» Archive for the 'Desktop Productivity' Category

E-mail: Reports of My Demise are Premature

Thursday, October 15th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

It is both premature and foolhardy to proclaim that e-mail’s reign as “king of communications” is over as a recent Wall Street Journal article trumpets.

E-mail remains the most-used corporate communications tool despite reports to the contrary.

E-mail remains the most-used corporate communications tool despite reports to the contrary.

Not that e-mail is the best communications medium for everything; indeed we know very well it isn’t.

Instead, e-mail has, in the past 15 years in particular, become that path of least resistance for almost everything that transpires within an organization.

Update status? Send an e-mail to a few hundred of one’s closest colleagues.

Finish a report? Send another e-mail to a few hundred of one’s closest colleagues.

The fact is that we use e-mail opportunistically rather than with an understanding as to what the impact of its use might be.

Sending that status report to those few hundred colleagues actually cost the organization ca. 24 hours in lost time when one calculates the few minutes each person spent opening the e-mail he didn’t need to receive in the first place – plus the “recovery time,” which is the time it takes to get back to where one was in the task that was interrupted.

The result of all of our communications (and it isn’t just e-mail) is Information Overload, a problem that costs the U.S. economy ca. $900 billion per annum.  On August 12,  Information Overload Awareness Day was observed around the world with meetings and discussions.  But that’s just one day – each additional day that we don’t address the problem of Information Overload and take steps to lessen its impact costs billions.

Companies can take steps to lower their exposure to Information Overload (an article about what can be done may be found at here) but even raising awareness of the problem and understanding the impact of overusing such tools as e-mail can make a big difference.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.

In the briefing room: Teleplace 3.0

Thursday, October 8th, 2009 by Cody Burke

The Teleplace 3.0 environment.

Meetings, particular the online variety, can be dull, tedious, and, most importantly, not terribly productive for participants.  This may very well have something to do with the medium and the manner in which the meeting is conducted.  In a typical online meeting, the main speaker may share his screen with the attendees, roll through a slide deck, perhaps demonstrate an application, and solicit feedback (in online meetings this occurs via the fairly rudimentary tools found in most meeting environments).

The limitations of this kind of approach to meetings are significant: a single two-dimensional interface common to all participants and a lack of a connection between participants due, in part, to a lack of visual cues.  In addition, online meeting rooms typically differ from their real-life counterparts in that materials and files are typically not stored in them.  Many meetings are ongoing; participants meet several times a week or month and need to update materials in between, as well as to be able to return to a virtual room and have the needed materials in one place, in the state in which they left them.

As anyone who has read Snow Crash knows, the concept of using virtual environments for business use is not new.  Organizations as varied as IBM and the U.S. Army have explored the possibility of using virtual worlds for training, meetings, and collaboration.  During the recent Second Life land grab, enthusiasm for which has since died down, that virtual world was flooded by companies establishing virtual properties for marketing and customer outreach.  Ultimately however, the perception of virtual worlds and environments as a toy, not a tool, has proven difficult to shake.

One company that is pushing the business case for virtual environments is Teleplace, née Qwaq.  The recent name change was part of a shift the company is taking to make clear its focus on enterprise customers.

Teleplace 3.0 is the latest version of the company’s online environment for meetings, training sessions, visualization, and virtual operations centers.  Teleplace has been designed from the ground up as a business environment first, and a 3-D virtual world second.  Spend as little as an hour in Teleplace (I’ve spent several already), and you will see it is suited for serious business.  In Teleplace, business applications exist in a persistent state on virtual walls and displays.

Teleplace can accommodate different sized meetings: small meetings with a handful of people allow for complete interaction amongst participants.  Virtual lecture halls can handle up to 60 people and, if more attendees are expected, can support a broadcast mode that can go to thousands.  Participants can use a laser pointer to direct everyone’s attention to objects or specific areas of a chart.  Meeting leaders can bring people into rooms or areas, and also conduct polling and control communications.

There are many features in Teleplace that effectively demonstrate that virtual environments can be an effective business tool.  Teleplace goes beyond the traditional meeting environment and provides tools that have the potential to introduce greater efficiencies into the workplace.  One example is the persistence of the environment; this is a huge step up from traditional online meetings; an attendee can view a shared chart or slide show on a display wall, move to another area to interact with other attendees, and then simply return to the wall to view the chart again.  Environments that have been populated with content, such as video clips, slide decks, documents, and integrated business applications, remain in place, enabling users to drop in and out and later return to the same work area.

Virtual work environments may in some ways remind us of their toy predecessors, but offerings such as Teleplace 3.0 remind us that they are in fact powerful business tools.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the Briefing Room: Liaise

Thursday, September 24th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira and Cody Burke

Think carefully about the last action item you sent someone.  It was in an e-mail and it’s been several days and there’s been no acknowledgement.  In fact, you are not sure that the recipient is even aware of its existence.  So you send another e-mail and wait.

Your last action item is now with umpteen others that have not seen the light of day.

How many action items and requests fall through the cracks?  Some tasks, due to the nebulous nature of how they are communicated, may not even appear to the recipient as a task at all.  Some tasks are unimportant, busy work that is not critical and should never make it on to a task list.  However, others may be extremely important, yet these may not be recognized for what they are: steps that need to be undertaken as part of a process.

It is simply not possible for knowledge workers to recall on their own everything that has been done and what has not yet been addressed.

In a sense, e-mail is a pit that we tend to throw requests into, hoping that they will resurface, completed.  The problem is that the content of e-mail is static: once sent, it is locked into the e-mail and not linked to other content or systems in any meaningful way.

However, there are some potential solutions looming on the horizon.

One, the eponymously-named Liaise, is a new inbox add-on (currently only available for Outlook) that scans e-mail messages as they are being composed and creates a task list based on any action items it finds in the e-mail.  The underlying technology, called KeyPoint Intelligence, automatically finds, identifies and captures key points in a message.  Over time, the system learns and adapts to a user’s writing style in order to improve performance.

Liaise differentiates between issues (the report is late), and action items (review the report), and compiles all of these into a separate task list.  The tasks are scanned to determine the nature of the task, who is involved, and when it is due.   When an e-mail is sent, any new tasks are automatically added to the user’s list.  If the recipient does not have Liaise, the e-mail is delivered as usual and when it is replied to, the system scans the message and updates the task list accordingly.  If both users have Liaise, then both see the new tasks in their respective the task lists and any changes or progress made is automatically updated without further e-mail being sent around a team.

Additionally, Liaise allows a knowledge worker who is about to go into a meeting to automatically see information such as all e-mail, tasks, and issues associated with the attendees.  This provides context to the knowledge worker and gives a quick overview of where people stand on projects they have been assigned.  Liaise shows the people in the meeting, the level of interaction that they all have, and relevant open matters.

Liaise is an exciting new tool for e-mail and task management that has great potential to reduce Information Overload by cutting down on the overall amount of e-mail in the inbox.  More significantly, Liaise has the potential to illuminate the dark pit that often is the knowledge worker’s inbox by extracting the important tasks, issues, and action items that otherwise would be lost in a sea of noise.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.
Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the Briefing Room: Xobni Plus

Thursday, July 16th, 2009 by Jonathan Spira

For many knowledge workers, the e-mail inbox is the center of their universe.  It has assumed this exalted position in part because e-mail is the path of least resistance for many activities.  We should not, however, equate this status with it being the best or most efficient path.

Knowledge workers overuse e-mail.  They use it to compose long documents that would be better done in a content management system.  They use it to file information, which really should reside in a records management system.  They send e-mail messages to too many people and hit reply-to-all indiscriminately.

By 2010, knowledge workers will receive daily, on average, upwards of 93 e-mail messages, dozens of instant messages, multiple text messages, messages from social networks, not to mention a few phone calls.

Given its popularity, e-mail overload is the prominent component of Information Overload, although search and content management aren’t that far behind.

Given its singular status as an information repository, a number of companies have provided tools to manage the savage inbox.  One such company is Xobni, which has offered its eponymously-named e-mail management tool for over a year.

I had an opportunity to meet with Matt Brezina, Xobni’s co-founder, and his team a few weeks ago and learn more about what Xobni can do in this regard.  Matt not only speaks of “information overload” but of “relationship overload” and positions Xobni as a tool that can help with both.

Xobni adds a sidebar to Microsoft Outlook that comes with an easy-to-use and intuitive user interface.  It improves on Outlook’s own search facility both in speed and in its ability to build advanced queries on the fly and search across conversation threads.

One of my favorite features in Xobni is its ability to pull information together from a variety of sources including Facebook, LinkedIn, adding in people’s photos and the names of their assistants, if applicable.  This creates context around information that might otherwise appear to be somewhat random.   As more and more information flows via social networks, some of it important, most of it inconsequential, we will start to see the relationship overload, of which Matt speaks, become more of a challenge.

This week Xobni launched Xobni Plus, a paid version of the service (the original version remains free).  New features include the advanced search query builder; the ability to search calendar items, networks, and conversations (with additional support for filtering within the conversation); support for phrases and Boolean queries; AutoSuggest, which is a feature that provides automatic suggestions if one cannot remember someone’s exact name or e-mail address; and an enhanced profiling feature that displays past and upcoming appointments when viewing an e-mail.

While Xobni won’t make e-mail or relationship overload go away, it does lessen their impact and makes it easier for knowledge workers to unlock critical information that may be hidden away in e-mail.

Jonathan B. Spira is CEO and Chief Analyst and CEO at Basex.

Google Apps Twitter Hack Raises Red Flags on Password Security

Thursday, July 16th, 2009 by David Goldes

One might presume that technology companies do a better job with such mundane tasks as password security than the great unwashed masses.  However, time and time again, this turns out not to be correct.  Yesterday, Twitter co-founder Biz Stone, posting in the company’s blog, revealed that a hacker had broken into an employee’s personal e-mail account and then gained access to that employee’s Google Apps account, which contained “notes, spreadsheets, ideas, financial details” – well, you get the picture.

Although Stone tries to emphasize that this has nothing to do with any vulnerabilities in Google Apps per se, the very fact that anyone can log into a Google Apps account from any browser if you have the correct user name and password does increase a company’s exposure.  Companies that keep their confidential information behind a corporate firewall in systems such as Lotus Notes or Microsoft SharePoint, are indeed less vulnerable simply because their systems could not be hacked with just a simple user name and password.

Multiple studies have revealed that close to half of computer users tend to use the same password over and over again – typically with the same, easy to remember, user name.  Indeed, TechCrunch, a blog that received Twitter’s confidential documents from the hacker, reported that Twitter uses the password “password” for its servers (presumably, it’s been changed by now).  The same article revealed that Twitter had also used a co-founder’s first name, Jack, as a user name for servers.

Moral of the story: use complex passwords with numbers and symbols interspersed.  Do not use words found in a dictionary.  Even better: use passphrases, i.e. concatenated words such as “thisismypassphrase123″.  Use a different user name/password combination for each account.  If one account is hacked, this will ensure that your other accounts remain safe.  Finally, do not leave passwords visibly written down.  Believe it or not,  I still see Post-It notes with passwords attached to monitors when visiting other companies.

David M. Goldes is the president of Basex.

In the Briefing Room: Gordano Messaging Suite

Thursday, July 9th, 2009 by Cody Burke and Matt Siper

With apologies to Paul Newman, “[W]hat we have here is a failure to communicate” is an aphorism that could be heard in the boardrooms of many companies.  This is, in part, because few companies have deployed knowledge sharing and collaboration tools that allow co-workers to communicate effectively.

One model for such platforms is the Collaborative Business Environment (CBE).  A CBE is a workspace designed for the knowledge worker that supersedes the traditional desktop metaphor by providing one single work environment, Friction-Free Knowledge Sharing that eliminates extra steps, and Embedded Community through presence awareness and integrated communication tools such as instant messaging.

One company that offers a viable solution for companies in need of a Collaborative Business Environment is Gordano, which offers the Gordano Messaging Suite (GMS), an e-mail and instant messaging server.  Companies can integrate e-mail and IM functionality into a variety of external systems through open APIs and mashup technologies.  Perhaps the best example of this is the Microsoft SharePoint integration that the company introduced in version 16 of the Gordano Messaging Suite; it enables full integration of address books, calendars, and other PIM data with Microsoft Office SharePoint Server, allowing for user accounts to synchronize GMS data within the SharePoint interface.

Earlier versions of the platform already supported the ability to integrate instant messaging with Microsoft Office via Gordano’s Collaboration Sever.  Additional integration allows GMS as share calendars, contacts, notes, folders, and address books Office.  Access is also possible through other clients including Apple iCal, Mozilla Calendar, and GMS WebMail.

While Gordano handles typical tasks such as e-mail and IM very well, what’s really interesting is the Gizmos feature, essentially JavaScript mashups that can be configured to extend functionality through the creation of custom buttons and actions.

While Gordano might not be right for all organizations, their tools are worthy of consideration, especially by existing Microsoft customers that would like to embed collaboration tools on the road towards building a Collaborative Business Environment.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.   Matt Siper is an analyst at Basex.

In the Briefing Room: Zoho

Thursday, June 18th, 2009 by Cody Burke

It may seem obvious that the various software tools, platforms, and environments used by knowledge workers should work together, yet an examination of common tools used in the enterprise shows that this is often simply not the case.

Basex has codified the desktop metaphor of the future as a Collaborative Business Environment (CBE).  Three high-level tenets describe the ideal CBE, namely the One Environment Rule, Friction-Free Knowledge Sharing, and Embedded Community.  This workspace should provide a single integrated environment to work in, remove friction-such as extra steps in a process or application or that caused by poor tools (search platforms that regularly deliver 564,768 results are suspect), and embed community through presence awareness and integrated communication tools such as instant messaging.

For companies looking to build a CBE, there are multiple options in the market including offerings from some of the largest players including Microsoft, IBM, and Oracle.  There are however, also many smaller players that offer considerable functionality in environments comprising rudimentary CBEs.

Zoho, formerly known as AdventNet, provides Web-based desktop productivity software.  The company  has ten fully integrated productivity and collaboration applications and nine business applications available.  Modules include standard productivity software for applications such as e-mail, word processing, spreadsheets, presentation, document management, wikis, and chat, as well as business applications such as CRM, Web conferencing, reporting and BI, project management, and online invoicing.  The applications are available on-demand, or for on-premises deployments with over 10,000 seats.

All the applications work together: if in the document library, a user can open a document in a tab without opening up a separate word processor.  He can also initiate a chat with the author from within the document library through integrated chat functionality that moves with the users as they shift between applications.  E-mail can be sent from within applications, without moving to the actual e-mail application.  Attachments can be viewed without opening a separate application, i.e. a Word document can be viewed in the Zoho Writer application instead of opening a separate instance of Word on the desktop.

Zoho’s compliance with the three tenets of the Collaboration Business Environment is demonstrated by the tight integration between applications and the embedded presence awareness and instant messaging functionality that extends across applications.

Zoho may not be for everyone, but its simplicity and tight integration between applications makes it worthy of consideration for companies looking simplify their collaboration and knowledge sharing environments.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex

Google Breaks Microsoft Search?

Wednesday, June 17th, 2009 by David Goldes

The fun never ends in the Microsoft v. Google wars. Chris Vander Mey, Goole’s senior product manager for Google Apps, acknowledged that certain programs, such as Windows Desktop Search, that work directly with the outlook data file “don’t currently work well” with Google Apps Sync for Microsoft Outlook.

According to a  post by Vander Mey on Google’s enterprise blog, Windows Desktop Search will not properly index Google Apps Sync data files. In order to prevent indexing from running indefinitely, the Google Apps Sync installer disables it.

Microsoft’s Outlook product manager, Dev Balasubramanian, writing in an official Microsoft blog, said Apps Sync includes a “serious bug/flaw” which disables Outlook’s ability to search data such as e-mail and contacts.   He also provided a fix which involves editing the Windows registry, something many users may not wish to do.

Balasubramanian further stated that the problem impacts Outlook’s search capabilities, not just Windows Desktop Search because Outlook search “relies upon the indexing performed by Windows Desktop Search.”  Google contends that Outlook search will work even if Windows Desktop Search does not.

David M. Goldes is president and senior analyst at Basex.

In the briefing room: Tungle Accelerate

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2009 by Cody Burke

In the process of setting up briefings with the companies that Basex covers, we have become intimately familiar with the friction that is generated by miscommunications in calendaring.  It often is a time consuming process to coordinate colleagues, who may well be working in different time zones, to meet with another company’s team, who also face the same challenges of distance and busy, constantly moving schedules.

In the knowledge economy, with an increasingly mobile and somewhat transient workforce, as well as the pressures of the current economic climate that is prompting organizations to slash travel budgets and depend heavily on Web-based meetings and conference calls, scheduling meetings in an efficient and tool-agnostic manner is critical.

Tungle targets this particular pain point through a Web-based calendar accelerator, a calendaring tool that works across multiple calendars such as Outlook, Google Cal, iCal, and Entourage.  Originally an Outlook plug-in, Tungle Accelerate is a Web-based version of the calendaring tool.  Users continue using the calendar they are familiar with, but data from their calendar is shared through Tungle so availability is visible in the Tungle interface to those trying to set up a meeting.  Meeting requests are also sent through Tungle.  From the Accelerate interface, users select people they wish to meet with and times they can meet, and send out e-mail invites.  It is not necessary to sign up with Tungle to use it to set up a meeting with someone else, although it is necessary to do so to enable calendar sharing.  Calendars are dynamic, so if a time slot is suggested, and then becomes unavailable, that is reflected in the link that is sent via e-mail, in real-time.

Tungle can be used from within social networks such as Facebook, LinkedIn, and Twitter.  In those social networks, users can create a link to Tungle called TungleMe, and embed the link on their pages.  From that link, it is possible to see the persons’ shared calendar, select times, location, and add a message, then submit.  On the other end, an e-mail is received with the proposed times, a time can be selected, and an e-mail confirmation is sent back.  The meeting is automatically added to the users’ shared calendars.

Tungle addresses a particularly irksome problem in business settings although it is mainly used by consumers at this point.  By eliminating multiple unnecessary e-mails between various parties – setting up a single meeting with four participants could easily occasion over a dozen individual e-mails – there is no doubt that Tungle has the potential to positively impact the problem of Information Overload.  Indeed, Tungle recently announced a partnership with IBM to support Lotus Notes and Domino, which bodes well for improving streamlined enterprise calendaring in the foreseeable future.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.

In the briefing room: Nordic River TextFlow

Wednesday, May 27th, 2009 by Cody Burke

Collaboration on documents is a given in knowledge work.  Seldom will one author be the sole contributor to a document; rather, two or more knowledge workers typically come together to create the content, make edits, fact check, and finalize.

Nordic River's TextFlow visual version management software

Nordic River's TextFlow visual version management software

There are myriad pitfalls in this process ranging from lost efficiency as a document is e-mailed around for review, requiring those involved to wait their turn to edit, and to version and save conflicts when different versions of the document are inadvertently created.  Manually combining the work of multiple authors and editors into one document is a time consuming process – and definitely not a pleasant one.

To date, the greatest advancements in document collaboration have been the simple track changes and commenting functions found in most word processors.  Being able to insert comments, make edits with the original text preserved, and, through the sometimes dizzying color coding, keep track of who did what and when, makes it possible to pass documents through a workflow process and arrive at a consensus without manually comparing multiple documents and manually merging them.

However, the track changes method is far from perfect.  Its use is premised upon there being a single master copy of a document that is circulated to colleagues and editors, either as a file or via a document repository.  In either case, there is one master copy and knowledge workers take turns writing and editing in a serial fashion.

Nordic River is a Swedish company trying to change that dynamic through TextFlow, an online document collaboration tool that takes a decentralized approach to collaborative document creation.  TextFlow is browser-based, but also can be run as an Adobe AIR desktop application.

The Flash-based system lets the user drag-and-drop documents into the browser window where they are automatically merged with changes shown for approval or rejection.  The suggested changes show up inline in the document (similar to the way a traditional word processor would display tracked changes) unless they are of a larger size, in which case the changes are presented in a color coded box with options to accept, move to scrapbook, hide, and reject.

All changes are also indicated by tabs on the left side of the page that are clickable to hide or show the changes.  A box in the window shows whose documents are being merged, and this can be changed at anytime to adjust which documents are being merged.  For example, it is possible for two colleagues who are subject matter experts to have their documents merged first, and then incorporate the changes of other authors.

TextFlow also serves as a repository by hosting documents on its server that also maintains an archive and history of each document.  Documents that are created in or added to TextFlow can be put into a workflow via e-mail to colleagues and split and merged as many times as necessary.  It is not necessary to be a user of TextFlow to participate in the workflow process.  Because there is no master copy, every collaborator has a copy and can work concurrently without fear of creating version conflicts.

For companies that find themselves struggling to manage the document lifecycle, TextFlow may provide a very simple yet elegant solution that simplifies the authoring process.

Cody Burke is a senior analyst at Basex.