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Personal: Tools for the world-weary knowledge worker

This article appears in the issue February 2006 [Volume 15, Issue 2]


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You are reading this column in February, but I'm writing it in December, so I have an urge to write a gift guide-style roundup of cool tools. This is not only because of the holiday season, but because I just finished a grueling four-month project in Thailand.

The project involved organizing an international conference, editing a book and drafting speeches, plus huge amounts of research, coordination and communication in strange languages. I was crisscrossing the Pacific on 18-hour nonstops, shuttling across Bangkok between five different offices and trying to juggle other clients and commitments elsewhere in the planet. A typical day in the life of a road-weary consultant.

The project was a good test of the personal and portable knowledge worker tools that I have been recommending over the past four years, and a chance to reflect on how they all fit together. These are the items of hardware and software that proved most valuable to me.

Platforms

Proud mothers in ancient Sparta used to send their sons off to battle by warning them to take care of their shields--and not to come home without them. I felt the same about my IBM-turned-Lenovo Thinkpad X40. The sturdy 2.5-lb laptop was powerful enough to run multiple windows of graphics applications while being light enough to carry everywhere and small enough to be productive anywhere. However, the heavy writing and layout work made this the first time I ever regretted the 12-in. LCD screen on my X40, and I frequently commandeered an external monitor.

As usual, Microsoft Office proved to be the central tool of my knowledge work. Receiving e-mails, documents and files from so many countries tested the multilanguage capability of Word, PowerPoint and Excel. But when files proved too exotic, Quick View Plus from Avantstar (avantstar.com/products/quick_view_plus) proved critical.

I also made extensive use of another software suite: Adobe Creative Suite (CS2), the recent update to its collection of increasingly integrated graphics tools (see KMWorld March 2005). In addition to upgraded versions of Adobe standards such as Photoshop, InDesign and Acrobat, CS2 simplifies the workflow between those applications and adds Version Cue and now Adobe Bridge for integrated file management and downloading of stock images. (In fact, I was spending so much of my day inside Creative Suite that one night I actually had a nightmare in Acrobat's PDF format!)

Applications and utilities

MindJet's MindManager 6 turned out to be a hugely valuable tool during my project. Thai people were already very comfortable with the process, drawing "mind maps" by hand to express complexity. (Government policy is sometimes even explained this way). We created a wall-size plot of the project's complicated tasks, then converted the results to PowerPoint presentations, Word outlines and checklists. I also used MindManager to quickly generate a professional looking prototype Web site for the conference.

As always, desktop search saved hours every day. I was using Enfish Find, which has just become EasyReach with the seventh version of the pioneering application. However, a plethora of desktop search applications are now available to meet a knowledge worker's needs and budget (see KMWorld February 2005).

Two other applications proved useful, though not in the way one would normally employ them. Although I wasn't scanning business cards, CardScan's software proved brilliant for capturing contact information off of e-mails, Web pages and documents, and for importing correctly into a database without retyping. At the same time, IBM's ViaVoice proved more useful for digitizing passages from books and research reports than an optical scanner might have been.

Communications

Skype's voice-over-Internet software proved an invaluable tool for keeping up with my Thai clients when I was elsewhere and maintaining communications with other clients (not to mention family) when I was in Bangkok. The quality is higher than most calling card calls, which frequently travel via the Internet anyway. Easy to set up and use, even for tech-phobic team members, another benefit was Skype's chat function, because written language often had more clarity and fewer barriers than spoken communication.

As in most Asian capitals, Thais in Bangkok are heavily dependent on their mobile phones. I purchased a local SIM card and used mine as my office number, but I also learned to tap text and send SMS, which were faster and more reliable than e-mails--and again clearer.

And because Internet connections were a frequent problem. I often resorted to e-mail and Web searches via GPRS thru my Sony Ericsson T610 tri-band phone linked to my PDA or laptop.

We used Groove Virtual Office, too, though it was frequently bogged down by an unfortunate combination of slow connections and too many firewalls.

I was thrilled with a last-minute Amazon impulse--a tiny D-Link Wireless Pocket Router that turned the Ethernet port in my hotel room into a high-speed wireless access point, freeing me to work anywhere in the apartment.

Gadgets

Here are the miscellaneous gadgets I found myself relying on the most: "Thumb Drives," the ubiquitous flash-memory gadgets that plug into a computer's USB port, are de rigueur in Bangkok. Thai offices often don't have reliable e-mail or network connections—especially for non-employees. I was using a slim 256-MB SanDisk Cruzer Micro, but they are available in all shapes and sizes. It was especially handy for transferring one subcontractor's weekly updates, delivered in the form of 90-MB PowerPoints. My old Antec Attaché portable PCMCIA color scanner was quite handy when I had to send someone a document that only existed in paper form or that needed a signature first.

I also found that it was cheaper to buy a $50 dollar inkjet printer locally than to invest in a slow $300 mobile model.

Last but not least, I found a weightless pair of Etymotic ER-6 Isolator Earphones to be astoundingly handy. They provide as much sound isolation and high-fidelity music reproduction as bulky noise-canceling headsets, but without any extra weight or baggage. They maintained my productivity and concentration in noisy offices and blocked all the engine noise on long trans-Pacific flights (don't forget the airline adapter). More than once, a workday was saved when I used them as simple earplugs in a noisy hotel the night before.


Steve Barth writes and speaks frequently about KM, e-mail barth.km@global-insight.com. For more on personal knowledge management, see his Web site global-insight.com.


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