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Personal Toolkit: Home is where the hardware is

This article appears in the issue Nov/Dec 2003 [Volume 12, Issue 10]

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Integrating the tools of knowledge work

By Steve Barth

I've written before in this column about the need to integrate and master all of the tools we use to do our knowledge work. How we use these tools is part of our identity as craftspeople in our fields. Typically I have focused on the tools we carry on the road, but sooner or later even the most nomadic of us settles back into our cubicle or home office. And though it feels like we're never home, we really do most of our work there.Last month, I talked about setting up a workspace that facilitates all the different types of knowledge work we do. The final piece (except maybe for the music we play while working) is the way in which the hardware, software and personal practice fit together in the setting in which we most commonly work.

Like many knowledge workers, my portable computer is my only machine. Though it weighs only three-and-a-half pounds, it has more than enough power to do what I need. But what also makes it work is the ability to connect all the external devices I need on a regular or occasional basis. This year, I've been using a ThinkPad X31. When I get home, I drop it into its mounting on an IBM X3 UltraBase (portable enough on its own, but a serviceable base station), which has a CDR/DVD player and connections to everything else for power, Internet connectivity, external video and USB.

My Internet access arrives via the TV cable to a Motorola Surfboard cable modem, which feeds to a Siemens 80211b SpeedStream wired and wireless router and print server. Wireless is convenient, but I find the wired Internet connection is faster and more reliable at the desk.

This is where it starts to sound like the foot-bone-connects-to-the-ankle-bone thing. I network all of my peripheral devices (with only a few exceptions) using USB cables so they can be easily connected and removed without having to restart the computer. For this I still use a Xircom PortStation, which was discontinued after the company was purchased by Intel. Snap-together modules offer USB ports, PS/2 for keyboard and mouse, Ethernet, parallel and serial connections, as needed. Many of those connections were rendered obsolete when I started using the media slice as a base station, so I just snapped off the unneeded modules. Numerous devices—such as my PDA cradle, an Imation USB floppy drive, USB Iomega HDD 30GB hard drive for backups and Microsoft MD 80 Digital Sound System—plug directly into the PortStation.

The key to using a lightweight laptop as your everyday workstation has little to do with processing power and everything to do with screen size. I use a ViewSonic VP151 pivoting 15-inch monitor, but I don't shut off the laptop's screen. Windows lets you run internal and external monitors side by side, dragging the cursor, files and text from one to the other—at a fraction of the cost of a large monitor. The Viewsonic has additional USB ports that come in handy, too, because I'm just getting started.

I use a Hewlett-Packard 990cse to print black-and-white and color pages at medium speed. But what I really like about it is that it will print on both sides of pages as thin as 16lb paper, which means that I use only one-third as much paper as most people—and the piles on my desk are two-thirds lower. Therefore, I have much less guilt when I prefer to read anything over 150 words on paper.

I have three kinds of scanners connected to the system. My Fujitsu ScanSnap converts text pages to searchable PDF files readable with Adobe Acrobat. An HP PhotoSmart s20 slide scanner digitizes slides and negatives with sufficient quality for magazines—after any necessary retouching with Adobe PhotoShop. Meanwhile, I use a Corex CardScan to automatically database business cards and transfer them to Microsoft Outlook.

I now slide memory cards from digital audio recorders and cameras directly into the adapter that lives in the laptop's PCMCIA slot, because the transfer rate usually is faster than USB and I avoid the extra cables. However, the foot pedal for the Olympus DSS Player Pro transcription software plugs into the USB device, as do the Andrea array microphone or the Plantronics noise-canceling headset I use to dictate directly to IBM ViaVoice. I can also use USB to connect a video camera, to record a broadcast using Visual Communicator.

My system is not without its downside. A web of cables crisscrosses my desk. Three separate surge-protecting power strips are needed to plug in all of the disparate power adapters for those disparate devices, so that when I turn the lights off at night, the whole office twinkles like the LA skyline. There are definitely inconveniences with so many devices, but they are all within reach and can be replaced individually when they become obsolete. And trust me, they'll become obsolete. Because every additional piece of hardware or software adds to the complexity of the system, my system is—believe it or not—limited to the tools I really need.

The point is not about the individual gadgets, but about the system they create together, by which we go about accessing, evaluating, organizing, analyzing, presenting and collaborating around information and ideas. What makes this system work is that desktop search tools, such as Enfish Find, make personal knowledge assets accessible to your productivity applications such as Microsoft Office and after that to collaboration applications such as Groove.

You can see from the illustration how this works on the input side. While I would never put this much emphasis on toys in an enterprise KM system, they are important at the level of the personal toolkit to the individual knowledge worker.Steve Barth is editor of and a new journal on complexity theory in human organizations due out next year from Palgrave Macmillan, e-mail

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