Start-ups offer blog and e-mail monitoring

Responding to corporate demand for better accountability in employee communications

I’m just back from the annual Demo conference, this year held in Scottsdale, Ariz. If you’re not familiar with this 15-year-old event, the audience is usually a mixture of venture capitalists, the investment arms of high-tech companies, and the media. Every six minutes, representatives from a different company — mostly startups — appear on stage offering a new product or product idea that they hope will capture the notice of those in attendance. More than any one particular product, though, I typically find that the kind of products shown is a leading indicator of what business buyers are looking for.

This year’s show heightened my awareness to one trend in particular: high anxiety over what employees can publish in both e-mail and blogs. There was a slew of products that monitor employee communications in one way or another, mapping them to corporate policy on everything from offensive language and sexual harassment to outright prohibition of personal e-mail.

OutBoxer, from InBoxer (formerly Audiotrieve), is probably the fairest to employees. As soon as an e-mailer hits the send button, if there’s a dirty word in there, a notice will pop up explaining which rule was broken so the writer can reconsider.

InBoxer founder Roger Matus comes from the speech technology industry and is something of an NLU (Natural Language Understanding) guru, so I have no doubt OutBoxer works. I can only imagine the fun HR will have in coming up with a comprehensive list of key sexual-harassment phrases and naughty words that might trigger an alert.

Unlike OutBoxer, IPLocks’ Information Risk Management Platform doesn’t give employees a second chance. It tracks employee access to sensitive company data and sends alerts to appropriate managers when employees step outside of normal usage patterns.

Fortiva Archive works similarly but sort of closes the barn door after the horse is out. It lets most e-mail through but analyzes the archived e-mail after the fact. It can tell managers which employees broke the rules most often and pull up examples from the e-mail archive. It also flags any e-mail that may have violated company policy and/or gives each e-mail a pass/fail rating.

Another product, the WhatCounts Appliance Series, monitors and evaluates blogs and e-mail before they are published or sent, routing posts to HR managers and/or legal when necessary.

These products are obviously born of the combination of privacy issues, new government regulations, and just the plain fact that we live in a litigious society and companies are often held responsible for employee behavior. Still, they point to a disturbing trend.

For example, can you imagine a legal department reviewing every blog post? If you’ve ever waited for legal to approve a document, you already know that you might as well give up now and forget corporate blogging. It’s probably not worth the aggravation.

Between lawsuits and regulations, I wouldn’t be surprised if, spearheaded by legal departments everywhere, all employees will someday soon be sent to class to learn a new, neutered, corporate-approved written language. Of course, companies may want to revamp their job descriptions for their vice presidents of corporate communications. May I suggest a more classic title — something like “Minister of Truth”?