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Managing knowledge

Losing information is like a disease, but there is a cure. Business Advisor hed: Managing knowledge dek: losing information is like a disease, but there is a cure. by Matt Lake

“Knowledge is of two kinds; we know a subject ourselves, or we know where we can find information upon it.”

So said one of the great knowledge workers of his (or any) time, Dr. Samuel Johnson. And this 18th-century man of letters had his information-management skills down pat, too. It took him and the staff he hired and managed only eight years to compile the first great dictionary of the English language; in his spare time, he wrote and published two monthly magazines, The Rambler and The Idler. This cemented his position as a preeminent man of letters in an age that was full of likely contenders. He could crank out some pretty quotable prose, too.

All too often, though, today’s traffickers in information add a third kind of knowledge: “I know it’s around here somewhere.” I’m particularly afflicted with this problem. I have access to the whole world of knowledge … but having found it once, I lose it somewhere. It’s often next to the credit card I use for online purchases, which is somewhere under the pile of paper around my keyboard. Unless the cat hid it somewhere. Or perhaps it was in an e-mail message.

Most of us need to keep better track of information. That’s the reason Enfish developed a program called Onespace for gathering and retrieving information on the hard disk and the Web. My reasons for jumping on this program like ugly on a warthog? My own information-management problems, of course. However, not all the information I need to manage is based on my computer or the Web. There’s the stuff that’s on paper too. Systems for cataloguing books and periodicals cost libraries tens of thousands of dollars, but I’ve found a capable program called BookCAT 2000 that costs $40 to download. More on this later.

All in one place

Some of the most impressive clerical administrators I’ve ever watched in action have a locked-down “system”–a place for everything and everything in its place. That’s not my system–that’s why I could never hack it in clerical admin–but it’s the approach that Enfish takes with Onespace.

On the default Enfish home page, there’s a three-paned Web-browser window that pops up with local information gleaned from the Web (weather, news, and so forth), your e-mail inbox (it taps nicely into Outlook, but also handles AOL Mail, Netscape, and Eudora), and a “what to do now” pane that shows you how to use the program. Don’t like that? Well, you can customize the number and the contents of each pane. Want to have your My Documents folder and a subscription news service on your home page? A few clicks down through the Change Page Layout or each pane’s customize button and you can have your wish.

Now there’s nothing too special about a three-pane layout. But there’s more to Enfish’s info-management pages. Down the left side of the screen is a navigation bar that clusters functions such as Mail Manager, desktop information, Internet information, Investments, and so on, into Explorer-style listings. Click on any of these, and a window pops up with different information panes to match. Under Investments, you’ll find three dedicated Web sites–CBS Marketwatch, InvesTools, and CSFB Direct. Under Mail Manager, two panes devoted to your e-mail manager and a Web-based e-mail box (the default is HotMail). And of course, you can change any of these sites to ones that more closely match your tastes or needs.

To make the navigation of information easier, each pane has tabs, so that in the Desktop Manager, for example, you can toggle between views of My Documents and the Desktop in one page–or in Mail Manager, you can move from the inbox to an insanely fast index-based search tool.

And it’s here that Enfish really excels. Its zippy search capability whips through your e-mail messages in a twinkling–a task that takes Outlook long, dragging minutes of system-scouring. That’s because Onespace is constantly using idle time on your computer to index stuff–the contents of your e-mail box, your spreadsheets, word-processing documents, PowerPoint slides, and so on. On the several Enfish screens where you’re provided with a search form, you’re always given a list of potential sources, including on-disk information types such as e-mail and documents to Web-based sources, and music and books by title or author (which plumbs’s database for its results). Any search that’s based on your hard disk is answered in a blink; Web-based searches work at Web speed (that is, as fast or slow as server traffic and connection speeds allow).

Like all new systems, it takes a while to get used to Onespace. But the program’s killer search capability provides the incentive to do so. At least if you don’t know where you’ve stored your information, you can get to it in a flash–and that’s a big bonus.

Onespace, OnePlace, one program?

Guess what? Enfish managed to muddy the waters by licensing its program to information maven FranklinCovey. The day-planner people complicated things by renaming the program OnePlace by Enfish-but although they changed a few things around, the differences are fairly nominal. Instead of Enfish’s choice of Web portal sites, you get FranklinCovey’s. If you have a Franklin personal organizer, OnePlace makes it easier to migrate your information over to it than Onespace does. FranklinCovey fans will favor OnePlace; everyone else might as well get their program direct from Enfish.

Dead-tree data

Not all information is online. Many businesses have informal or formal libraries of information in book form. But most businesses don’t have the budget to bring in a library software system (with which, as some clients of mine recently found out, you pay a couple of grand just to have them walk in the door, and watch it fly out of the window as every minute passes).

That’s why I was amazed and gratified (and thanked profusely by my clients) to find BookCAT 2000, a downloadable book database from a Norwegian company that’s just the ticket for organizations with small libraries. In addition to maintaining a list of book and periodical collections, this customizable database lets you inventory the assessed value of each item, add Dewey and ISBN codes and custom subject headings, and, most important, track where the book is stored and where it’s been circulated.

BookCAT is a real boon for database haters (a show of hands, please–just as I thought, most of you). It proved pretty easy to set up for a beginner. After a few false starts caused by a lack of advanced planning (mine), I pulled together a custom database for a school library in a matter of a few hours (and that includes data-entry time for a dozen sample books).

The program gives you a choice of many data-entry fields, including author, title, publisher, ISBN number, date of publication, number of pages, keywords, editor, binding, edition, synopsis, category and sub-category. It also gives you access to a lot of very granular details–including personal rating, original title, and translator–that many will not choose to include. And it’s easy to hide fields you’re not interested in tracking. When you set up a database, you can start with comprehensive database or a simplified one and then pick and choose the fields you’ll include.

The data-entry pages are easy to follow, and the reports come in 80 predefined formats–including an HTML generator that dumps your book list into a Web page format ready for posting to your intranet or Web site. Better yet, there’s a Boolean-style search that enables you to home in on a book based on keywords in any field (title, author, keywords, or whatever).

So now, whenever anyone asks me if I know anything about a given subject, I can safely say yes. And that knowledge is of two kinds–it’s accessible either through Onespace or BookCAT. Not quite what Johnson had in mind, but he’d probably have appreciated it when he was working on some of his larger projects.

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