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A policy on policies

We've got so many productivity tools at our disposal these days that it's a wonder anything gets done.



commentary We've got so many productivity tools at our disposal these days that it's a wonder anything gets done.

A single-frame cartoon: four cavemen are sitting in a circle, mindlessly staring into a huge flame. In the caption, one of them is saying "What did we ever do before fire?"

I love it because it's a great encapsulation of attitudes towards everything from television to e-mail to instant messaging... so great, in fact, that I know I've referred to it in a column before -- years ago. I'm not quite sure when, but with all these fantastic search technologies at my fingertips, I should be able to find out exactly when it was. I'll be right back...

All right, never mind. It's not important anyway (even though I just wasted about 10 minutes using those fantastic search technologies only to come up with nada).

Instead, I should be mulling over what to do about another superb productivity tool in our office: instant messaging. Because while I'm basking in the "How did we ever get along without IM?" stage, it seems that a certain few in the office have devised a whole slew of new things to do with the technology. Unfortunately, it doesn't look like many of these innovative applications have anything to do with what might be considered "work".

What rights does a company have in monitoring how an employee makes use of communication tools like e-mail and IM?
At this point, I suppose this column could very easily turn into a "privacy in the workplace" diatribe. You know, what rights does a company have in monitoring how an employee makes use of communication tools like e-mail and IM (or even the telephone)? But I'd like to think that is really a matter of common sense: you're using a company computer, company bandwidth, and company resources, so you should be using them for company business. Where is the problem?

The problem is, as many others have noted in the past, that common sense isn't always that common. Don't get me wrong, I'm convinced that 90 percent of the staff use company resources for work-related business 90 percent of the time. And I think that's pretty fair. But there are those select few who abuse their priveleges -- keeping up a constant flow of personal instant messages (sometimes with the person sitting next to them!) and pushing management to the point where they are considering banning IM. No, the company is not monitoring IM traffic... the abusers are just not very concerned about hiding their digital note-passing.

I would hate it if the antics of a few resulted in IM being banned from the office -- it truly is an incredible productivity tool.

So what can be done? I'm asking, because I just hope someone might come up with an answer other than the one I know I'm going to hear. I am, of course, speaking of this: Create a company policy on instant messaging.

Yes, yes -- I know it's the right thing to do, and that policies for all kinds of business and management processes are the secret to growth and success. It's just that at a certain level -- like, say, "the use of instant messaging" -- it can seem as though more time is sometimes spent on creating the policy for dealing with the problem than was ever wasted through misuse in the first place. Like those meetings that get called to, you know, discuss whether the calling of meetings is really having a positive effect?

How about your organisation? Is instant messaging a boon to your business or the bane of your existence? How does your organisation handle the issue of personal communications (e-mail included) on company time and using company resources? Do you have a policy in place that deals with these issues?

Let us know; send your comments to edit@zdnet.com.au. As long as it doesn't go against any e-mail policies you may have in place, that is.

This article was first published in Technology & Business magazine.
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