Loafing no more?

Sam Zell's 'crazy' idea plugs content filters

Sam Zell just told the 20,000 employees at his company that he trusts them on the Internet during work time. "I have instructed that all content filters be removed," he told Tribune Co. workers in a memo last week. "You are now exposed to the dangers of YouTube and Facebook. Please use your best judgment. Let's focus on what is important, and go for greatness."

Is this guy crazy -- or is he onto something?

Understand, this isn't what we usually think of as an IT decision. Sam Zell isn't a CIO. He's not in charge of cybersecurity for his company. It's not even clear whether Tribune's IT people were consulted.

Zell is the Chicago real estate billionaire who took Tribune private last year. Now he's the chairman, CEO and biggest shareholder of the company that owns the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times and other newspapers, along with dozens of TV stations and the Chicago Cubs.

In other words, he's Tribune's big boss. So when he decides that Internet content filtering will go, it goes.

What's more interesting is why Zell thinks this is a good idea. Doesn't he understand that unrestricted Web access will demolish productivity, clog networks, amp up legal liability issues and blow holes in security? (It must be true -- after all, every Web-filtering product vendor says so.)

Tribune won't comment on Zell's memo except to confirm that it's authentic. But we know Zell has a law degree, so it's safe to assume that he understands liability. Bandwidth and security issues aren't his forte, but he appears to trust that his IT people are competent to manage the networks.

And productivity? Zell seems to think his employees are grown-up enough to get their work done, even with YouTube just a click away.

Or maybe he figures that in the age of the iPhone, employees don't need a company computer to kill time on the Internet. Heck, he probably understands that wasting time at work doesn't require any advanced technology at all.

And there's no technology that can force a worker to be productive.

This isn't the way we're accustomed to thinking, is it?

Keep in mind that Zell has ordered IT to pull the plug only on Internet content filters, not bandwidth management, logging or malware screens. If networks bog down, IT will be able to track down who's causing problems. If users are visiting problem sites -- whether they're serving up malware, porn or anything else that's a bad idea -- that'll show up and can be dealt with.

But the central idea behind content filters, the idea we've bought into and have always sold upstream to management, is that cyberloafing is a costly problem and that by taking away the cyber, we can stop employees from loafing.

Zell's idea is that we've been wasting our time. If cyberloafers get their work done, a little loafing is irrelevant. And if they don't, they should be penalized for not getting their work done, not for what they do online. That's a problem for their managers to address, not something for IT to worry about.

The conflict: We really don't believe users can resist temptation, focus on what's important and use good judgment when it comes to the Web. Zell does.

Or at least he thinks that's not an IT problem.

Is he crazy? Or is he right? It's no longer just a topic for idle debate. Some 20,000 Tribune employees are about to become an experiment in whether we need content filters -- or just better management.

And Tribune's IT people will be the first to find out.

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