And retrieve productivity lost to Web surfing

Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw defined a dullard as someone who, when he or she looks up a word in the dictionary, looks up only that word. That definition leads me to think that Shaw would recognize a common phenomenon among those of us who aren't e-dullards: We lose productive time when we become sidetracked on the Web.

Everyone's heard about employees who waste company time downloading porn from the Web, but improved Internet logging tools have that problem on the wane. IT managers tell me that nowadays most firms have some kind of proxy log that lets managers track who's surfing where, and a short conversation with a porn-surfing employee usually ends the behavior (or the employee's tenure at the firm). However, it seems to me that two other causes of business time lost on the Web are more common. First, employees spend time online doing non-work-related personal tasks, such as banking, checking stock prices, and shopping. Second, employees doing work-related tasks online lose time to distractions.

The first kind of lost time is more controversial than I intend to tackle in this column: Is it ethical for employees to handle personal matters at work? Should you let employees use the company's equipment and bandwidth to do personal tasks? If doing personal errands on company time is OK, how much time is acceptable for such tasks? What controls can an employer acceptably use in this case? These questions are all good ones, and this topic is a good candidate for another column, but I'm going to duck this discussion for now and instead discuss the second cause of time lost on the Web.

I often look on the Web for a particular item, such as a Windows NT video driver for some board. While I'm searching for the driver, the search engine turns up a link to something irrelevant but interesting. Do I spend the few extra minutes following the link on a side trip? More often than I like to admit, I do. Even when I follow a relevant link to a vendor's Web site, I find enough potential distractions—Cool, a white paper on how a 266MHz PCI works!—to make me glad I work for myself and not for someone else.

Looking up a piece of information or searching for a driver or patch on the Web is basically research. Why not employ a professional dedicated to Web-based research? This suggestion isn't outlandish—many firms already employ full-time reference librarians. I'd call the new position an Internet research librarian (IRL). You'd tell the IRL that you need the latest Windows 2000 (Win2K) driver for your Adaptec AHA-2940U2W, and the IRL would soon find the driver and deliver it to you.

This approach has several potential benefits. First, someone else would spend time waiting for the Web to respond, so someone else would be tempted by the many distractions. Second, you'd get a "caching effect": Because several people are likely to ask the IRL the same questions over time, the IRL could research subsequent questions more quickly. Third, because the IRL would be dedicated to Internet research, you could train the employee, either formally or through on-the-job experience, how to search the Web most efficiently. I don't think the idea of training an employee to specialize in Internet searches is outrageous. Because the Internet's wheat-to-chaff ratio—the ratio of useful information to marketing tripe—is dropping, dedicating an IRL to finding the wheat in the chaff increasingly makes sense. And the hundreds of search engines available today can actually complicate Internet searches. Do you want every person in the company to have to learn which engine is best for a particular search and how to best phrase a search query on each engine to get the most useful hits while keeping the number of hits small enough to be useful? An IRL could master the techniques for finding information on the Internet.

We might have reached the point at which an Internet research librarian is a sufficiently complex and specialized job that it could become a profession. What do you think? What is your firm's policy about how employees spend their time online? Do you already have an IRL? Drop me a line and let me know.