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Internet abuse in the workplace

Abuse or Learning?

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Some organizations seem to take a dim view of employees spending time surfing the Web for personal pleasure. Some organizations go to extreme measures to limit such "abuse" through monitoring activities and strict bans. However, our position is that a certain amount of playful use of computer applications in the right situation can lead to learninglearning that may be of value to organizations.

Several years ago, a small sales organization implemented a simple email system in order to improve internal communications. Employees sat through a 30-minute training session on the rudiments of the system, including sending, reading, and replying to messages. Following this introduction, employees were encouraged to experiment with the system. At first, most messages were not work-related. These included such topics as deciding where to go for lunch, seeing who wanted to order pizza, and jokes of the day. Management made no attempt to monitor or curtail this activity. In fact, the owner was notorious for her flurry of frivolous messages that seemed to come in torrents late every Friday afternoon. In the eyes of many, this would constitute abusive system use in much the same way personal Web surfing is viewed as Internet abuse.

During this period of free play, an interesting phenomenon occurred. Employees not only started using email for a variety of work-related communication, they also greatly expanded their knowledge of the system's capabilities without any additional formal training. Employees began to build distribution lists, attach files, and use other advanced features of the system.

After several weeks, management put a new rule in place. Requests for technical staff would only be accepted via email. This was the main reason for implementing the systemto improve communications between sales and technical staff. There was little resistance to this new rule, primarily because through a period of play, email communication had become a matter of routine. This rule also forced employees to apply their knowledge of email to a work domain. Soon, they began to use email for myriad work-related communications, not limiting their use to requesting technical staff assistance. In a relatively short period, email became ingrained into the fabric of the organization.

Many readers may be able to think of similar experiences. We have seen similar phenomena with facsimile machines, Web searching, and groupware. The learning that results from application play (defined as enjoyment-based use of computer applications [2]) seems to be quite persistent and easily transferable to work-related domains. This is not surprising, given what we know from various learning theories.

There are many theories of how individuals learn, including constructivism, experiential learning, minimalism, and cognitive information processing (see [2] for more information). Synthesizing these theories leads to the following conclusions regarding adult learning. Effective adult learning occurs when the learning is:

  • Problem-based,
  • Experiential,
  • Meaningful to the learner, and
  • Self-directed.

Application play embodies all of these, thus meeting the requirements for effective learning. However, while it may be true that Web surfing leads to learning for individuals, we do not claim this learning is always beneficial to the organization. In order for the learning occuring through application play to become beneficial to the organization, a transfer of knowledge must take place. The concept of mental models, which figures prominently in learning theories such as constructivism [3] helps us understand how this transfer might occur.

Mental models are cognitive representations of elements and interrelationships among those elements [1]. When individuals build meaning through existing mental models, learning occurs. As individuals explore, mental models are refined, becoming more accurate. This is the core of learning. When individuals engage in playful Web browsing, they may learn through an improved understanding of the organization of existing knowledge, or by increased amounts or accuracy of knowledge. Think back to the first few times you used your favorite search engine. As you continued to perform searches, you gained a better understanding of how the engine worked. The results you obtained became more accurate and the use of the search engine became less frustrating. At a cognitive level you were refining your mental models of the search engine and its operation. To some extent, it did not matter whether you were searching for the lyrics to a song or for information about a competitor's productsyour knowledge of the search engine increased in either case.

How does knowledge transfer from playful to work-related domains? Let us return to our email example. Through the playful use of email communications, the employees refined their mental models of the operation of the email system. When the organization required the use of email for technician scheduling, the mental model of work-related communication, which was previously done verbally, was modified to include elements of the email system mental models. Thus, the learning that occurred through play was transferred to a work-related task and the learning became valuable to the organization.

Several points should be made regarding our thesis. First, learning through application play "tails off" over time. The marginal learning that occurs declines with continued use of the application. Second, we are not proposing unfettered playful Web browsing. Our point is simply that wholesale condemnation of personal Web browsing (or other application play) may be shortsighted. Organizations may lose out on an effective means of increasing their employees' work-related knowledge. Finally, it is critical that organizations take steps to facilitate the transfer of learning from the play domain to work-related tasks. Otherwise, learning will occur, but that learning may not be beneficial to the organization.

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1. Ansari, Y, and Simon, H. The theory of learning by doing. Psych. Rev. 86, 2 (1979), 124140.

2. Belanger, F. and Van Slyke, C. End-user learning through application play. Info. Tech. Learning and Perfor. J. 18, 1 (2000), 6170.

3. Brandt, D. Constructivism: Teaching for understanding of the Internet. Commun. ACM 40, 10 (Oct. 1997), 112117.

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France Belanger ( is the director of the Center for Global Electronic Commerce at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Blacksburg.

Craig Van Slyke ( is a an assistant professor of Management Information Systems in the College of Business at the University of Central Florida, Orlando.

©2002 ACM  0002-0782/02/0100  $5.00

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