Jeremy Burton has fought both sides of the employee communications battle. As executive vice president of the data management group at Veritas, he tried to ban e-mail between employees on Fridays. That was in 2004, before the company merged with Symantec.
“We had over a hundred people sitting within 50 yards of each other sending e-mail when they could have just talked face-to-face more effectively,” Burton, CEO of enterprise software maker Serena Software, told InternetNews.com.
A lot has changed in Burton’s world. Serena recently began encouraging its employees to use Facebook as a kind of alternative intranet for team building, and it has done so despite concerns over enterprise security.
With the popularity of BlackBerry devices and social networks, he said, “kicking people off e-mail is so 2004. Facebook fills the missing link between e-mail and talking to someone directly. You find what people are interested in,” said Burton. “I didn’t know my head of mashup development’s favorite book is War and Peace; now we’ve got something to talk about.”
He also said it’s particularly useful to have a service like Facebook that lets employees at Serena’s multiple offices communicate better. “We’re geographically dispersed, so being able to share a common interest with someone or simply find out more about people you work with is big.”
Serena gives employees a free hour each Friday to update their Facebook profiles with pictures and other personal information and to check out their colleagues’ profiles. It’s not a fixed time, just a suggestion. The company also sanctions a few minutes each day to update Facebook.
However, not all companies are as open as Serena when it comes to social networking on the job.
Security firm Barracuda Networks said an analysis of its customers’ Web filtering indicated a growing concern over the use of social networks in the enterprise. Many companies restrict access to sites like Facebook and Myspace outright, while others issue warnings that viewing them is not approved.
Barracuda CEO Dean Draco said Serena’s policy sounded “pretty bleeding edge.”
“You won’t see a lot of financial institutions running to get their employees on Facebook. Maybe someday; but not now. The real issue is about who has access and control of the information on these sites. There’s also a lot of potential for the wrong information about a company to be released accidentally.”
Burton, who also held executive positions at security software leader Symantec and has been at Serena less than a year, said he isn’t worried.
“Will employees post confidential information? If we have any devious employees there are plenty of other ways they could get information out without Facebook,” he said. “I think employees are generally honest, and if you treat them like adults and trust, they’ll take responsibility for what they do.”
Analyst Sara Radicati, CEO of the Radicati Group, said social-networking tools like blogs and wikis are becoming increasingly useful to businesses, but most would prefer they operate more securely behind the firewall.
“It depends on what kind of business you’re in. You want employees to interact, but you also want to protect sensitive information,” she told InternetNews.com.
A Salesforce.com customer, Serena already outsources a big part of what traditionally would be internal IT infrastructure; Burton sees Facebook as an extension of that thinking.
“As we build out our collaboration, I prefer the Software-as-a-Service model than have our IT department have to maintain it all,” he said. “I certainly believe in certain information being kept private, but I don’t think you have to be behind the firewall to do that.”
While Burton emphasizes collaboration and team building as the reason for spreading the Facebook gospel, he said a secondary reason is that Serena is building mashup and Web 2.0 tools for the enterprise.
“The last 20 years, the big technology revolutions in the enterprise reached consumers later. Now the opposite is happening, and I think getting an injection of Web 2.0 is super important.”