Companies Blocking Employees from Reading RSS

    April 14, 2006

I dream of a world without prejudice. Wars will be a distant memory. No child will go to bed hungry. A organizations will trust their employees enough to let them subscribe to RSS feeds.

In case you hadn’t heard about it, some companies have begun blocking RSS feeds at the firewall. The rationale for this short-sighted, counterproductive bit of paranoid stupidity ranges from bandwidth worries to productivity concerns. The first I heard of this was from a reader of my monthly email newsletter. I’ve been cajoling my 2,500-or-so readers to switch to RSS for well over a year now. This particular reader wrote back saying he’d be happy to give RSS a try but for the fact that his company has banned RSS.

There’s an amusing irony in the fact that next year companies will shell out over $6 billion for applications that monitor and/or block web surfing, instant messaging, keystrokes, and now RSS, according to an IDC study. A TopTech News article paraphrases Websense VP and General Counsel Mike Newman:

The rationale behind monitoring employees, according to Newman, is that a computer at work is a corporate tool for enhancing the employee’s productivity. Because some people abuse that privilege by sending personal e-mail and viewing movies during working hours, employers feel they have little choice but to monitor what their workers are doing.

Which leads me to a comment we recieved to the “For Immediate Release” podcast from an IABC colleague who informed us that his company has a policy against watching or listening to any streams at work due to bandwidth concerns; they also are forbidden from downloading MP3 files. So employees here can’t determine whether a citizen marketer has made a negative commercial about their company and posted it to YouTube or listen to a business-focused podcast during lunch. Brilliant. And all to protect precious bandwidth.

If somebody calculated the benefits of letting employees watch/listen to streams or download MP3s, a business case could made for (gasp) increasing bandwidth. But many companies haven’t figured out yet that today’s web isn’t the same web around which they built their in-house capabilities back in 1999 or earlier.

On the flip side, there’s Todd Cochrane over at Geek News Central, who recounts this tale:

I have worked for years in an organization that takes surfing to unauthorized sites very seriously and they have long laundry list of sites you cannot get to. I once e-mailed a commonly used utility to my work account and because the file was a executable in a zip the system admin went nuts on me. After I showed him the application was on the authorized use list he calmed down, but I have had to deal with my share of Internet Police.

I’ve covered the reasons this philosophy represents the height of cluelessness, but to recap

  • An employee’s home computer is a personal tool, but it gets used for work all the time. Work-life integration is the name of the game today. If you expect me to take work home, then expect me to live part of my life at work.
  • The measure of productivity is how much work is getting done, not how much time an employee spends on non-work-related activities. Employees will stay late, come in early, or take work home. They won’t simply let it slide. Nobody wants to lose his job so he can check sports scores on ESPN.
  • Nobody ever got fired for checking sports scores at work in the New York Times. The web is the new newspaper.
  • Telling employees you don’t trust them-any of them-is a great way to earn some of the lowest engagement scores in the business world. (Trust is a key determinant of engagement and commitment.) Companies with large populations of highly engaged employees earn double-digit growth. Those with large populations of actively disengaged employees earn zero or negative growth. So which is preferable: locked down computers and no growth or open access and double-digit growth?

Ahh, there’s more. Go back and read some of my earlier posts on this topic. I don’t have time for the full-on rant. I want to focus instead on RSS.

If companies are concerned about the amount of time employees are spending on the web, RSS is the answer, not an extension of the problem. RSS allows employees to aggreagate all the content they follow in one place, scan it for items of interest, zero in on the ones that are most important and get back to work. Further, have any of the companies blocking RSS feeds studied the nature of the content to which employees are subscribing? I’d be willing to be at least some of it is work-related.

Currently, to subscribe to RSS feeds would require most employees to install software (verboten) or use aggregator web sites (blocked). But what happens when IT adopts Internet Explorer 7 and Windows Vista, both of which will have RSS functionality built in? Will they disable bookmarking features in IE7? Sadly, I’m guessing they will.

How much productivity have companies gainedbased on information and knowledge gleaned from the Internet? Websense will never tell you; it’s not in their self-interest to study the reasons companies shouldn’t block Net access. But I’ve heard hundreds of tales of blogs, feeds, web pages, and message boards producing answers to questions and solutions to problems that would have taken far longer to obtain through traditional channels.

Are there some employees who will take advantage of a company that allows unfettered Internet access? Of course. They should be managed by exception. Spam and viruses can be addressed without draconian policies that keep employees from accessing content.

My wife likes to say, “Before the Internet, we were all stupid.” If Websense and its ilk have their way, there are a lot of companies hell-bent on remaining stupid.

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Shel Holtz is principal of Holtz Communication + Technology which focuses on helping organizations apply online communication capabilities to their strategic organizational communications.

As a professional communicator, Shel also writes the blog a shel of my former self.