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.

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."

Workers who download and start using free IM software programs from America Online or Yahoo on their company computers without permission from the boss can be "disruptive," said Kailash Ambwani, chief executive of messaging vendor FaceTime Communications Inc. of Foster City, Calif. "The problem is that all of the policy and control and management infrastructure that you have with e-mail does not exist with instant messaging," he said. Viruses can spread faster through messaging than e-mail, he argues, because while IM messages are received instantly, it may take days for people to open their e-mail.

FaceTime and IMLogic offer free, downloadable programs that will tell companies how many employees are using messaging and how often, a tactic designed to persuade them to buy IM management software. This week, IMLogic went further and released a free download that not only reports on usage, but also allows managers to block both IM traffic and peer-to-peer file transfers.

Websense is better known for its Web-monitoring software, which watches and records all the sites employees visit and lets companies block access to particular sites, such as those offering pornography or gambling. Or they can generally set quotas dictating how long employees can spend online visiting certain areas. Last year, Websense added a feature that lets managers determine which IM software workers can use, and in February it added the ability to specify which employees may send and receive attachments.

In addition to IMLogic and FaceTime, software makers specializing in IM include Akonix Systems Inc. and Stellar Technologies Inc. Pricing varies, with one-time licensing fees ranging from $15 to $60 per user, plus annual maintenance charges of 20 percent or more.

Stellar's software, which Westex Group uses, enables managers to monitor who's doing what online -- both with IM and Web surfing -- from reports displayed on Web pages. Charts show the top IM users by employee name, along with their IM screen names and how many messages they have sent. Bosses can click on a screen name and read transcripts of each message, word for word. Clicking on a message brings up a box with even more information -- including the sender's network log-on, the address of the computer from which it was sent, time of transmission and which IM program was used. Managers can set filters to flag messages containing words or phrases, such as "job hunt" or "I hate the boss."

Don Innis, president of Stellar Technologies of Naples, Fla., said companies are often taken aback to learn how many workers are sending sexual or otherwise inappropriate messages: "We all like to think these things don't happen in the workplace, but they do."

FaceTime's tools are often bought by firms in regulated industries such as financial services and health care, where federal laws require companies to audit and archive all electronic communications in a searchable format so they can produce records if necessary. As a result, many financial and health care companies are years ahead of other corporations in grappling with IM.

Companies that don't face strict archiving rules often buy a more general monitoring program, such as one sold by Websense. A typical customer is Golden State Foods of Irvine, Calif., one of the largest manufacturers and distributors for McDonald's. The company gives employees an IBM Lotus Notes messaging tool called Sametime and uses Websense to block IM programs except AOL's.

With about 3,000 employees at far-flung distribution and manufacturing centers, Golden State Foods also needed controls for the Internet kiosks it installed in lunchrooms so workers could do personal business during breaks. Websense enables Golden State to set time quotas and to enforce them by automatically logging off workers when the time is up.

"We give them 90 minutes of quota time to go do shopping and banking and get other personal things done," said Mike Bourque, the firm's information technology director.

Leslie Walker's e-mail address is walkerl@washpost.com.