Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates outlined a vision of companies being able to share information more effectively both internally and with suppliers by using present and future collaborative software.
Gates dubbed the concept the "new world of work" during a keynote address at the ninth annual Microsoft CEO Summit in Washington last Thursday.
During the past five years Microsoft has been researching how information is organized and used in large corporations, and whether it is unstructured (e-mail, faxes, phone) or structured (databases), he said. "[This research was] all done in the framework of a somewhat changing business landscape." With increased collaboration occurring across business boundaries, as well as across national ones, it has become imperative for companies to organize, control and leverage the data being moved, Gates said.
With the Internet and low-cost connectivity already in existence, Gates said the last piece of the puzzle is the creation of software to enable seamless sharing of information. "We are just now getting that piece in place."
Chris Capossela, corporate vice-president, information worker product management group with Microsoft, gave a demonstration of Microsoft Office Communicator, an instant messaging-like client that integrates with corporate directory systems and pulls information from a variety of applications. Examples include calendaring, e-mail, instant messaging and desktop applications. Employees can communicate using a variety of applications all accessed with one tool.
Capossela said e-mail is still the number one means of corporate collaboration yet causes huge headaches because version control is almost nonexistent. Microsoft recently acquired Groove Networks, and with it a tool that allows anyone to invite e-mail thread participants to create a folder on their desktop. The desktop folder includes all thread attachments and e-mails. The tool also synchronizes all document updates with everyone in the group without the need to involve IT to set it up, Capossela said.
Gates said this ability to organize e-mail is especially important since its volume is slated to increase five fold in the next three years (after a ten-fold increase between 1997 and 2005). "We still want a lot of information but we want it presented in a way we understand."
Today, the average employee has two e-mail strategies, Gates said: focus on the most recent e-mail or become manic and hyper-organize it, and in the process become a glorified filing clerk. He said other areas of business, like accounting, have long since had tools and policies to organize data but that until recently it hasn't been the case with e-mail.
Microsoft's latest search tool, "has given us a glimpse of what is possible," Gates said. The tool, a free download (http://toolbar.msn.com/), is similar to the recently released Google desktop search tool. Users spend less time placing documents into specific folders, Gates said, and instead manage documents from the desktop search tool. Add-ons even allow for text searching within PDF documents. "Search really is just at the very beginning," Gates said.
But even Gates, an eternal optimist when it comes to technology's ability to solve a myriad of business problems, said the software solutions to deliver information the way people want it -- easily searchable and well-organized -- are not even halfway there.