Is the Web sapping your firm's productivity?
Managers find new ways to crack down on browsing during business hours
While the Internet and the World Wide Web have obviously altered the face of computing, their effect on worker productivity isn't so cut and dry. Are workers spending too much time on the Web hunting down the perfect vacation spot when they should be writing the next killer app? Or does connection time actually improve worker productivity? Managers are curious -- some are even curious enough to use monitoring tools.
No one questions the claim that the Internet and the World Wide Web is revolutionizing computing, but when a related assertion is proffered -- that the Net delivers a tremendous boost in worker productivity -- some corporate managers still have their doubts. Some see the Net and the Web as a double-edged sword, capable of boosting employee productivity, or of luring workers to surf the Net when they should be working. Faced with a great unknown, and a perceived threat, some companies are looking for peace of mind.
Research from Find/SVP (New York), a worldwide research and consulting firm, fueled the fire of managerial skepticism. One thousand interviews were conducted earlier this year, asking managers and Internet users more than a thousand questions each. The survey concluded that while the average online home user spends 6.6 hours per week on the Net, corporate users spend 7.7 hours a week connected to the Net from their office -- one full day of the work week, on average.
"The data clearly shows that business users are heavy Internet users," said Dan Campbell, the research director in charge of the survey.
What they are doing is the great unknown, however. Are they communicating with customers, scooping the details on a competitor, and profiling prospective suppliers? Or are employees checking the weather, their personal stock portfolio, downloading Disney film clips for the kids, and e-mailing resumes to new job prospects?
Inquiring managers want to know.
"People in the industry are telling us that non-productive Internet use is a big problem," Campbell said. "This is especially true when people first get connected to the Net and want to explore."
"There is no question that companies are very interested in finding out what their employees are doing on the Web and on the Internet, and they are looking for ways to block access to certain sites," he said.
"Many corporate managers are terrified of the Internet and the Web," said Steve Holtzman, director of marketing for Optimal Networks (Palo Alto, CA), a software firm that is releasing the first software package designed to monitor employee Internet usage. In addition to the soft costs -- employee productivity -- there may be very tangible out of pocket expenses, Holtzman said.
Take the example of a firm who's Internet traffic is saturating its T1 link to the Net. That may cost the company $1,000 a month, and adding a second T1 can double the costs. If 20-plus percent of its peak use bandwidth is going to recreational Net surfing from employees' desks, identifying and eliminating that use -- or moving it to off-peak hours -- may save the firm an expensive upgrade.
Paul Caneiro, director of technical services for Square One, a Homdel, NJ-based VAR that works with Fortune 500 firms in the greater New York area, confirms that monitoring Net use is an important issue for many. Financial service firms are very sensitive to lost productivity and security issues. They tend to make it clear that company computers may only be used for company work -- period. More creative environments, such as advertising agencies, take a much more flexible approach, he said.
"For some firms, as long as the work is getting done and they do not see a drop in productivity, they really don't care what employees are doing with the Net connection," Caneiro said. He is seeing, however, a growing attitude of, "how much more could employees accomplish if they weren't playing on the Net?"
Even for very relaxed, creative environments, said Caneiro, using current employers' Internet connections to look for new jobs is absolutely unacceptable.
More and more businesses are preparing detailed use guidelines to inform employees about what they can and cannot do with corporate Internet connections. In Caneiro's experience, nearly 100 percent have defined policies in place.
New tool to monitor usage
Use policies are a useful way of clarifying a firm's expectations, but short of peering over employees shoulders, there is little that can be done to enforce the rules.
That is until now.
The Optimal Internet Monitor (IMON) from Optimal Networks is the first commercial product specifically designed to monitor and track client-side Internet use enterprise-wide. The beta product was available starting in June, and should be in production release sometime in September, Holtzman said. He reports more than 1,000 product downloads from the firm's Web site.
"The Internet Monitor is analogous to giving firms an itemized phone bill of their Internet use. They can look over the bill and decide if there is a problem worth acting upon," Holtzman said.
IMON can name every individual and the sites to which they connect, how long someone connects to them, and how many bytes of data are transferred. It monitors the Web (http), Usenet news (nntp), and ftp traffic.
IMON does not analyze the packets, it only logs them into a relational database -- currently Microsoft Access. The Windows 95-based product running on a Pentium computer can easily keep up with a heavily loaded Ethernet segment, Holtzman said, but larger enterprises will need multiple copies.
FDDI and Token Ring networks are also supported. A Windows NT version is in the works.
Pre-built reports accessed via toolbar icons let analysts slice and dice the data easily to answer all the common questions, Holtzman said. A reports wizard assists in building custom reports, but sophisticated correlations will require writing SQL code. Several pre-built charts and graphs supplement alpha-numeric reports. All displays can be exported as HTML documents and JPEG images so that anyone with a Web browser can view the reports.
Report graphs are integrated with the Netscape Navigator Web browser, so that selecting a URL in a graph of recent Internet usage will bring up that site in the browser.
Holtzman said that IMON can also be configured to produce alarms if banned sites are accessed, but that is not how most prospective customers indicate they will use the product.
"The vast majority of the people interested in our Internet Monitor want to get the big picture. They want to find out if there is a problem or not. Right now they simply do not know," Holtzman said.
Caneiro of Square One, said IMON has improved a great deal during the beta period, and is "100 times better than trying to monitor usage via a firewall." In working with various clients Caneiro said the one thing currently missing is the ability to add more applications for IMON to track -- Internet Relay Chat (IRC) and Lotus Notes traffic are two additional applications his clients have requested to monitor.
One firm's approach
San Juan Capistrano, CA-based V-Systems, which develops commercial fax server software, employs 37 people and has nearly 100 machines on the Net. The firm connected to the Internet about 18 months ago, publishing an acceptable use policy shortly there after.
"I think we are pretty liberal on how employees can use the Internet. We don't want them to use the company connection to search for jobs or to search out sexually explicit material," said Mike Elkins, the firm's IS manager. Aside from those caveats, employees are welcome to use the company connection for personal use during non-working hours. During the business day, Elkins said, the Net should be strictly business.
V-Systems put a fairly expensive packet sniffer near its firewall to determine where all of its bandwidth was going, but could not come up with the data in a convenient manner.
When Elkins heard about Optimal Networks' IMON, he realized it would be possible not only to diagnose the firm's bandwidth problems, but also to get a feel for whether employees were playing on the Net during the work day.
As it turned out, the bandwidth problems were largely due to ftp traffic between development and the media mastering machine to produce CD-ROMs. Whenever development built a new version of the software, the media archives were automatically updated. Ensuring those updates took place during off-hours solved the firm's most significant bandwidth problem.
The IMON tests also generated some surprising results regarding personal Web use during the business day, Elkins said. A short sample period indicated that about 20 percent of users where spending about 20 percent of their online time during the work day for personal Internet use. "Given the sites they were visiting, there was no question but that the use was personal," he said.
Personal Web use was not so excessive that it provoked a stern response from senior executives, and some of the people violating the company policy were those Elkins least expected. Elkins had no desire to create an adversarial or investigative atmosphere in the company, so he decided to educate employees about Optimal Networks' IMON.
Managers were brought in and given a demonstration of the tool. They were shown that the tool tracks all major classes of Internet traffic by employee, application, sites visited, bytes transferred, and time expended. The managers were then asked to spread the word.
"Once everyone learned that we had the ability to easily monitor compliance with the company's Internet use policy, they paid attention. We periodically use IMON for spot checks, and it shows most everyone is now following the rules," Elkins said.
According to Elkins, V-Systems sees access to the Web and the Internet as a fabulous research tool, and its appropriate use should be encouraged.
"We want employees using the Net to gain work-related knowledge, and some personal use of the Net helps them learn and be interested," Elkins said. The key is simply to keep personal Internet use in its proper place.
Proceed with caution
Sampling feedback from a few Internet-related mailing lists, users and some middle-level managers are concerned about corporate management overreacting to the possibility of personal Internet use from the company network.
Kyu Y. Lee, director of engineering for Tacoma, WA-based NorthWest Rainnet, and a manager for 20 years, said the whole debate reminds him of a classic tale of programmer productivity.
An energetic new efficiency expert noticed how much time people in the data process group were "wasting" by chatting around the water cooler, coffee mugs in hand, so he eliminated the firm's coffee hour. The result was a drop in productivity and a long line of people waiting to talk to the firm's internal consultant. It turned out that coffee hour chats informally solved many problems that now had to be formally presented to the internal consultant. The efficiency expert's reaction was penny-wise, but pound-foolish.
"We tell our customers and employees to spend time surfing the Web when they first get connected. After than, expect a gain in productivity because they have an understanding of the Web and how to use it in their work," said Ray Jones, and engineer with Celestial Systems (Mercer Island, WA), which installs turn-key Internet systems in the Seattle area.
Where the work environment permits, employees can be given set deliverables -- work that must be done by agreed deadlines, said Patricia F. Lewis, a former consultant with Booz-Allen & Hamilton (McLean, VA) and The Bell South Foundation (Atlanta, GA), and now a Ph.D. candidate in Telecommunications Policy and Law at the University of Florida.
"Full Net access was invaluable and improved my overall attitude at work. If I surfed during work hours, I worked late or at home to get the job done," she said.
V-Systems's Elkins may have struck a reasonable balance in the way he employed an Internet monitoring tool. Use a monitoring tool to diagnose bandwidth problems, and find ways to move non-essential usage to off-peak hours. In addition, use the tool for spot checks of a firm's acceptable use policy. Over zealous managers, however, who fixate on eradicating all personal use of a firm's Internet connection may find they cause more problems than they eliminate.
About the author
Barry D. Bowen is an industry analyst and writer with the Bowen Group Inc., based in Bellingham, WA. Reach Barry at email@example.com.
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