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Personal Toolkit: Raising the platform for knowledge work

By Steve Barth

Not everyone would agree that there is any kind of computer software that can facilitate knowledge work (as opposed to information work). But if there is such a category—and the premise of KM is that there is—there is one type of tool that has proven more useful than any other. Yet, it still rarely shows up in trade show catalogs or buyers guides. That is, of course, the much maligned office suite, where most of us spend the majority of our computer time writing and editing text; analyzing numbers in spreadsheets; conveying our ideas in slide presentations; and managing our calendars, contacts and electronic communications.

Microsoft Office has come to dominate the market for productivity suites, and beginning with the 1999 release of Office 2000, began talking about it as a platform for knowledge work. Office XP, released in 2001, started delivering on promised tools for knowledge work, with improved interfaces, usability and workflow options, as well as diverse tools for communication and collaboration. Designers even embedded rudimentary KM tools from text search to speech recognition to scanned document management.

Microsoft is more often criticized for what its products can’t do than praised for what they can do. This is especially true with Microsoft Office, where few of us ever master a fraction of the applications’ capabilities.

Microsoft Office 2003

At this writing, the latest version of the ubiquitous office suite, Microsoft Office 2003, is still in beta testing but due for release later this year. I have been playing with a relatively stable pre-release version for several months and see no reason to go back to the previous installation.

Office 2003 primarily focuses on improvements for enterprise users. For example, it makes more extensive use of Extensible Markup Language (XML). A new application in the suite, InfoPath, simplifies the creation of templates for Word or Excel documents so that structured data can be easily mined even from unstructured documents. The application also includes client software to connect with server-based rights management protocols to control access to documents.

Those additions are worthwhile, but there are some significant new features for individual knowledge workers, too. But to take advantage of them, users will have to be running Windows XP, because Office 2003 isn’t designed to run on earlier versions of the operating system.

Most notably, the interface for Microsoft Outlook has been completely redesigned in an attempt to help users cope with the increasing flood of data, messages and spam we all face every day. For example, moving the preview pane for e-mail to the side of the screen lets you see more items in the inbox. The improved built-in junk mail filters seem reasonably effective, still missing about half my spam but tagging very few false positives. It’s easier to flag items for follow-up and view only unread items or those waiting for action, regardless of which inbox folder they have been moved to. Creating rules to automatically announce, color or move messages helps to keep the most important ones in focus. Likewise, enhancements to Outlook’s calendar function make it easier to highlight events and plan meetings.

Office 2003 includes a number of enhanced features for Tablet PC, such as direct annotation in Word and Excel. The beta release also includes another new application, OneNote, for entering, organizing and sharing typed, handwritten or even spoken notes. OneNote might be included in the final release of Office 2003 or sold separately. Although many others have found the freeform note-taking utility appealing, especially on a tablet PC, I found myself more comfortable sticking to Word for note-taking, especially since I can hyperlink local and Web documents so easily from there.

FrontPage, the Web-publishing application in Microsoft’s office suite, has long been underappreciated because it’s largely incompatible with the systems that professional Web developers use. But for anyone who has occasional need to put their knowledge online, it’s a powerful tool in a relatively easy-to-use package. One issue is that a FrontPage site has to be hosted on a server that includes specific FrontPage components. However, I’ve been maintaining my personal site (www.global-insight.com) with FP for years, with Earthlink as my ISP. The new version adds new features—though many need an upgrade at the host, too—and new interfaces to simplify the process of WYSIWYG Web design.

Many of the best features of Office are the cross-application utilities. Controversial SmartTags are still there, but a more useful feature is a Research addition to the Task Pane, offering instant access to public and paid services—as long as you are connected to the Internet. It would be nice to have the option to access a real dictionary and even an encyclopedia for those of us who do our best writing from an airline seat.

Microsoft understands that the office suite is the fundamental platform for knowledge work for most of us. But it needs to also remember that no matter how much broadband and wireless connectivity improves, none of us is online all the time.

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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