Information at your fingertips: really

Large organisations sport clever and expensive information management systems. They enable staff to lay their hands on the right documents and other information in a jiffy and work on it collaboratively with other people, both inside and outside the organisation.

Setting up a similar operation in a smaller business lies somewhere between difficult and impossible, depending largely on the depth of your pockets and the quality of the advice you receive from your information system suppliers.

The trouble with information management is that, conceptually, it has little to do with information technology. The first deals with the relationships, linking and access to the elements of information – people, companies, documents and so on – while the other concerns itself more with the storage and processing of data. Okay, there’s a bit of an overlap, but IT and IM are essentially two different disciplines. When people moan about their IT systems, quite often it’s their information management, or lack of it, that they should be complaining about. Information is inherently messy and most computer systems are not very keen on messiness.

Right now, a company called OneIS (pronounced “one eye ess” not “one is”) is trialling its software-as-a-service (SaaS) information management system with small business early adopters. If you fancy having a go, you’ll be able to apply using a form on its website. If you’d prefer to wait for the real thing and avoid the inevitable pre-release wrinkles, then you’ll have to wait until early February. Probably.

The service is secure – it’s being run in a data centre with duplicate equipment, duplicate internet access and, eventually, it will be replicated in another data centre as well. Ben Summers, the technical brains behind the service has been building this kind of resilient system for many years. Jennifer Smith, one of his partners, is an information professional by background and, between them, they tried to hammer out an elegant and usable system.

Examples of information stored are people, organisations, projects, files, equipment, books, contact notes, intranet pages, websites, projects and news items. They all represent the sort of information that you want to get hold of at the drop of a hat. And, quite often, without much idea of where they might be. Everything is indexed so a search will find what you’re after as long as you have something of a clue. And, very importantly, all related things are linked. Thus, you could find a company and see who works there, find a person and see who they work for, find out all sorts of extra information about the person such as events attended, files contributed to, organisations worked with and your own notes about that person.

All the links are ‘hot’ so you can reach stuff by browsing in context. A click on an object – an email address or a file name, for example – will have you in your email client or word processor in a flash. The same goes for pdf, Office and OpenOffice documents. You can also navigate to information by following a classical hierarchy or taxonomy of information. You know the sort of thing: Business > Marketing > Website > Blog and, as you go along, the list of ‘hits’ at the foot of the page shrinks as the criteria narrow.

You will be able to buy the OneIS service in a fully customisable configuration or, if you would prefer something pre-configured then you will be able to sign up for OneNow. Once under way with it (prices will start at zero) you can both move up the scale in terms of storage and number of users and migrate to the fully configurable OneIS system from the off-the-shelf version. The company is in the process of signing up IM/IT professionals to its ONEmarketplace. Just as OneIS is helping its early adopters now, so these people will help new users in the future, especially if they’re going for the full blown version.

The people behind it have put a lot of thought into the usability of their system. For example, if it finds lots of hits in a search, it displays them as a long page rather than forcing people to step through a succession of short pages. This is great for ordered lists when you can scroll straight to a name or date of interest. They also consciously decided against ‘folksonomies’ in which users can tag information with their own key words. These tend to work well in large communities. But, in the context of a small business, the same vocabulary is likely to be used, so they’ve opted for a more traditional hierarchical taxonomy. (And, on OneIS, you can even import your own.)

If you’re an Outlook user, not only will it hoover up your contacts, it will keep both information sets in synch’. Although it does this, it is not otherwise tied to Microsoft. The service can be accessed through a variety of browsers and, therefore, on different operating systems. It does have a special desktop element for Mac and PC users if they want to accelerate file uploads and downloads, but this is optional.

Having looked at a variety of information management systems over many years, I must say that I do like the ‘feel’ of this one. It’s a professional system aimed at small business users. It saves you the expense, complexity and environmental harm of having to run your own servers and it provides easy information access to staff and business partners (if you want this) wherever they are.

There’s more, of course, but if you’re interested I suggest you get in touch with OneIS directly.

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