Information management gets smart
IT IS A TIME-HONORED warning to dreamers: "Be careful what you wish for -- you might get it." And nowhere is it more true than in the executive suites of companies where managers wish they had all the information they want to help them make a decision.
Now, thanks to the Internet and huge internal databases easily accessible through corporate intranets, e-mail, and the digitizing of everything from faxes to voice mail, most businesses today are drowning in information.
Manual methods of aggregating this content into something useable is time-consuming and costly, and in many cases it is plainly not doable. In fact, the average human can only read about .3MB of text per hour, and evaluating that data takes much longer, according to statistics gathered by IDC, a research firm in Framingham, Mass.
"No one is interested in sending one fax. But how you add to a collection of faxes a collection of e-mails and how you create access to it all is what content management is all about," says Susan Feldman, director of the document and content technologies research program for IDC.
Two California companies addressing the information glut are Santa Ana-based NQL, which uses a network query language to seek out and deliver relevant content, and GreyStone Digital Technology, based in San Diego, which uses what it calls "digital immersion" to aggregate dozens of disparate data sources.
Both companies' technologies use forms of artificial intelligence to add a touch of smarts to the process of organizing and delivering the right content to the right person. NQL gives its intelligent search agents pattern-matching capabilities, whereas GreyStone's technology describes the existing facts, infers what the missing facts might be, and formulates a statistically appropriate response.
Tackling data chaos
"Large companies have a problem with chaotic data. It is often unstructured and loose," says David Pallmann, CTO of NQL.
NQL, whose beta customers include General Motors, CMGI, Lycos, and other Fortune 1000 companies, allows corporate developers to write NQL scripts that collect relevant information, discard the irrelevant pieces, and deliver it inside Microsoft Office applications.
Getting information into a user's own personal workflow, however, is the tricky part.
"Some managers have as many as 20 windows opened simultaneously," Feldman explains. "If they could bring it all into a single environment with the click of a search button, it would save a great deal of time."
Saving time frees up a so-called "knowledge worker" to do higher-level tasks as well.
"Up until now, a purchasing representative, for example, had to sit down in front of a browser and visit all the Web-based supplier sites one at a time," Pallmann says. "They may need to cross-reference the part number. And the entire operation could take 40 minutes just to find a single, second source.
"A national sales manager who spends hours consolidating regional sales reports and forecasts by product, division, and channel into a single corporate forecast can take days off his time," Pallmann adds.
Using the NQL Content Anywhere platform and its NQL scripting language, a corporate developer can create a script for an automated agent that, for example, goes out in parallel to many sites at machine speed, cross references all the part numbers, and returns a tabulated list delivered to almost any workflow pllatform.
NQL Server becomes a central repository which can be accessed by any device, from a simple drop-down menu in a desktop application to a query using Web Clipping technology on a Palm VII.
Most of the scripting to create an automated agent is done with a technology similar to the concept of a macro in Microsoft applications, where the keystrokes of a repetitive and often-used task are captured, recorded, and given a one-keystroke command. A non-programming professional can simply click on an icon to create a script and record a session.
Because it can be quite simple to use, financial services companies could license the NQL technology and offer it to their customers. A consumer could record the steps or clicks it takes to retrieve a bank statement, even specifying a time of day to deliver the results.
GreyStone is at a different end of the content aggregation spectrum. Its products are the result of work it did as a government defense contractor. The application environment developed by GreyStone allows companies to manage uncertainty, CEO Richard Smith says.
Using a statistics-based system, GreyStone's technology can infer needed missing facts and formulate those facts into a database for decision support.
In the world of defense, the technology was used for pilotless planes that needed intelligence about a fighting environment. With data collected through satellites, radar, human intelligence, and audio and visual samples, it was able to derive from these complex data sets what the robotic plane was encountering, be it troop movements, enemy radar, or the movement of tanks across the desert, Smith says.
Smith calls the process "digital immersion," and has moved his company and his immersioneering technology into the business-to-business space as well.
"Our technology can be used for classic inventory and logistical problems," Smith says. GreyStone is soon to announce a deal with a major company in the parts-supply sector to set up distribution routes and delivery schedules that can be modified on the fly.
"Retailers lose money all the time when a customer comes in and asks for something that the store doesn't have," Smith explains. "If the retailer were able to say, 'I can have it by tomorrow,' instead of telling the customer that his next shipment isn't for 10 days, the retailer would have a chance at keeping the customer."
The parts supplier, using GreyStone's technology, will be able to collect information on all of its routes, delivery trucks, and truck locations through GPS systems and warehouse content and inventory, and adapt the distribution routes and schedules by communicating directly with the route driver -- via wireless devices if necessary -- to reroute not only that driver's schedule, but to alert and alter all the other affected routes as well.
"If you just changed one driver, you would leave a giant hole where he has been pulled off the route," Smith notes. "You have to readapt with a minimum of perturbation."
Indeed, savvy managers are catching on to the important role that intelligent content management can play in their business, according to IDC's Feldman -- they are being far more careful about what they wish for.
"The reason to make a collection of things is not just to find things once," Feldman says. "The end goal is to find it again and use it for some purpose."