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Posted September 10, 2010 By Paul Shread     Feedback has found a novel use for its own Chatter collaboration service: Identifying employees who can solve problems. (NYSE: CRM) has found a novel use for its own Chatter collaboration service: Identifying employees who can solve problems.

Salesforce CEO Marc Benioff revealed this week that he monitors the Facebook-like collaboration service at his company to identify key employees.

"It's given me a new view of what's going on in the company," Benioff told the Cloudforce London conference, according to ZDNet UK. "I can go through and see what employees are saying, what collaborations are happening, what product leaders are saying — I can get a whole view of what's happening."

Benioff said Chatter "has exposed a private network, and turns the company into a meritocracy. We're changing the compensation systems to reflect the folks who are really making a difference."

Benioff defended the practice as "appropriate in a business environment," and the company has declined further comment on the matter.

Privacy and employee rights experts agree that the practice is likely legal — although a written policy on employee monitoring is strongly advised.

"Generally, employers have written policies that say something along the lines of, 'If you use our network, our computers, our resources, even for personal stuff, we have a right to monitor it,'" said Mark Rasch, an attorney and director of Privacy and Security Consulting at CSC (NYSE: CSC).

Rasch said people need to be mindful of anything they write or post, both within and outside corporate firewalls. "Anything you post, you've got to assume it's public or semi-public, and most people don't," he told eCRMguide.

Rasch takes a broad view of a company's right to monitor employee communications — even on their own time outside of work, and even if access was obtained through subterfuge. "The answer to all these things is 'probably,'" Rasch said of their legality.

Lee Tien, a senior staff attorney with the Electronic Frontier Foundation, said Salesforce's use of Chatter for employee monitoring is "clearly legal" if it is all-internal and is not monitoring any communications between employees and customers — and if "it is fully consented to by the employees under full disclosure and the employees fully understand that the boss is watching."

"I think it's very interesting, in that I could view this as less invasive than standard monitoring of people's phone calls, email and websurfing from the office," said Tien.

Tien and Rasch said what might be most interesting about the issue is just how useful social media data is.

"The big takeaway here is how useful/valuable/telling social network data really is," said Tien. "What the CEO learns is the 'real' org chart as opposed to the one on paper. In the old days we called this traffic analysis, a form of data mining, where by looking at communications patterns you can infer organization and hierarchy."

"It shows the extent to which you can mine data for purposes other than what it was intended for," said Rasch.

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