RIM Tracks Employee Calls, Maintains a Monoculture

A startling report on Cnet reveals that Research in Motion, maker of BlackBerries, records all employee calls. The extent of the recording is not quite clear — do they just log the times and the numbers, or do they literally record the content of the call? If the former then there is nothing unusual in that, but if they are recording the content then it seems another kettle of fish. Is it even legal? It’s one thing if the employees know about and agree to it, but my understanding is that the other party on the line also needs to know the call is being recorded.

The Cnet article about RIM’s CIO Robin Bienfait says:

When asked exactly whether it was conversations, rather than just written information she kept tabs on, Bienfait answered: “Everything. I record everything.”

It wasn’t a violation of privacy, according to Bienfait, who maintained the workers were aware of the surveillance: “They’re doing business inside of RIM. Everything they can say or do can be patented…We’re not violating anybody’s privacy. They’re aware that their information is transparent and in visibility.”

It goes on to say:

[S]taff can only use BlackBerry devices for work. Bienfait said she had never had to deal with a request to put the iPhone on the network.

She said it freed her from some of the problems which plagued other companies, where IT departments had needed to deal with people wanting devices to be hooked up to the network which might compromise security. “I think it is a challenge for the industry to be able to manage some of the Gen Y’s,” she admitted.

Aside from the legal question that I’m not an expert on, there are a couple of other worrying things that come out of this — worrying for RIM that is:

  1. If you can’t trust your employees, then you’ve either hired the wrong employees, set up the wrong culture and incentives in the organization, or created such a widespread sense of paranoia that everyone assumes that everyone else must be doing the wrong thing, so it’s OK for them to as well. The idea that they can uncover new ideas for patents simply by tracking phone calls is absurd — and certainly about the least efficient way imaginable of coming up with new patents.
  2. Maintaining a monoculture of devices is bad practice. I saw this at Sun Microsystems when I worked there years ago (I don’t know if it’s still the case). We were not allowed to use non-Sun machines for anything, even if Suns were patently unsuited to the task. This mentality leads to a lack of understanding about what your competition is doing, and creates a monoculture of devices that other customers are probably not experiencing. You should buy and use all your competitors for extended periods of time and find out what makes them tick. Besides, any large company’s IT organization most likely has some sort of heterogeneous infrastructure of different types of devices, users, needs, technologies and security systems. By forcing a monoculture and not “dealing with” requests for new devices like iPhones, you put yourself in an idealized world that makes it hard to empathize and design for the vagaries of more complex systems.
  3. Lastly, the high-handed and dismissive comment about managing Gen-Y’ers really bugs me. This is another example of the holier-than-thou attitude I’ve seen from RIM executives before. Get over it.