By Dave Beal, Saint Paul Pioneer Press, Minn. Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News

Mar. 19--A warning to organizations moving into electronic mail and various interactive communications systems: Proceed with care. The road to productivity gains can be strewn with losses. Managers and workers can seriously misuse or openly abuse these new technologies.

Gary Smaby, a Minneapolis-based consultant who tracks such innovations from his perch in the Foshay Tower, believes they offer enormous potential. But he cautions that missteps in harnessing them can be costly.

Understandably, electronic mail is rapidly replacing the traditional message slip at businesses, governments, schools and other organizations. E- mail slashes the time needed to set up meetings, for example, and often eliminates the need for them.

But once employees become comfortable with e-mail, they can use it too much. Queues jammed with e-mail messages have become a common problem. Smaby advises information managers to set up systems that distinguish between junk mail and first-class mail through filters or headers that stamp ``urgent'' on high-priority messages.

Other workers are using the office e-mail system as a toy, communicating matters that have little or nothing to do with the jobs for which they get paid. Such e-mail messages can involve an entire work force in everything from water-cooler chit-chat to David Letterman's daily Top 10 list.

Electronic mail dispatches from an organization to the outside world offer great potential productivity gains. Smaby points to the way e-mail has replaced the traditional business letter. In a matter of moments, a salesperson can engage in give-and-take with a customer thousands of miles away. On the other hand, such systems also can be used to gossip with friends on the company's time.

Then there's the Internet. Users can quickly corral a mind-boggling amount of information on a specialized topic, merely by sending out a query to a worldwide community of interest. That can increase an employee's productivity immensely.

However, warns Smaby, that kind of activity can lead to outright abuse. One example: Many players, at many locales, can use their employers' electronic systems to play powerful computer games - on company time.

Another: An organization's computers can be used to store and distribute pornography. That happened on the taxpayers' dime last year, at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory near San Francisco. In October, Livermore employee William Allen Danforth pleaded no contest to charges that he allegedly stored 33,000 sexually explicit images at the lab through its Internet connection.

Smaby cites a recent study showing that one university-run database search program used the Internet far more for entertainment than information.

There are also crucial concerns about security. Employees can use interactive systems to spill proprietary information about their companies. Outside hackers can break into company electronic systems, committing virtual drive-by shootings on the information highway.

In one sense, these new technologies are nothing more than an extension of older ones. Decades ago, employers fretted that workers would waste work time on personal phone calls.

But, warns Smaby, today's often-global personal computer networks are far more powerful tools of communication than personal telephones. Thus the stakes are higher today.

Policing the use of these new networks, like monitoring telephone use, is difficult. Mostly, it comes down to a matter of trust between employer and employee. For the survival of the organization, and the job security of its employees, that trust had better be there.

Dave Beal is senior business editor. His column appears Sundays, Mondays and Fridays. END!A$3?SP-BEAL-COL

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