World Class Faculty & Research / April 29, 2015

Loose Facebook Posts Sink Ships: How the Navy Limits Online Distractions

SMITH BRAIN TRUST -- Keeping your employees from frittering away their days on social media should involve more tact and art than heavy-handed restrictions. That's one of the insights from a study that Smith School professor Christine Beckman and a colleague at California Polytechnic State University did of the Navy's experience in keeping people on task (and off email) while on duty.

The idea behind the study was to explore how an extreme case, managing online distractions on a military ship, might shed light on how such distractions can be managed in other settings. On deployments the Internet is a lifeline to sailors' families, and yet the stakes for clicking on malware or revealing secrets could be a matter of life and death. Beckman and Taryn L. Stanko interviewed 73 Naval officers, enlisted sailors, and Navy wives with experience of at least one deployment.

A basic finding of the study was that "global control," telling people to avoid all distractions during the working day — the default approach of the pre-Internet era — is by necessity giving way to "situational control": abandoning bans in favor of keeping distractions to a tolerable minimum, and ratcheting controls up and down, depending on circumstances. Here are five tactics the Navy uses to keep people on task:

Drive home messages about focus and safe computing.

Officers constantly remind sailors — daily, even — that they are using military computers, and that letting slip details about operations or clicking on a dubious link can wreak havoc. When people use email at their workstations, they get on-screen reminders to be careful about what they disclose, and the language on these banners changes, so people don't learn to ignore them. Walls near public computers feature posters emphasizing safe communication habits (the square footage such posters must occupy is specified). 

Monitor, transparently.

On ships the IT department knows which websites people have visited; they also keep an eye out for outgoing communications in which operational details are being disclosed. Yet officers said it was crucial to tell sailors why communications were being monitored, even if sailors didn’t know whether they were being monitored at any given moment, and to explain how sailors had a stake in proper communication. When people don't know they are being monitored, and get busted as the result of surveillance, "distrust … spreads like wildfire," one officer said. They start to think their conversations in the showers are being recorded.

Use public relations as a pressure-release valve for information.

If the public-information officer is publishing lots of carefully vetted photos of life on the ship on Facebook, and describing the ship's whereabouts in an informative but not mission-endangering way, enlisted men feel less of a need to email details to their families — including possibly inappropriate details.

Don't underestimate common-sense management.

Officers will stroll through workplaces and, if they see someone on Facebook, tell people, "You're on my clock." It doesn't involve algorithms, but the human approach goes a long way.

Disable access strategically.

Outright shutting off Internet access would solve many problems on ships, "but it's a total morale killer," Beckman says. Life becomes "more claustrophobic," one sailor told the researchers. So officers are creative and tactical in their use of bans. The Navy bans certain websites as security risks, or for inappropriate content, or both. They shut off connections during the first days out of port, or when specific units have an intense assignment, or even when the ship needs to be cleaned. When someone flagrantly or repeatedly violates policy, they lose access for a while.

Overall, the goal is to "use situational controls extensively but also dynamically and transparently," Beckman and Stank write. Corporate managers might want to do the same when confronted with eBay-addicted employees.

"Watching You Watching Me: Boundary Control and Capturing Attention in the Context of Ubiquitous Technology Use," by Taryn L. Stanko and Christine M. Beckman, is forthcoming in the Academy of Management Journal (subscription required)


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