Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Killing Businesses

The Suspects

Let’s descend into a murky underworld where the crime is heinous, but the criminals are, perhaps, unwitting. These are not crimes of fraud or murder. No gun-toting robbers these, the crimes are almost certainly not spelt out in any criminal code. Yet they can have as devastating an effect on their victims as any of the aforementioned. The truly frightening thing is you and I could well be one of them. As we browse and print we might well be including ourselves in a special category of destroyers and killers.

The kind that kill businesses.

The Case

For most of us, our first long term experience with computing technology is in the office. Indeed many of us learnt to use computers at work. I mean really use – not the rip-offs called “training” many paid for at fly-by night computer schools. The majority of Nigerians in their 30s did not have the benefit of growing up with computers. That in part is because most of us (or our families) couldn’t afford computers. Aside from this, the computers then didn’t have that much home utility for us. Sure you could play games, type out stuff in WordStar and do the occasional GWBasic program, but for the average Nigerian, those weren’t the most paramount of interests, not at those prices anyway.

How times have changed. Now, computers have become as meaningful to us outside the office as they are at work. Our children will be as comfortable with laptops are we were with pencil and paper. With the explosion of the Internet, and the astounding variety of software available for all sorts of purposes, computers have become an indispensible part of our non-work lives. I have a friend who has a netbook, a laptop and two Blackberries. Try and keep me away from my iPhone.

Despite this the average person isn’t willing to spend the money on computing technology that is equal to their personal need to use computers. About the only thing we personally invest is the actual computer itself and maybe a UPS to protect it. We don’t buy software (Microsoft office for a few hundred naira at Otigba does not a purchase make, people). We are only just beginning to invest in internet services. And we do not invest in backup solutions. If you have a printer at home put your hands up. Instead we use vast amounts of computing resources as provided by our employers for our personal pursuits.

The Crime Scene

I am a server support administrator (that means I keep the servers that provide capabilities like email, shared printers, internet access and many other services running) and I see tremendous amounts of abuse of the company’s computing resources on a daily basis. I see people who do large amounts of printing of bible study outlines for their church (and I say this because I am a Christian). I see hundreds of gigabytes of music files on our servers while we run out of space for company files. I have deleted whole movie video CDs from my servers. I see how people consume huge amounts of bandwidth accessing streaming entertainment on the Internet.

What most do not realise is that these resources cost a large amount of money to make available and maintain for company business. Now my company has a fair use policy which acknowledges that people have a right to “reasonable” use of computers, phones and the internet for personal purposes. I think every business should allow this. Having draconian rules that employees cannot use the phones or the internet at all for personal things is counterproductive. People are going to do it anyway so why not make it legal and set reasonable limits? The average company fully expects their workers to put in extra hours with no overtime pay while reading the same employee the riot act when he or she spends five minutes reading the Guardian Online or fourteen minutes listening to Arsene Wenger explaining why the Gunners are where they are today. Nevertheless, when we misuse these resources or make excessive use of them the resources are not available to the business to make money with. No money for the business, no money for salaries, eventually no business. This misuse can kill and is killing enterprises.

The Evidence

According to Fair et al. reports have shown that many employees admit to spending nearly half of the work day using the internet for personal purposes. Samsung did a study that showed the majority of Canadian employees misuse their office printers for personal stuff. At my company for example, the top website visited every month is Yahoo! Mail. Facebook features consistently in the top ten and there is a guy we are trying to track down who watches TV shows online. My wife suggests that the first company I worked at went out of business in part because we the employees, and the boss man himself I might add (Yo! Walexy, what’s up?), used so much of the company’s computing resources for non-business purposes. Of course, the biggest thing lost in all this is time. All the time spent doing all this stuff that we could have spent actually doing our jobs.

On top of all this, we also expose our company computers to security risks from viruses and Trojan horses. A significant number of the virus incidents we deal with come from people bringing in files to work on flash disks and what not. In addition to this we put our employees at risk of litigation from illegal material such as music or illegal software that we copied to our computers. Some years ago Microsoft went to war on illegal usage of their software on some companies in Lagos and it was ugly. In those cases the companies were complicit in the use of the software, but some of them might have been in the position they were in because their employees put them in that position.

The Verdict

So what are my suggestions? Treat the computing resources at work with the same respect you would want your family members to treat the computer, internet service, phone and printer (when you eventually buy one). Lastly, get your own software. With the growth of the Open Source Movement, there is a free alternative to the “for pay” software we are more familiar with. In plain English, if you don’t want to pay for Microsoft Office, then download OpenOffice.org for free.

Put yourself in the shoes of the businesses that pay so much to make computers available to you so that they can make money and pay your salaries. Stop being a business killer.


Are there any business owners out there who want to recount how their businesses have suffered from the “crime” I described above? Are there any employees who have a different perspective from what I have expressed? Drop me a line in the comments.