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Employers Begin to Get The Message

By Leslie Walker
Thursday, September 16, 2004; Page E01

Jonathan Anderson and Varghese George take opposite approaches to workplace use of instant messaging, an electronic method for exchanging quick text messages between colleagues.

Both bought special tools to reduce the risks their companies face from the software, such as preventing hackers from riding the channel to sneak inside corporate computer networks, or stopping employees from using the systems to send confidential reports to people outside.

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George, chief executive of Westex Group of Rockville, said he bought technology to block all instant messaging by his company's 20 employees. "I saw instant messaging as a killer of time," he said, adding that some folks at his equipment and material supply firm were using their computers for idle chit-chat.

But Anderson, who manages security for TEC International of San Diego, gave his company's 110 workers a souped-up messaging program from Microsoft Corp. so they could chat more securely. He said he uses monitoring tools mainly to control who can transfer files via the messaging systems.

"We've been pushing instant messaging because it allows instant communication between people who are not necessarily available by other means," said Anderson, whose firm helps chief executives do professional networking.

Anderson and George illustrate the debate percolating in workplaces about how to confront the growing popularity of instant messaging (IM), which typically sneaks into offices under the radar of corporate technology departments and only gradually wins official blessing. While some managers think messaging makes workers more productive, others worry that any business benefit may be more than offset by the introduction of nasty computer worms and viruses and other problems.

As a result, a new crop of software tools has arrived to help businesses get a grip on instant messaging. Some simply let companies block message traffic or specify which IM programs their employees can use.

Others store a copy of every sent message and let the company decide which of the higher-ups can read them.

"People are still figuring out what their corporate policy will be on IM," said Eric Rohy, product manager for Websense Inc. of San Diego, which sells tools for monitoring instant messaging and Web surfing. "I would say it is fairly evenly divided among those who block it and those who don't."

Jon Sakoda, co-founder of IMLogic, a software maker started in 2001 to address the IM challenge, agreed. "Last year, instant messaging was the sleeping giant, and companies were literally asleep at the wheel," he said. "This year, people are awakening to the problem, but haven't necessarily come up with solutions."

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