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Personal toolkit: Capturing spontaneous ideas

By Steve Barth

There are still people in knowledge management who will tell you that KM is all about capturing information and ideas to digital form. That is, of course, nonsense. However, it is also nonsense to completely discount the usefulness of having notes and thoughts stored in a form that can be indexed and retrieved when you need them.

How many ideas are lost forever before we can record them in any form? Even at our desks, ideas can evaporate faster than we can type them. And, anyway, we are rarely at the keyboard when the best ideas come. Some end up scratched out by hand if there’s paper handy—or at least a napkin. Or they can be quickly chatted into tape recorders. But even if they do get captured on paper or on tape, they rarely get transferred to digital files. In my case, the scraps tended to pile up in drifts at the corner of my desk or in spiral notebooks on the shelf.

Being prepared in advance to capture spontaneous ideas and information is an important part of building an infrastructure for managing personal knowledge. It is a way to make sure that what you know is ready, available and accessible (that is, organized) when you need it to create new knowledge.

Consider the latest releases of two tools for capturing knowledge spontaneously.

Capturing spoken words

With software improvements and more powerful computers, speech-to-text recognition accuracy gets better and better, while requiring less training and offering greater voice control over the PC. IBM IBM, which has been researching voice recognition since the 1950s, recently released Version 10 of its personal recognition package, ViaVoice, with better filtering of background noise, better integration with productivity applications and document templates for direct dictation.

One major factor contributing to the quality of recognition is the Plantronics DSP 300 headset included with the professional-level product, ViaVoice for Windows Pro USB Edition ($189.95). The headset features stereo speakers, a noise-reducing boom microphone and its own digital signal processor. It connects to the computer via USB, bypassing the sound card. That is especially useful with laptops, which tend not to get very good results from analog sound inputs. Compared with other input devices—even another noise-canceling microphone—results were significantly better with the Plantronics.

ViaVoice also works with digital recorders from Olympus, Sony and other manufacturers (see "Personal Toolkit " March 2002), as does ScanSoft's Dragon Naturally Speaking line.

Capturing written words

Handwriting is the most spontaneous way to capture ideas for many people. Although computers have gotten pretty good at recognizing machine-printed text, conversion of handwritten words lagged so far behind conversion of spoken words that you were better off reading journal entries and meeting notes into a VR application. (At least, that’s what I have been doing.)

Lately, however, that has begun to change. Applications included with Palm and Pocket PC devices trained users (rather than the other way around) to the point that a practiced user could quickly capture a paragraph or two without too many retries. State of the art has been even further advanced with the new tablet PCs running the latest version of Windows XP and Pentium-strength processors.

But if your idea of a tablet still has a watermark, you may have longed for a way to scan pages into your system. From the user’s point of view, SoftWriting 4.1 from CharacTell (charactell.com, $59.95) works in a similar way to voice recognition programs. Version 4 improves accuracy and adds new features.

Everyone’s handwriting is unique but SoftWriting can recognize most styles, as long as the letters don’t touch. As with voice recognition systems, SoftWriting requires training to create a user profile, essentially learning to read your handwriting, based on three to five pages of handwritten text. It optimizes its accuracy by learning users' vocabulary. A brief wizard leads through the process.

The application can quickly read documents scanned or imported into the computer or written with tablets or digital pens. SoftWriting now recognizes both non-connected handwriting and machine-printed text—even in the same document—and converts them into editable Word documents. Words that have not been recognized are shown from the original document, along with suggested choices. Printed text (in English, German, Spanish, French, Italian, Portuguese or Dutch) is processed by multiple OCR engines, which then “vote” to resolve conflicts. Sketches and diagrams can be selected and inserted directly into the electronic document.

My own handwriting is hopeless. One of the reasons I got into journalism in college was to get access to the electronic terminals for writing my papers (this was before PCs were ubiquitous). But while SoftWriting had a hard time reading my normal scrawl, it did pretty well converting notes written with recognition in mind, with characters neatly separated in the words. Anyone with reasonable penmanship will do fine.

Still, many of us are trained at this point to think with our fingers. Though PDA handwriting recognition applications may not yet be ideal as a handy way to record spontaneous ideas. Most models will now accept one of several brands of portable snap-on keyboards.

ThinkOutside’s innovative Stowaway ($49 to $89, depending on PDA model) is a full-size keyboard that cradles your handheld while you type, then accordion-folds to a rugged metal package only slightly larger than the PDA itself. The original is a little heavy for a pocket, at 7.9 ounces, but a new bi-fold XT ($99; so far only for Palm) weighs only 5.6 oz and is 50% slimmer.

Steve Barth writes and speaks frequently about KM, e-mail barth.pkm@global-insight.com. For more on personal knowledge management, see his Web site global-insight.com. He will teach his PKM workshop for the Society of Competitive Intelligence Professionals (www.scip.org) in Anaheim, Calif., in March and at InfoToday 2003 in New York in May

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