A screengrab from Netsafe's 'The Whatsit' - a free tool to help business set up policies around using communications technology and social media.

A New Zealand company which has developed a free gadget to help businesses develop policies for social networking sites has now signed up nearly 600 clients.

Netsafe has developed 'The Whatsit', a free tool being used by small businesses to help to draft workplace policies around staff using communication technology and social media sites like Facebook.

Company executive director Martin Cocker says managerial staff and business owners often dismiss or restrict access to tools such as Twitter because they may be unaware of how to control its use.

"We're not saying that Facebook and Twitter are a threat to businesses. Investment in ICTs (information and communication technology) can improve businesses."

Launched in August last year, The Whatsit now has 575 registered businesses using it.

The 'policy drafting tool' allows business owners or managers to outline the kind of interaction they deem acceptable.

 

It asks a series of questions relating to the kind of technology staff use in the workplace, then comes up with a suggested policy.

Despite a variety of different policies around technology use in the workplace, Cocker says many have not always been successful.

There have been cases where employees claim they were unable to understand when they have violated the codes.

"Just getting people to sign a policy has not been strong enough in the past. The policy is legally binding in that it is an addendum to the employment contract," says Cocker.

To counteract this, The Whatsit videos act as an educational component for employers, covering different scenarios around guideline breaches. Bosses can check online to see which employees have watched the 15 videos.

A recent survey of 520 New Zealand companies found that 67 per cent had not determined what staff were able to do in policies.

New media strategist Courtney Lambert, who has worked for companies such as the Auckland District Health Board, Tip Top and Auckland City Council, says it is important to maintain credibility within organisations by ensuring communications terms of use are negotiated by staff and their superiors.

Vodafone, she says, is an example of a company that is both progressive and struggling to keep up with the increase in use of Twitter.

"They accidentally started to get a hold on it. Sometimes it's just a person in accounts who starts doing it, but that can be a wee bit of a worry."

The businesses Lambert deals with are increasingly using tools such as Twitter as a form of communication. But to proceed, she says, they need to implement proper regulations.

"I think they need to take a step back and look at the way it's been done. I definitely really wouldn't recommend going out there straight away. Because once you start you can't turn the tap off."

Vodafone's head of corporate communications, Paul Brislen, says staff are encouraged to join the online forum operating at the telephone network.

"It's really open to that - and trusting. It would be very easy for any company to say 'thou shalt not do that'.

"Staff are advocates for the company. I don't stand in their way, I'll help them. I can proofread it [online posts] if they want."

The forum launched on August 1, 2008 the same day Vodafone began charging prepay users one dollar for customer service calls.

He calls the company's policy "broad", saying there haven't been any breaches thus far in New Zealand, aside from in the United Kingdom, where a staff member tweeted personal messages from the Vodafone account.

The number of official bodies using Twitter is growing, with the Ministry of Health recently using Twitter to provide swine flu updates during the outbreak.

"If it does nothing else at least businesses are having conversations about the use of ICTs in the workplace," says Cocker.

The Whatsit is owned and run by Netsafe, but was sponsored by the Digital Strategy Community Partnership Fund and internet NZ.

The Digital Strategy is part of the Digital Development team in the Energy and Communications Branch at the Ministry of Economic Development.