Twitter usage is going through the roof in many enterprises, causing huge security headaches for administrators. The reason for Twitter's popularity (and that of other micro-blogging tools like Plurk and Jaiku) in the office is simple: If it's useful in your private life, then chances are it will be useful when you go to work as well. The same thing happened with instant messaging when home ICQ users began installing ICQ software on their work computers to stay in touch with colleagues.
Jeff Mann, a Gartner analyst, identifies four ways in which applications like Twitter are commonly used in the enterprise:
In a research document titled "Four Ways in Which Enterprises are Using Twitter," he said direct usage involves enterprises tweeting about corporate news and accomplishments and providing links in tweets to corporate press releases. Indirect usage is similar, but it is carried out by corporate employees in their own names. Inbound signaling is slightly different because rather than telling the world what the enterprise is doing, it is Twitter used in reverse. By scanning the Twittersphere for occurrences of the enterprise's name or its trade marks, a company can keep track of what customers and other people are saying about it and its products.
The reason enterprises must do something about Twitter usage is because of the final use mode that Mann identifies: internal twittering. This is when employees use Twitter to tell each other what they are working on, how projects are going, what ideas are being developed, and so on. It's a security headache for enterprises because Twitter's total lack of confidentiality makes it completely unsuitable for this type of usage. A competitor searching the Twittersphere for the right keywords might easily discover confidential corporate information such as pricing details, new product launch dates, or the names of companies with which employees are meeting. Whereas it requires a certain amount of specialist knowledge to intercept and read unencrypted email or instant messages, tweets are designed to be broadcast as widely as possible and thus are easily found and read by others.
What's New Is Old
The Twitter problem is, in many ways, similar to the problem that occurred when employees installed ICQ software, and thereby exposed the network to viruses and other security risks, while breaking regulatory compliance procedures by communicating in a way that was not recorded or archived. The solution, it became clear fairly quickly, was to integrate instant messaging capabilities into centrally managed corporate collaboration and communication platforms.
The same will almost certainly be true with Twitter-style communications: Gartner assumes that by 2011, enterprise versions of Twitter will be a standard feature of 80 percent of social software platforms on the market.
The problem for enterprises though is what to do about Twitter in the meantime the period of two or three years before Twitter functionality becomes a standard feature of enterprise software as Gartner predicts, linked to corporate directories, scanned for malicious links, and archived, in much the same way that emails and instant messages are.
A number of services have sprung up in the past year or so to accommodate micro-blogging needs of enterprises. These include Yammer, Socialtext and Present.ly. They provide "closed" systems in which only enterprise employees can participate. They are also designed to provide security so the contents of tweets remain confidential. In theory, this enables employees to be more productive by sharing corporate information using tweets without worry that competitors may listen in. Mann believes a large number of companies are happy for their employees to use them, and other less secure services for now.
"I see many companies which are winking at employees using Yammer or identi.ca (an open source social networking site), neither encouraging officially nor forbidding, while they figure out what they want to do," he said.
One thing they must figure out is which service to officially allow employees to use, and discourage or block any others. But at the moment, there are no clear leaders. "Micro-blogging is in the land grab phase, where independent vendors are trying to gain as much adoption as possible before the platforms implement the functionality," said Mann. "Yammer is doing pretty well with that, but I think it will be hard for all of the best of breed micro-blogging vendors when this is a widely available service."
But is it better to go for an easy-to-introduce cloud-based service, or to implement a more complex but arguably more secure system that's run in-house on an enterprise's own servers, behind its corporate firewall?
Given that most enterprises will probably abandon these services once similar functionality is integrated into their corporate communication and collaboration software in a few short years, Mann said he believes easy-to-implement cloud-based services are the most sensible interim solution in this tricky interim period. The best ones offer a low-cost way of providing the benefits of Twitter together with compliance features and a degree of security, and they will tide enterprises over until micro-blogging becomes a standard feature of common communications platforms.
Of course, the other possibility is that Twitter is just a passing fad, and in another year or two it will have been forgotten as the next social networking craze takes hold. It seems unlikely and it's certainly not what Gartner is predicting but given that the business benefits of Twittering have not been proven, that might not be such a bad thing. The makers of Yammer, Present.ly, et al would no doubt disagree.
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Paul Rubens is a journalist based in Marlow on Thames, England. He has been programming, tinkering and generally sitting in front of computer screens since his first encounter with a DEC PDP-11 in 1979.