managers want, the system can automatically turn off the timer on a workstation when an employee goes to lunch or is otherwise off duty. "The system continues to log where they've been, because you don't want people going to inappropriate sites," said Fair, but it doesn't count that time in their usage total. Managers may also turn the timer off when employees visit internal sites that they are encouraged to use during the workday, such as the organization's human resources site.

While Minitrax allows supervisors to peer electronically over workers' shoulders, officials at AI and Carrollton say the product succeeds mainly because it encourages workers to regulate their own Internet use. "The clock itself is probably one of the most valuable parts of it," Fairless said. "Its presence makes you more conscious that you may not be using your personal time efficiently. Plus that clock is also a reminder that wherever you're going is being logged, and your supervisor has access to that log."

The latest version of Minitrax can list the sites an employee has visited by category. "This is a sports site, this is a 'sin' site, this is a bank," Fair said. "Most customers are not too concerned about dissecting it that finely. They just want people to be responsible."

In Carrollton, even the city manager has Minitrax installed on his computer. Martin said the system keeps him honest. "That little clock running on the bottom of my screen, I hate it, because it keeps reminding me, 'Get off that Internet and get back to work, dummy!' It's cut my time on the Internet by at least a third."

Mixed Reviews

Minitrax drew mixed reviews from employees when Carrollton first turned it on, Fairless said. "Some considered it a privacy issue. Some of the supervisors thought it was a great, powerful tool. Others just thought it was something else to clutter up their day."

There were complaints at first about Big Brother watching over employees, Martin said, but that died immediately. Minitrax is primarily a self-management tool, he said.

Employees who need to use the Internet to do their jobs had their own doubts about Minitrax. "I think at first we were concerned that we were going to be running out of time and getting into trouble, especially when we were doing research," said Martha Baucom, a management analyst in Carrollton's Accounting and Budget Division.

Once she understood how the system would be used, though, her worries disappeared. Baucom's Internet usage varies, rising to as many as eight or 10 hours a week when she's working on a research-heavy project. Her official online budget is three hours a week, but that limit doesn't pose any problems, she said. "Once we get past that, as long as we're going to legitimate sites and that's what the supervisor is viewing, then everything is fine."

AI said Minitrax has cut Internet usage by Carrollton city employees by 1.5 hours per employee per day, based on measurements made before and after the city installed the software. It said the time recaptured is worth $4.8 million per year.

"Of course that's soft dollar. I wish I could cut that out of the budget and send everybody home an hour and a half early to save the money, but it doesn't work like that," Martin said. Still, with recent staff cuts and a tight budget, "Productivity and doing more with less is at the top of our agenda," he said. "Soft dollars do add up. If we're able to get people where they can work and not be distracted, that's a real benefit."

Merrill Douglas  |  Contributing Writer