Blurring the Borders

Today's new technologies have enabled employees to bring work home. But they have also made it easier for people to bring their personal life to work. While most organizations understand the need for flexibility, they are also well aware that increased access can cut both ways.

Pedro Forment, a lawyer working out of Ford & Harrison's Miami office, has seen plenty of employee misconduct during his career. The shenanigans of upper management at one of his clients, a California IT company, could have supplied a soap opera scribe with a year's worth of plotlines.  "One guy was soliciting prostitutes," says Forment. "There were all these e-mails when he would go on business trips saying, 'What services will I get for 190 roses?' 'Roses' was a euphemism for dollars."

More seriously, the same connections and technologies that enable employees to pay their bills, blog, shop, surf the Web and e-mail during work hours also enable employers to ask workers to do more work at home or on the road. Most of the time, that pen drive will hold information and documents needed to do legitimate work away from the office, the cell phone will enable employers to easily contact employees and the Internet virtually replicates workplace resources at home or on a laptop. But when employees routinely take work home, they may be carrying reams of confidential, crucial and valuable information that can inadvertently be accessed by people all over the world.

How can employers manage the proper use of technology? (article continues)

Do the Right Thing
Steve Rubel, a marketing strategist who is a senior vice president at the Edelman PR agency located in New York, N.Y., faces an increasingly common work/personal life challenge: how to blog about your personal interests when your personal interests overlap, to a great extent, with the work you do.

Rubel was hired by Edelman in part on the strength of Micro Persuasion, Rubel's enormously popular website that serves as a source for information and opinion on the intersection of technology, media and marketing. "Edelman has a very comprehensive policy and it's been recently expanded to include some systems by which if you want to blog about a client, we're encouraged to seek out the person who works for that client and ask them if it's okay," he says. However, he notes, "I just usually don't do that, because it takes a long time, and usually when I have an idea I want to post it."

In any case, he adds, "the company does not really have any direct control over the blog. Nobody's checking it every day. But at the same time, you have to be careful what you say, because it can have ramifications."

The Policies of Persuasion
Despite the murky boundaries of this new world, there are common sense -- and legally smart -- policies and procedures that employers can put into place to protect themselves and their employees from liability. (article continues)

Employers should be especially careful not to pry into employees' personal lives -- or, more accurately, not punishing employees for engaging in lawful activities outside the workplace, even if those activities are distasteful to the employer, says Richard Block, a partner at The Employment Law Group of Block Bernstein & Lagasse, part of Dreier LLP, located in New York, N.Y.

Employers also need to be cautious when seeking out information about prospective job candidates on the Web. "When recruiters see information related to topics covered by discrimination laws, they should be cautious," Block says. Since hiring decisions based on an applicant's disability can be construed as biased, an employer is in a better legal position if they are unaware of the disability.

On the flip side, Forment and Rubel agree that companies need to have a strict policy, or set of policies, about the personal use of the employer's technology. They also need to be clear that at work, employees should have no expectation of privacy. That means e-mails can be read and Web surfing monitored.

"Simply having a policy is never going to be enough if you're turning a blind eye to what's happening," says Forment. "But if you have an effective policy that's fairly thorough and you're not turning a blind eye when issues come up, you're going to have pretty good protection."

Wikis in the Enterprise

Thanks to the explosive popularity of Wikipedia, many consumers are familiar with the concept of a wiki, a collaborative web page which can be viewed and edited by anyone with access to the Internet. Corporate adoption, however, has been much slower. Only 37% of enterprises currently use wikis, according to a recent study by The Nemertes Research Group Inc. in Mokena, Ill.

But while large organizations are concerned about security, management and compliance in a wiki world, smaller businesses are intrigued by what these infinitely customizable online databases can offer. Proponents claim wikis can improve productivity, reduce email overload, cut down on meetings and promote better knowledge-sharing. 

"Users need space to collaborate with other employees globally who are mobile and don't have the means to do so in the current IT infrastructure," says Jonathan Edwards, a research associate at Yankee Group, in Boston, Mass. "They're resorting to [wikis] because they are easy to use." (article continues)

Catching the Wiki Wave
"A lot of wiki use is still bottom-up. Someone -- often in IT -- sets one up and then people start to use it,'' explains Ben Gross, an analyst at San Francisco, Calif.-based Ferris Research.

For those interested in officially deploying a wiki at work, Edwards suggests starting with a small pilot group of people addressing a specific business problem. He cautions that it may take a while for wiki use to catch on. "It's a very different way to work," he says.

Technology is rarely the stumbling block. Wiki vendors, including Atlassian Software Systems, Socialtext, MindTouch and Media Wiki (the software that runs Wikipedia) offer onsite deployment within the firewall as well as hosted models.

The key to a wiki's success is user participation. "All too often when corporations look at Web 2.0 technologies, they think they have to get them, but wikis too often (article continues)

are left to rot because people aren't used to them," Edwards observes. "The cultural change is 90 percent; the technology is only 10 percent."

Gross agrees, saying the biggest barrier he has seen is user hesitation to create both structure and concept. "It's a shift for the users and managers because of the degree of openness, and because of the idea that you have a web page and you make changes on it and it's live."

Making Wikis Work
When are wikis a logical solution? Edwards recommends talking to employees about problems they're having with their current collaboration tools and discussing whether wikis might provide the answer. In order to encourage use, he also recommends putting work content on the wiki so that employees are forced to interact on the wiki rather than through e-mail.

Before creating a corporate wiki, Gross advises looking at examples of successful wikis. They tend to be used more by groups that work well together, he says. Including employees in the pilot process will help convince them that working on a wiki will be comfortable and productive. (article continues)

Newer wikis offer more access control in order to limit who can edit what. They are also getting better at letting users input content with standard HTML. Content that is highly formatted, like a complex Word document or spreadsheet, is not a great fit for a wiki. But a corporate-wide policies and procedures document that needs frequent updating is almost tailor-made for wiki technology.

Because their free-form nature can be off-putting and occasionally impractical, wikis need to be "groomed and linked well" in order to make information easy to find, says Gross. He suggests designating an employee to be responsible for ensuring the wiki is easy to navigate "because that doesn't always happen organically."

"Historically, it's been hard for people to edit web pages and keep them together,'' says Gross. "That's what wikis do well." Adds Edwards, "Once people realize how easy wikis are to use, they say 'Now I get it.'"

Does Your Staff Have the Skills to Succeed?

When food and beverage maker Welch's was preparing to deploy a complicated Oracle ERP system, the IT group responsible for the implementation wanted to make sure their staff had the right skills needed for the job. Wayne Lemmerhirt, former group manager of applications development at Welch's, in Concord, Mass., held a series of meetings with his direct reports and identified four different sets of necessary skills, tools and languages. When matched against each IT employee, the resulting matrix clearly showed which staff member had which talents.

Next, the managers rated the people for each skill on a scale from one to five, says Lemmerhirt now a partner with OnDemand Services, a managed services consultancy in Burlington, Mass. The team also included such non-technical areas as leadership and project management skills. The result was a clear picture of each employee's talents, enabling Lemmerhirt and his team to pinpoint which skills were missing and to decide whether to train existing employees or hire outside consultants.

What's In Your Talent Warehouse?
Making sure you have the right talent in-house is important for several reasons. It ensures not only that project implementations will go smoother but that you can anticipate your long-term needs, manage any skills gap and reduce the enterprise risk associated with IT business initiatives.

"Knowing what you have in-house, who the people are and the skills they have is a terrific way of managing and mitigating enterprise-level risk associated with information technology," says Diane Morello, a vice president and fellow at IT research and advisory firm Gartner, Inc., in Stamford, Conn. (article continues)

Morello recommends two approaches to streamlining IT talent management. Software competency models identify consistent behaviors and demonstrable practices to indicate if a person has particular skills and at what level. Automated resource management and portfolio management tools help track people's skills, as well as their availability and project assignments. Which choice is best depends on how geographically dispersed the organization is.

"If you're an organization that has 10 people and you know everyone sitting there, you can probably [manage skill sets] on an Excel spreadsheet,'' Morello says. "But if your organization stretches across cities and continents and time zones, then the more automated the process is, the more visible it will be to people in different areas so you can capitalize on what skills exist in different locations."

Brian Domenick, the director of IS and Technology at Fairleigh Dickinson University in Teaneck, N.J., begins to develop a clear understanding of the skills of each member of his 10-person staff during the interview/hiring process. "The key is communication from the start to figure out who is best suited for what tasks," says Dominick. "Over time it becomes apparent who has what tasks and what skills match. When a project comes up, I have no question in my mind who should do it."

Domenick gets very involved in the interview process. "Even though I have managers underneath me, I like to converse with people periodically. That keeps me abreast of who does what." (article continues)

In Search of the Right Skills
With technology expanding so rapidly, Domenick says it can be a real challenge to incorporate all the skills an organization needs on staff. One solution: powerful partnerships. FDU has formed collaborative relationships with other colleges and universities in New Jersey. If one institution doesn't have an employee with a particular skill, the IT group can borrow a person with the necessary talent and pay them as a consultant.

For Welch's Oracle implementation, Lemmerhirt didn't have the budget to bring in consultants skilled in Java, Perl and XML. His team chose Java as their coding language and focused on training certain staff members.

"We looked at whether anyone with the older skills could easily transition to object-oriented programming or Java and Perl,'' Lemmerhirt says. "We found some people who could pick up similar technologies," such as programmers who could transition from RPG to Java. Because Lemmerhirt knew that other staffers wouldn't learn the new skills as easily, he relied on the first wave to undergo the transition to mentor the others. This, he says, turned out to be a good strategy.

Any IT managers looking to get a handle on their staff's capabilities, whether in preparation for a specific project or just in general, should follow these three steps:

  • Make an inventory of each employee's skills.
  • Create a matrix that displays in-house skills -- and skills gaps -- at a glance.
  • Solicit opinions from others on staff to make sure the matrix is adequate and accurate.

"Decide where you want to go,'' says Lemmerhirt. "Then work on a plan to get people there."

CRM Applications Go Internal

As enterprises become more adept at using Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Sales Force Automation (SFA) systems to enhance customer relations, the buzz is beginning to build around using these same tools to recruit and retain top IT talent. The question is, will CRM for internal use be the next big bang in IT or will it simply fizzle?

"There is some validity to the concept, but I don't see a one-to-one correspondence between the care and feeding of IT people and the needs of a customer," says Donna Fitzgerald, an analyst at the esteemed Gartner Research firm in Stamford, Conn.

Perhaps the lack of a direct correlation is merely due to the newness of the idea. To be sure, all the kinks have yet to be ironed out. As a result, reactions range across the entire spectrum.

Some enterprises are already on the bandwagon. "We use our CRM software quite successfully to track our staff as well as our customers," confides Jeff Pelletier, owner and executive producer of Basetwo Media Inc., one of Canada's leading video production companies, based in Vancouver, BC. "'Highrise,' by 37signals, has an option to create 'cases.' We use these 'cases' to keep notes on sick days, days off and any personal or performance issues that may arise. Access to these files is restricted to management who can then comment in the message threads if there are any ongoing issues." (article continues)

For every positive reaction, though, there's adamant criticism that using CRM for internal IT staffing purposes is a bad idea. "As a manager, I find it appalling and hope never to hear of companies actually adopting this as a primary perspective to take toward their workforce," laments Fitzgerald. "Human beings are complex systems -- they are, by their very nature, 'high touch.'"

In between the adopters and the antagonists, though, are plenty who have yet to consider the idea. "This isn't a connection that is spoken of a great deal in the HR/talent management market and I've not heard it spoken of directly having to do with managing IT staff," says Lisa Rowan, program manager in HR and Talent Management Services at IDC in Framingham, Mass.

The Human Factor
There are still plenty of questions about how well CRM software would adapt to talent management.

Fitzgerald cautions would-be users to remember that the goal of a CRM system is to capture information that leverages a one-to-many relationship between salespeople and customers. "There is, in general, no correspondence between the ratio of salespeople to customers and the ratio of management to IT staff -- meaning the software isn't designed to solve the problem," she says.

Human factors raise further doubts. "Who would be maintaining the system, i.e., operating in the traditional role of sales? Certainly not the business units. Staff elsewhere in the organization is interchangeable to them," exclaims Fitzgerald. "Would it be the IT management staff? If so, this begs the question of why they can't achieve the same benefit in a more personal manner." (article continues)

Among the CRM-like applications favored by HR pros, contact management appears to have the edge, but is mainly used for recruitment purposes rather than retention. "I have seen an increase in the correlation between contact management and recruiting," says Rowan. She cites PeopleClick as one example of a contact management system designed for recruitment; it recently announced a contact management system expressly to be used to keep in touch with and manage candidates for open. "This is a good use for CRM/contact management, as getting new recruits in the door is itself a sales proposition," says Rowan.

CRM vs. Everything Else
Still, when it comes to actually managing staff, other technologies are considered much more useful.

"Products like SharePoint are becoming excellent collaborative platforms and can support collaboration, knowledge management, some limited social networking and workflow. A tool like this has enormously more efficacy than a CRM tool," says Fitzgerald.

"I see lots of applications for social networking software in the workplace," she adds. "There are applications for career planning/skills software and there are applications for blogging and collaborative software. These are good ideas as long as they are used to enhance human interaction and not replace it."

However you choose to manage your staff, IT is the best place to try out any new system. "IT staff is generally comfortable with applications and might serve as a good pilot group to try out general workforce management applications," says Fitzgerald. "In general, if you can't sell the value of the application to someone who loves software, you will never get the rest of your workforce to adopt it."

For now, though, it looks as if CRM for internal staffing purposes is getting the pink slip.

The Semantic Web: Finally Becoming Enterprise-Ready

The Semantic Web was first envisioned in the late 1990s as the ultimate tool to harness the Internet's ever-accelerating growth of data. Then and today, information searches are limited by the keywords people manually enter; if you don't know the right keyword, you may miss ferreting out the information you need. Rather than restricting searches to information stored in a traditional folder hierarchy, Semantic Web technology allows companies to navigate through all the resources in an organization -- not just digital, but also social and human resources as well -- by making logical inferences that previously only humans could make.

"The Semantic Web promises to organize the world's information in a much more logical way," says Marc Fawsi, an analyst at Evolving Trends in San Francisco. "And once machines can understand and use information, the world will never be the same."

Semantics in Action
Today, Semantic Web technology is seeping into corporations and government agencies to build sophisticated knowledge bases and knowledge management systems, says Nova Spivack, CEO of Radar Networks, in San Francisco. "Government agencies as well as firms like Eli Lilly and Oracle are using it to improve discovery of what exists in unstructured documents and data collections scattered through their organizations."

For example, say a pharmaceutical company wanted to find all information related to a certain disease, including all the drugs and treatments and conditions related to that disease. Previously, a search would bring up only those documents or database records that contained the keywords specified by the (article continues)

human searcher. With the Semantic Web, however, the machine could make inferences: because a certain drug is commonly used to treat that disease, or because a specific symptom is typically associated with that disease, any information that contained references to those drugs or symptoms would also be retrieved, even if the disease wasn't mentioned by name.

A Bit of a Disconnect
Many corporations are already making use of Semantic Web technology -- but often management isn't aware of it because it is being used by employees in unauthorized ways, according to Scott Abel, CEO of Indianapolis-based The Content Wrangler. He points to the ways that some enterprise customer call centers are beginning to use tagging services like to help them better organize their reference materials. "Call center representatives are often challenged by having to look through massive amounts of online resources provided by the corporation to answer customer questions. This can include technical manuals, training manuals and lists of frequently asked questions (FAQ)," says Abel.

Unfortunately, the way these resources are organized doesn't really correspond to the way the employees must use them. But by "tagging" various pieces of this online content with such things as the name of the customer who needed it, or the specific problems customers were having that were solved by it, the call center can begin to compile a knowledge base that corresponds more closely to organizing the information the way its employees use it. "For example, a customer representative can do a quick retrieval of all the specific instances when a particular customer called in to complain about the battery life of a product," says Abel.

This helps the corporation in many ways, "not the least of which is that when a customer calls in, the representative is likely to be able to respond more quickly and accurately," says Abel. (article continues)

Mixing and Mashing Disconnected Sources
Another example of corporate use of the Semantic Web involves "mash ups," or the act of bringing together and consolidating information from different online sources into a single integrated experience. For example, a technology company could mash up internally generated documentation with information provided by customers on a user forum to come up with a more comprehensive -- and user friendly -- source of data about products for customers. "In these forums, you have users helping users, and it adds up to these huge libraries of valuable information that companies can leverage to better serve all customers," says Abel. "The Semantic Web allows companies to integrate this information much more easily than a traditional database could."

Agrees Spivack, "You could think of the Semantic Web as a new kind of middleware in which you can do data integration without having to go through application integration."

For now, most corporations are making only limited forays into the Semantic Web. For example, many firms are using Semantic Web technologies internally but confine their implementations to information stored within the corporation, rather than venturing out onto the Web itself. "This turns out to be much easier than what people are struggling with in the larger world, because they have control over all the elements and don't have to worry about all the different technologies and standards that currently are competing with each other on the Web," says Fawsi. However, he predicts, "As standards begin to become established, that will change."