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"He throws up a prayer -- and it's answered!"
Play-by-play announcers are already busy this month making the big calls in the annual "March Madness" NCAA basketball tournament. And that means lots of fun for basketball junkies and bracket-betting fans.
But does IT have a prayer of reining in these non-essential uses of network bandwidth? Just as in other big events like the Monday after Superbowl Sunday, or breaking news like Tiger Woods' apology, March Madness sees many employees rushing to the Web to catch the latest scores, chat on social networks and check out video highlights -- productivity be damned.
"March Madness and the subsequent office pools have been going on long enough that employers can no longer claim to be caught off-guard by the annual event," said John Challenger, CEO of outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, in a recent blog post "Some have tried to squash these pools, most simply ignore them and others have found ways to embrace the tournament as a team-building and morale-boosting opportunity."
Challenger's company doesn't predict the winner of the tournament, but has followed an annual tradition of trying to estimate the tournament's impact on workplace productivity based on various statistics and surveys detailed in the post.
This year the company estimates workers distracted by March Madness could cost employers as much as $1.8 billion in unproductive wages during the first week of the tournament alone, based on 20 minutes a day watching non-work, tournament-related content on the Web.
Blocking March Madness video not an option
The big network providers like Cisco (NASDAQ: CSCO) and Web security firms offer various solutions to manage and even cut off access to non-work related sites, though the latter is fast-becoming less of an option at many firms.
"Two years ago, many of our customers would look at something like YouTube and their policy would be 'turn it off,'" Andrew Rubin, CEO of Cymtec Systems, told InternetNews.com. "Now we're hearing that the things they want to turn off -- YouTube, Facebook, Twitter -- have to be used for business. You can't be using YouTube for training videos if you're not going to let employees use the service."
Cymtec Systems is attacking what Rubin said is a weak spot in IT control of their network: remote offices. The company offers a network appliance called the Cymtec Sentry for branch offices that's designed to control and, as Rubin calls it, "shape" bandwidth and access to streaming media. For example, Cymtec Sentry, priced starting at $2,395, can give voice calls higher priority on the network; it also gives network administrators the ability to identify specific bandwidth hogs and warn or restrict those users from using specific sites, whether it's something sports-related or, say, iTunes.
"What we're hearing from companies is that their ability to manage the bandwidth and have visibility to smaller, remote offices is important," said Rubin. "It's not like we invented network management; many of the products already out there do a heck of a good job. Where we think we add a lot of value is in providing a combination of showing how the network is being used and options for managing the bandwidth."
Fewer games, more bandwidth
For this year, the worst may soon be over as far as bandwidth strains.
"As the tournament moves beyond the first and second round, the impact on the employer decreases, since few games are played during office hours and workers can no longer make adjustments to their brackets, thus eliminating the need to research teams, Challenger noted in his post, but added that March Madness is a force IT still needs to reckon with.
"Those who insist there will be no impact are kidding themselves. It might be a slight drop in output or it could be slow Internet connections as bandwidth is sapped by employees watching streaming feeds of the games," he said.
However, he suggested it would be a mistake for companies to institute an outright ban on March Madness viewing. "When many employees are already anxious about their jobs, there is no reason for employers to make a big deal about what amounts to a blip on the productivity radar, Challenger said.
"The key for companies is finding a way to maximize the positive aspects of March Madness so that they outweigh any potential negatives," he said. "Companies can use this event as a way to build morale and camaraderie. This could mean putting televisions in the break room, so employees have somewhere to watch the games other than the Internet."