A few weeks ago, Google launched a limited preview of a new communication tool called "Google Wave".  As Google explains it: "Google Wave is an online tool for real-time communication and collaboration. A wave can be both a conversation and a document where people can discuss and work together using richly formatted text, photos, videos, maps, and more."

I like this explanation

Google Wave is a real-time communication platform. It combines aspects of email, instant messaging, wikis, web chat, social networking, and project management to build one elegant, in-browser communication client. You can bring a group of friends or business partners together to discuss how your day has been or share files.

After discussing it in an earlier post, I was fortunate to get an early invite to it and have been playing around with it for the last week or two. It’s still in its very early development stages so it’s really unfair to critique it as a whole. 

One of the issues early on, for example, is that it only works with people who are using it.  Because it is in limited preview, there just aren’t that many people on that you can communicate with.  I’d imagine it’s a lot like getting one of the first fax machines and then realizing that you had no one that you could fax to.

But even with those limits, I’ve been able to locate and communicate with other attorneys and human resources professionals on the Wave to collaborate on some ideas and solutions.   To that end, I started a "wave" about "What Employers Need To Know" about the Wave. 

And lo and behold, some of my fellow Wavers were kind enough to post some thoughts.  I sincerely thank them for all of their contributions.   The theme of some of the comments is that while it is a new medium, employers are still going to have some of the same headaches that they have had with other communications tools.  Thus, issues such as the potential for misuse or security or document retention all still exist for the Wave too.

Here are some of other very early insights about it and what employers should think about for their policies. I’ll tried to combine the themes and issues that they raised in the bullet points below.

  • Wave is just a communications tool. Te same issues with all communication tools going back to the "Xerox" machine are still here.

  • For employers, it’s important to keep your computer use and communications policies broad. It may be useful to add some DOs and DON’Ts to policies. But the rapidly evolving nature of the tools means the features are constantly changing.

  • Companies should also understand that this uses a "cloud-based" technology, which is to say that it’s not stored on company servers per se.  Using this for collaboration and holding company information has potential but right now, the system is not secure enough that I would trust a company to put everything on there yet. 

  • The Wave is promising but not yet ready for prime-time [a concept I think Google would agree with since it is only in limited preview]. For example, the record-keeping and security measures are currently too weak.

  • As Google Wave develops, however, employers need to understand that this will become yet another forum for employee complaints, potential unionizing efforts, and discussion. Monitoring will be tough. Employers will still need to refrain from committing violations of labor law, etc.

  • There is no "draft" button on this [though that is being developed] or a "recall" one either. It would be very easy to make inappropriate comments here.. and they’re part of corporate history in one click for all eternity.

  • On anything collaborative, attorney-client privilege and attorney work product issues abound, especially if employees use employer computers/infrastructure to create the wave.

What’s the bottom line for employers?

At this early stage, and given Google’s prominence in the marketplace, employers need to stay up-to-date on developments of this.

As a tool for employees, this may be a boon in particular areas where e-mail breaks down.   One of its particular strengths is as a collaboration tool (like a wiki).  As a compliance and litigation issue, however, this is untapped territory. For example, how do you put a "litigation hold" on a Wave?   Employees may be quick to jump in to use this — but without the controls in place at the company to understand how it should be used, employers shouldn’t just open the flood gates yet.

If there are a few thinkers, though, at your workplace who do want to give it a try, let them do so with supervision but remind them that they should be cautious about its use particularly on anything confidential regarding the company.   One project, for example, could be to develop new social media guidelines for your company.