Jim Klein and his IT team recently rolled out social networking tools, including blogs, to the faculty, students and staff in California's Saugus Union School District.

But Klein, who is director of information services and technology, didn't want IT to become the blog police. To avoid that, he put controls in place so that both IT and the school district are protected from users running amok. "The way we handle it is that if a business unit wants to start blogging, then a leader has to manage those blogs," he says.

For instance, if a teacher wants his students to communicate via the school's website, then that teacher has to approve all the content being posted. That way, Klein says: "IT does not get put in the line of fire."

Klein's precautions are right on target, say experts in social networking technology. For the tools to be successful, they say, the buck has to stop somewhere other than IT. "Social networking is more than just operations; it's community development. Therefore, IT should not be in charge of it," says Rachel Happe, an analyst at market research firm IDC.

Happe says that as companies latch on to social networking tools such as blogs, wikis and user-driven content sites, they must allocate human as well as IT resources to manage this new frontier.

"There is tremendous value to be gained from social networking tools," she says. "But you need to make sure that there are people responsible." Failure to do so puts the organisation at risk of being held responsible for malicious behaviour and even vulnerable to lawsuits. "Organisations have to manage the technology or it will come back to hurt them," Happe warns.

Plan ahead

Many companies implement social networking technology without much planning, says Klein. "Someone says, 'Hey, let's do a wiki.' Then something goes wrong, and they say, 'We should have thought about that,'" he says.

Klein spent several months planning all aspects of the website and the content management system, which are the backbone of the school district's social networking effort. He says the first step was to figure out a way to check content as it flows from the user to the Web. Klein's system, which is Web-based, open-source and home grown, alerts the community leader when there is content for him to approve.

At Saugus Union, users also help police the site. The system enables them to flag things they deem inappropriate, immediately notifying community leaders and IT. "It comes to the top quickly, and we can go in and manage it," Klein says.

Respect and responsibility

A perusal of corporate blogging guidelines at IBM, Yahoo and other companies reveals two essential foundations:

Responsibility: Understand and follow corporate communication rules. Maintain confidentiality as required. Identify yourself and your role. Clarify that these are your views, not the company's. Get your facts straight, provide context, and admit and correct errors.

Respect: Treat colleagues, subjects and readers with respect. Use good judgment and good taste.

Another key element is that leaders and users must be clear about community expectations. "It's up to the community to define its norms," says Gina Bianchini, co-founder and CEO of Ning, a maker of social networking applications.

Klein researched his district's rules of conduct, as well as state and federal guidelines and IBM's blogging policy, before developing an acceptable-use policy. It covers text, video and other multimedia materials.

But posting the policy isn't enough, Klein says. Saugus Union does a twice-a-year seminar for students, faculty and staff on the benefits and limitations of technology, including social networking tools. "We explain copyright laws and other restrictions," he says.

IT can help curb bad behaviour by employing authorisation and authentication controls to render social networks private. "Private means 'members only,' so you can control membership upfront as well as moderate content before it is posted," Bianchini says.

You can also delete anything inappropriate, ensuring a level of privacy and control that isn't possible on public sites, she says.

"This makes people less anonymous and makes them behave," Happe says. And if users don't behave, you can take away their privileges.