Web sites carrying the games and block all streaming video, but that might drive employees to find riskier ways to get sports updates from less reputable Web sites. Suddenly, a productivity threat can be a security threat.

"We've had several instances where streaming media has pretty much tied up our network," said James Craig, CIO of Cooper Communities Inc., a Rogers, Ark.-based land development company. Craig said his company will be investing in a new Cisco firewall solution with the "bandwidth throttle" to deal with this problem. When it comes to enforcing security and productivity among his company's 600 employees, Craig said it is important to strike a balance.

"You don't want [personal use of the Internet] to be excessive, but you can't be a traffic cop all day long and have that be your primary job," Craig said. "It's not productive. And if done improperly it does make for a poor work environment. People are going to chat with their fellow employees and use the telephone for personal calls, get on the Web to check basketball scores. Everyone does it. I defy you to find any employee given access to the Internet who doesn't."

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Craig said a CIO can't just ban personal use of the Internet, but he should try to control it in a way so that employees don't bring harm to a company, whether through viruses, worms or bandwidth problems.

"Everyone has a specific (bandwidth) pipe they're working with," said Mike Hronek, a networking engineer at CDW Corp. in Vernon Hills, Ill. "If users are going out to the Internet and using it to watch a game, they're using bandwidth that should be used for business applications. Streaming media likes to grab as much of that pipe as it can."

Gary S. Miliefsky, founder and chief technology officer of NetClarity, a provider of network vulnerability products and services located in Bedford, Mass., said CIOs must explain this problem to employees. "'Our bandwidth is X. If (streaming video) uses 90% of X, people can't do business,'" he said.

For instance, Miliefsky said, employees might acquire video of the games via BitTorrent, a peer-to-peer file-sharing protocol. This could pose a security threat since peer-to-peer file sharing is a common source of viruses and other security threats.

Matt Medeiros, CEO of SonicWall Inc., a provider of Internet security solutions in Sunnyvale, Calif., said CIOs need to do two things to protect themselves from security and productivity threats such as the NCAA tournament.

First, a CIO must deploy a comprehensive security solution with actively updated content filtering capabilities, Medeiros said.

"The second thing -- it's all about communication with the workforce," he said. A CIO can define policies and use filtering technology to enhance productivity while maintaining a positive work environment. Today's workforce is becoming increasingly mobile. Many workers take their laptops home and might be working at any time on any day.

A CIO can identify certain hours of the day when employees should be focused on business. It should be made clear that if employees are going to use the Internet for personal use, they should use it during off hours, when bandwidth demand is down and they aren't expected to be focused on work.

Have a defined policy. Identify what is mission-critical to the company? When do you want employees focused on work completely?

"[Say] ‛We respect your time, but when it's time for business the employee should be focused on the business,'" Mederios said.

Medeiros added that content filtering can be tuned to this policy. Web sites defined as unnecessary to the business can be cut off between 8 a.m. and 5 p.m. with a one hour window at lunch time, when employees can shop online or track the score of a game.

"CIOs tend to undercommunicate," NetClarity's Miliefsky said. A CIO could really make employees understand the necessity of an acceptable Internet use policy by pointing out that last week's system failure was due to a high level of personal Internet use, he added.

But Miliefsky said a company can't just clamp down on Internet use and a CIO can't spend his time monitoring employees at their desktops.

"You could really lock down your network in such a way that you could upset employees and find yourself constantly monitoring what they're trying to do," Miliefsky said. "What if you're peaking into everybody's e-mail and looking for keywords like résumé? You're going to tick off people in HR because they get résumés every day."

And productivity could still suffer, he said. Employees unable to watch the game from their desktop computer might just log on the Internet via their cell phones and follow a game, read the news or IM with friends.

Despite all the hype about college hoops tying up bandwidth and killing productivity, some CIOs didn't even flinch.

Lynn Phillips, CIO and vice president of American Community Mutual Insurance Co. in Livonia, Mich., said his company is relatively small, with just 350 employees. He judged that the bandwidth issues associated with the tournament wouldn't be a problem.

"We didn't see any problems," he said. "We didn't make an effort to monitor it or to take any intervention. We didn't send out any warnings (to staff). We figured we had enough bandwidth."

Let us know what you think about the story; e-mail: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Writer

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