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Personal privacy an issue in enterprise social plans at multinationals

Different cultures view personal privacy matters differently. Multinationals wanting improved collaboration must plan enterprise social networks adoption carefully.

Launching enterprise social media initiatives takes on a whole new world of challenges within multinational companies.

Multinational organizations have some tricky international waters to navigate when it comes to matters of personal privacy. While North American workers typically aren't as concerned about sharing certain information, their counterparts in Europe and Asia are much more reluctant to provide personal information.

The issue is largely a cultural one that limits both the sharing of personal information on individual levels and project information on team levels. Yet there are also legal issues and differences between nations that can hamper free and open collaboration.

A key cultural difference between Europeans and American knowledge workers -- as well as consumers -- has to do with data privacy. In Europe, keeping personally identifiable information (PII) private and secure is typically regarded as a sacrosanct right, while Americans often don't think twice about sharing their names, email addresses, street addresses, telephone numbers and even certain health or biometric data on social networks. This carries over to how consumer social media networks in the U.S. share user data with other third parties such as data brokers. They claim it expands the universe of new services they can offer users.

Careful planning considers many differences

These differences around personal privacy can get in the way of a multinational enterprise's workflow, so enterprise social networks (ESNs) aimed at engendering collaboration require careful attention.

"First of all, not everyone is a native English speaker," said T.J. Keitt, an analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass., "and might not be comfortable speaking or using UIs that are primarily in English." But Keitt said that the cultural differences from region to region can really get in the way of enterprise social collaboration.

For example, he said that Brazilians typically regard enterprise social collaboration with skepticism because they view "using social networks as something for personal use and are not wholly serious for business use, and that might drive down adoption."

"Certain geographies place an emphasis on hoarding information," Keitt said. The thinking is that "the more you know and the more centralized [the information is] to yourself, the more valuable you are to the organization," he said.

However, this changes depending on the organization. Keitt said some multinationals sidestep the cultural differences depending on how they operate. "IBM does a very good job of distributing its culture across geographies," Keitt said, "so there is more or less one IBM."

Legal issues come into play

But even when cultural issues might stand in the way of full engagement with ESNs, there are legal issues around personal privacy as well.

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"In France, everything has to be done with employee consent, and in Germany, governmental labor councils become involved," Keitt said. "Simply putting their profile online changes the notion of their job description in many cases and that has to be negotiated."

Outside the U.S., the definition of PII is broad, and just identifying yourself in some cases is a legal matter, said James Daley, a partner at Daley and Fey LLP, a law firm focusing on e-discovery, e-records management and compliance and data privacy based in Overland Park, Kan.

"It's a far different landscape outside the U.S., and there are a number of challenges when multinationals use social networking as a collaborative tool," he said. "These challenges arise along the entire information cycle."

Daley pointed to the vast differences in personal privacy protections among EU member nations as one aspect being tackled by the Article 29 Working Group, which is trying to harmonize how the EU data protection directive is applied throughout the EU. It would be helpful to multinational organizations to keep track of the group's work and apply their minimum standards internally once approved.

Regional differences affect adoption

"The main concern [among multinationals] is not so much about privacy but adoption," said Kashyup Kompella, an analyst covering enterprise collaboration and social media for the Real Story Group of Olney, Md.

"What we find is that it's not so much about regulation, but regional differences do exist," Kompella said.

It's important for organizations to sensitize all employees to such differences, he said. For example, the French and Germans are less likely to share information. And, said Kompella, employees in certain regions are "not comfortable about sharing projects across the entire organization."

That sometimes depends more on the organization's structure and that can change depending on where in the world its main office is located. In some countries, Kompella said, flat organizations with a more egalitarian structure exist, engendering a culture more open to using enterprise social media; in others, the top-down approach is taken, where that openness is hard to find.

In addition to making employees aware of cultural differences regarding personal privacy from country to country, Kompella said organizations should establish privacy and data protection procedures for using enterprise collaboration technology that adheres to their rules about using email.

"The best advice that we give to people rolling these out is to have a defined policy in place and then more importantly, educate employees about it," he said.

Additionally, organizations need to update those policies, noted Larry Cannell, a research director at Gartner Inc. in Stamford, Conn.

"Social software pushes the boundaries of so many things, like company policies and people's comfort zones," he said.

Organizations should work earlier with groups like the German's Workers Council to avoid privacy issues ahead of time, Cannell said. Enterprise social media enables employees to change the way they take care of "nonroutine" work in a way that becomes more personal than usual.

"What social is trying to do is push those conversations that should be public out into a semipublic space," he said. "The big change is getting people to work in a group-owned space and a shared-conversation space. And that has people worried."

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