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Taming the Information Glut

Take control! Don’t live at the mercy of your e-mails, Web pages, graphics, documents…

November 1, 2000
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It’s ironic how each new wave of technology fixes the problems of theprevious generation of technology. Computers were supposed to make it easier tomanage information, and the Internet was supposed to make it easier to findinformation. But somewhere along the path to utopia, most of us have foundourselves completely overwhelmed by the glut of news, facts, data, and more.Trying to keep track of everything has become the horror story for the newmillennium.

Amid the jumble of e-mail messages, Word and Excel documents, graphics files,and Web pages lies an important truth. "Unless you have systems in place tomanage information, you’re at the mercy of it," says Louise Wannier,chairman and CEO of EnfishTechnology, Inc., a company thatproduces desktop portal software to index hard drives and manage electronicinformation. "There’s a fundamental problem: the computer doesn’t workthe way people think."

She aptly points out that today’s PCs are task-oriented devices that centeron specific activities like e-mail, word processing, or presentation graphics.Yet people’s minds focus on names, companies, and subjects that cross theboundary of applications and files. What’s more, the line between a PC andnetwork computing, including the Internet, continues to blur. "Essentially,information is information, and people don’t care where it resides, they justwant to find it when they need it," Wannier adds.

The solution, of course, is to devise systems and strategies for navigatingthrough the Information Age. As hard drives and databases collect moreinformation, and as the size and scope of the Internet expand exponentially, theneed for more sophisticated solutions grows. Suffice it to say that no matterhow proficient you are at creating folders and directories, it’s impossible tofind scraps, tidbits, and pieces of relevant data using a file-cabinet approachto the virtual world.

What’s more, manually clicking through folders in search of a white paper,employee letter, or report that you wrote sometime in the past is time-consumingand extremely inefficient. As anyone who has ever used a PC knows, the built-insearch capabilities of the Windows operating system are woefully inadequate. It’slike using a slingshot to battle a nuclear superpower.

Over the last few years, a slew of new tools has emerged to slay theinformation dragon. Companies are increasingly turning to business intelligence,knowledge management, enterprise information portals, and other solutions tomake sense of things. Some of these tools create searchable indexes on astand-alone PC or across a network. An early entry in this space was AltaVistaDiscovery, which displays resultsusing the same methods as the popular Internet search engine. Another program, Zoot,offers a free-form way to manage and cross-index all the information thatresides on a computer. But perhaps the most powerful tool of all is Enfish’sOnespace, which finds, analyzes, and cross-references information in a dazzlingnumber of ways.

What makes Onespace so effective is that it spots relationships among variouspieces of data. For example, if you’re looking for information about aparticular person, you can select the individual’s name and then view all therelated documents, including

e-mail messages, Word and PowerPoint files, calendar items, notes, and more.The program can also mine data relating to the person’s company oraffiliations, and it automatically uncovers articles and other material on theInternet. Similarly, it’s possible to search by company or topic and view dataand information that’s squirreled away on your system or beyond.

All this can create order in an increasingly chaotic data universe. BarryDeutsch, a recruiter at PowerHiring.com, no longer has to manually hunt and peckfor e-mail and background information on candidates, companies, and more. Withupwards of 250

e-mails streaming in daily and thousands of résumés on file at any giventime -- some in Word, others in text format -- it’s "essential to sliceand dice data among a wide variety of formats," he says. "Sometimes, Ineed to view the history of a transaction or a communication and I need thetools to make the process quick and seamless. In the past, too much data fellthrough the cracks."

Now, Deutsch can pull up relevant information instantly. No callbacks. Noplaying phone-tag. No hour-long search through his 8-gigabyte hard drive orthrough hundreds of Zip disks containing archived e-mail, Act! and Goldminerecords, and Access database files. What’s more, he can search throughdownloaded Web pages about companies and topics to find the information heneeds, when he needs it. Built-in viewers allow him to read the files withoutopening the native programs. "It has made me more effective and automatedthe entire information management and retrieval process," he notes.

Call this new model "information on demand." Instead of readingevery résumé as it comes in, Deutsch is able to mine only the information that’srelevant to his immediate needs. Likewise, human resources professionals using aprogram like Onespace or Zoot can subscribe to online newsletters, capture Webpages, and store documents -- accessing them only when they’re relevant. SaysWannier, "Suddenly, you have the freedom to forget. You don’t have toclutter your mind with information about where folders and files are; you justwork in an intuitive way."

Of course, a personal desktop portal isn’t the only solution. While it’sa powerful tool for individuals, enterprise computing and informationrequirements are often far more substantial. That’s leading many companies andHR departments to turn to enterprise portals, business intelligence, andknowledge-management tools to aggregate, mine, and distribute information."It’s necessary to look at data in a way that makes sense from a businessperspective," says Keith Gile, a senior industry analyst at GigaInformation Group, Norwalk, Connecticut.

One firm that has embraced the concept is Quaker Chemical. The Conshohocken,Pennsylvania, manufacturer and marketer of custom-formulated chemical specialtyproducts has turned to business intelligence to leverage information that usedto fall between the cracks. So that it can fully understand costs, salespatterns, and changing

industry conditions -- across regions, product classifications, marketsegments, and more -- Quaker Chemical uses an SAS Institute system to examinethe actual cost of various products. The software helps managers examine localpricing and currency fluctuations, and what mix of chemicals and raw materialsis most efficient. "If you slice through the data, it’s possible to seeexactly what’s affecting costs," explains Irving Tyler, director and CIO.

In one instance, Quaker Chemical found that it was using more expensivematerials than necessary. "We didn’t have to beat up suppliers in anattempt to lower the price. We simply asked the chemists to reformulate theproduct," says Tyler. The company also has used business intelligence tomanage assets and identify employee retention issues in different regions. It isadding knowledge management capabilities to the mix and embracing a balancedscorecard system. As a result, the company now feeds virtually all field datainto a data warehouse. "Data is the lifeblood of the moderncorporation," concludes Tyler.

But only if it’s relevant. Corporate networks can hold tens of millions ofdocuments and files, and the Web has exploded to more than 550 billiondocuments, according to BrightPlanet, a Sioux Falls, South Dakota, firm thatstudies the Internet. Madan Sheina, a senior analyst at the IT consulting firmAberdeen Group, believes that individuals and companies too often findthemselves sorting through so much useless information that "they can’tfind the diamonds amid all the coal." It’s particularly vexing, he adds,when it comes to capturing information and knowledge that reside in people’sheads.

At Xerox, the emphasis is on creating a pipeline of information that feedstechnicians around the globe. Six years ago, the company began building aknowledge-management system that allows workers to share tips and information.After only a few months, Xerox witnessed a 5 percent increase in productivityand saw a 5 percent drop in the use of parts. It has since expanded the system,called Eureka, to encompass 25,000 technicians worldwide.

Today, employees submit more than 1,000 tips each month, and managersconstantly sort through the information to ensure that it’s relevant andup-to-date. Using a Web browser, other workers -- from Brussels to Buenos Aires-- are able to find shortcuts and best practices. The result? A savings of morethan $7 million per year. Technicians also are able to provide faster and betterservice. In one instance, a technician discovered that a 50-cent part could savea $10,000 color copier replacement, says Bob Cheslow, a system architect. Oncehe posted the information, others began to use it.

Ensuring that only the right information reaches the right people can taxeven the most tech-savvy company. Unless an organization is willing to devoteresources to sorting through a universe of information and managing iteffectively, it is likely to find itself controlled by it rather than using itas a competitive advantage. "In an information-oriented world, it iscrucial to use the right tools to maximum advantage," says Deutsch.

Workforce, November2000, Vol. 79, No. 11, pp. 22-24 -- Subscribenow!

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