Productivity Suites Promote KM Practices
No matter how much specialized information technology a company deploys, most knowledge workers still spend most of their time creating, reusing and sharing knowledge in a few familiar office productivity applications: word processors, spreadsheet programs, databases and e-mail clients. If embedding knowledge management capabilities in common applications is the way to ensure their use, Microsoft Office and other productivity suites may represent the shortest path to knowledge sharing.
Kenneth Smiley, senior industry analyst for Giga Information Group Inc. in Kansas City, Mo., articulates the knowledge worker's point of view: "I want to go straight to creating knowledge rather than spend time managing it," he says. "It has to be simple, easy and transparent so that I can go back to share and reuse knowledge and capture it in a consistent and retrievable fashion. The ability to integrate across different sources and systems is also important to me. Office productivity, messaging and knowledge management applications have to talk to each other."
Microsoft made some effort to address these needs with the release of Office 2000. Office XP, the tenth and latest release of the de facto standard in productivity suites, offers even more features for knowledge workers, such as interface changes, workflow enhancements, simple server-side collaboration options and a host of built-in KM-related tools from fast searching to speech recognition to management of scanned documents.
In addition to analyzing Office XP as part of their consulting practice, Smiley and about 15 colleagues at Giga have adopted it as their everyday application suite, although the company as a whole remains on Office 2000. So far, he says, their biggest productivity boost has come from Office XP's new workflow capabilities, which they use to review each other's work before publication. "When I send out a four-page planning assumption to a dozen analysts for feedback, I can automatically merge their comments and revisions into my master document without having to cut and paste from each one," Smiley says. "It works best if everyone is on XP, but only the original author has to have it."
The Office XP professional edition and Office XP developer edition also include tools for creating team collaboration Web sites: Microsoft's FrontPage 2002 Web site building tool and a feature called SharePoint Team Services (stS). In conjunction with Microsoft's SharePoint Portal Server, which is not included, stS allows users to put up a ready-made site for use as a virtual team space, providing shared access to tasks, contacts, announcements, events, links, discussions and document libraries. Users can customize the site with FrontPage. StS can run from any Windows 2000 client on the network, on a Web server inside the firewall or from a hosted site.
This option may be dangerously attractive for some users. Smiley cautions that creating collaborative spaces is so easy that chaos can result unless local autonomy is tempered with centralized planning. "You don't want wildfire growth of rogue team sites that aren't managed or backed up," he warns.
Office XP also offers a way to link specific elements in an Office document to other resources. Smart Tags pop up and offer to complete tasks or access data from elsewhere in the local Office environment, the Web or third-party providers. For example, when a user pastes an item from the clipboard into a document, an icon offers formatting options. If the user inputs a name or date, Smart Tags can automatically send e-mail or schedule appointments in Outlook. Microsoft also uses the feature to promote its online services. If a user types a stock symbol, for example, Smart Tags offers the choice of a price quote, a company report or recent news from the vendor's MSN Money Central online service.
The greater potential of these tags may lie in custom applications that corporations or vendors create. For example, West Group, an Eagan, Minn.-based vendor of legal information, uses Smart Tags technology in its WestCiteLink 3 utility. As a user types a legal document, the program can recognize references to statutes or case law and locate related material on West Group's legal research library service. Software developer Sage Enterprise Solutions PLC of Winnersh, England, has created Smart Tags that link to customer information and billing status for each name or account number in a Microsoft Word, Outlook or Excel document.
Other vendors of office productivity suites are adding features to facilitate knowledge work. Corel Corp. of Ottawa released WordPerfect Office 2002 this spring. While not as robust as Office XP, this suite also enhances collaboration and workflow. For example, its reviewer mode allows an author to create and send a document to be edited and returned; then the author can view, accept or reject any or all changes.
Corel has extended the collaboration and document management features of WordPerfect Office with the capability to publish documents in HTML and eXtensible Markup Language (XML) formats as well as PDF. The suite includes a proprietary PDF driver, which saves the user the cost of Adobe Acrobat. "The ability to publish to PDF is a key part of addressing workflow," says David Ludwick, WordPerfect Office product manager. "Both of Corel's niche markets--legal and government--define PDF as an official filing format."
As computers and software become more powerful, more opportunities arise to introduce tools that increase knowledge workers' productivity on the personal as well as group level. Embedding or integrating these functions with the most common applications seems a good way encourage their use.