Hilary Backwell, Global HR Director at software security company Clearswift, discusses the challenge of Web 2.0 and social media in today’s workplace and provides advice on how HR professionals can help companies overcome this challenge.

Web 2.0 and other social media technologies are not new; in fact it’s now over nine years since the phrase ‘Web 2.0’ was first coined in 1999. But 2011 has been a significant year for the technology. Facebook now claims to have over 800 million users, a startling amount, and making it the equivalent of the third largest country in the world in terms of population. Twitter has also recently reached a major milestone with 100 million active users, 50% of whom log on daily. If evidence were needed that social media has gone truly mainstream, these facts alone put forward a pretty strong case.

It’s now hard for businesses to ignore social media, even if they wanted to, and increasingly, they do so at the expense of some significant business benefits.

Social media brings with it many advantages from a corporate perspective. At a fundamental level, it is a useful additional way of communicating, with customers, business prospects and colleagues. From a HR point of view it is not only useful for communication but also as a network for recruitment and knowledge. Employees also want to be able to access their personal accounts at work, with more employees than even demanding greater flexibility in their roles, not just through working more flexible hours and from home, but also a rising trend for ‘home-ing from work’- where staff are looking to be able to perform personal tasks at work.

But along with the many benefits that social media can bring, it can also raise concerns within a business environment. For all businesses, information security is a key concern. To some, social media channels serve as yet another route along which data can escape from the business, whether accidentally or maliciously. On top of this, senior management may be concerned about the amount of time employees spend on social networks.

Despite these reservations, there is no denying that social media is an unstoppable force, and it was against this backdrop that our recent Work, Life, Web research, revealed some interesting findings.

Perhaps the most surprising finding of all is that the blocking of social media is on the rise this year compared to 2010. In 2010 just 9% of companies globally engaged in blocking employee access to social media sites, yet in the latest research this figure has increased to 19%.

One of the most obvious potential reasons behind the growing concern and resultant blocking is the high profile data breaches we have seen over the past year. Instances such as the Sony data breach, which saw the company sustain the largest cyber intrusion since the Heartland Payment Systems breach in 2008 when its network was hacked to steal sensitive information belonging to users. These types of high profile data losses have more than likely led to an increased fear of technology adoption within companies. Alongside this, businesses have to deal with an ever increasing amount of regulation and legislation when it comes to data.

The result is that a ‘Directors Dilemma’ is emerging in the boardroom. On the one hand senior executives are aware of the benefits that social media and Web 2.0 technologies bring (41% of companies globally agree that the benefits of social media outweigh the drawbacks and one in four companies planning to invest more in social media this year than last), yet a fear-driven paralysis has set in that prevents them from taking full (or in some instances, any) advantage of these technologies.

Of course, it is not just those in the boardroom who have opinions on the use of social media in the workplace. Employees are also key stakeholders in this debate, and in some instances there is real evidence of a ‘social media stalemate’ which has evolved in businesses. Characterised by a locking of horns between employer and employee, our research very much supports this idea, showing that whilst 48% of managers state that social media use is encouraged or allowed, only 25% of employees agree. Today’s employees tend to take it as a given that they should access social media at work, and with perhaps the starkest reminder of just how ingrained this sentiment is, 26% of employees said they would become demotivated if access was restricted, 14% would work around the policy, and 3% would consider leaving.

So how can the HR department help find an acceptable compromise? The answer is simpler than it might seem, and at its heart is policy. Working with other relevant business departments, HR professionals can help to implement relevant and workable social media and Web 2.0 policies that satisfy both sides of the argument.

Alongside this it is also important for companies to educate and inform employees of this policy, and again, HR professionals are the key to this being conducted effectively. By doing so this will not only encourage a change in behaviour in the workplace but also provide staff with the knowledge and understanding they need to apply sensible and practical information security good practice in all aspects of their business lives, whilst on the move and using mobile devices for example. Good security technology will support these guidelines, allowing businesses to deal with specific concerns such as preventing the accidental (or malicious) distribution of a confidential file via Facebook or Skype, yet allowing moderate and appropriate use by the majority of employees. With such a widespread adoption of social media it is difficult for HR professionals to ignore its power for engaging with audiences. By embracing social media, and having the right tools in place to safeguard a corporate reputation, businesses will reap the benefits.

Biography – Hilary Backwell has been an HR professional for more than 20 years, the last 11 of which she’s spent as Global HR Director at Clearswift. She gained her CIPD qualification at Oxford Brookes University and is particularly interested in golf.