Friday, January 30, 2009

Google Follows Xythos and Zimbra Offline

I know, it sounds sort of odd doesn’t it? However, headlines about Google going offline were all over the tech news sites this week. I think it’s interesting that the world’s largest provider of web services recognizes that a key barrier to increased service adoption is customer concern about online service availability. After all, isn’t the web supposed to be there for us 24x7x365?

Obviously, there’s more to it than that. Having anytime access to your data is certainly important, but knowing that you have control of it is even more critical. I suspect that is one of the reasons more businesses have not adopted Google Docs of Gmail. The fact that these services are still labeled “Beta” probably doesn’t help either.

There will probably always be times that we cannot be connected to the web. Whether that’s in an airplane or simply some WiFi dead zone at a hotel, “no service available” is a message that’s still all too common. Google Gears is a good first step towards addressing these issues, but I’m not sure it means now is the time to discard our desktop applications altogether.

Perhaps there will soon be a time when web apps replicate on my desktop regardless of their connection status and that will be good enough. Today however, I find myself continuing to return to my desktop for programs that can respond acceptably and generally offer me a greater degree of control over how I manage my data. To be fair, I think this is also a function of the maturity of my desktop apps vs. newer web-based alternatives.

However, as my job leads me deeper into the world of rich media the demand for improved application performance multiplies rapidly. I’m already enjoying many of the new features in iLife ’09, but I recognize that even though they leverage web data more, there’s little chance they could perform satisfactorily as web services alone. So, while I applaud Google for addressing the offline challenge, I consider it to be a fast moving target they may not catch up with.

Larger and more complex data files demand faster microprocessors and more sophisticated software. As a result, I benefit from using the latest desktop software from Adobe and Apple while considering my sixteen-month-old Macbook to be somewhat obsolete. This became abundantly clear as I struggled to publish twenty minutes of HD video for our web sites this week.

I need a seamless online and offline connection from my desktop to web servers in order to publish and preserve my output. This is where Internet “bridge” technologies, like Xythos Drive make sense. Xythos Drive synchs my data locally for offline work and lets me perform those tasks with the applications of my choice, whether from Adobe, Microsoft or whoever. That’s the best of both worlds for me when we’re talking about rich media.

When we’re talking about more lightweight collaboration (Email, messaging, etc.) Google is definitely getting better at addressing my needs. However, I like Zimbra Collaboration Suite a lot too and they’ve offered an offline solution for quite a while already. Zimbra has also partnered with Xythos to integrate enterprise content management (ECM) into their popular Outlook alternative. I think that make plenty of sense, particularly if you’re collaborating around rich media!

Gmail continues to improve and I certainly feel like a beneficiary of that. Google could also benefit from considering how users would like to better integrate their desktop lives online and what better solutions their web services can offer in that regard. As a fan of Blogger, I have high hopes.

How are you bridging the divide between what you do on your desktop vs. the web? Please let me know.

Friday, January 23, 2009

Simplifying Compliance with ECM and Metadata

Let’s face it, not everyone remembers to put all their tools away when they finish a project. Even with good intentions, I’ll leave a paint brush in the garage sink or forget a trowel in the garden. Nothing tragic really. Others aren’t usually impacted and I’m generally not putting my family at risk. OK – you could argue about the rusty trowel, but the risks associated with disorganization or protocol failure in business are a whole different story.

I suspect that the many thousands of hours spent by businesses on compliance training last year didn’t always achieve the desired results. The fact is, taking the extra steps to record how and what we’ve just done each time we perform a business task generally seems like its getting in the way of doing the job itself. If compliance procedures can’t be automated, or at least neatly integrated into business processes, even the most well-meaning employee can easily forget.

Now I know, that some readers are probably thinking, “Rules are rules. If employees can’t follow-them, then they should be punished…” OK, but is that really how you want to manage your business? Do you think that’s going to improve productivity or motivate your team to succeed? That’s why I was excited to learn about a new way to automate how emails are scanned, categorized and stored, so that employees don’t have to waste time scrutinizing messages attempting to stay compliant at work.

The solution consists of two key components, a couple customizations and a new Microsoft Office plug-in. The first component is a basic ECM system (Xythos EDMS) configured with a staging folder to capture email messages and attachments. The Office plug-in allows users to direct email to be saved in a staging folder or simply have all messages (and attachments) automatically stored there. Each message and file attachment is captured as a record inside the staging directory.

The second component captured my attention because it’s the part that can help organizations relieve employees from the duty of classifying their email and remembering to declare required items as official records. This task can now be performed by a product called Mindserver Categorization Engine, from Recommind. When records are added to the Xythos staging folder, Xythos sends a file link to Recommind causing it to parse the file contents and generate an XML data file, which it returns to Xythos. Xythos then reads the XML results and moves the record into its appropriate record category based on the content parsing results performed by Recommind.

Those of you familiar with natural language parsing algorithms understand that no system is perfect, although over time they generally improve. It’s possible that trained records managers may still need to review the contents of the Xythos records categories to ensure the system performs as expected. However, the real value delivered with this solution is its ability to substantially reduce the burden upon employees. Once they learn they can batch or automate the process of records declaration they’ll be more likely to perform the task consistently. That’s a hallmark of a successful compliance solution.

Regular readers of this blog may also recognize the importance that metadata plays in this solution as well. Just as Google geographic positioning data helps me better organize my photos, Recommind ‘s XML metadata is helping automate the process of records classification. Data inside messages and file attachments, as well as metadata like message sender and subject each influence the recommended outcome. While these categorization methods may not be perfect, I suspect that the more metadata is included in the decision-making process the more likely desired results will be attained.

So, how is your organization leveraging metadata to manage your content? Have you found ways to use this data to reduce business operating costs or risk? Please let me know.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Will ECM Really Matter in 2009?

Spending the holidays away from the office doesn’t necessarily guarantee the rest and relaxation I hope for, but it almost always provides me with a better perspective when I return. Today, I’m reflecting upon that experience as I fly across the country for our annual business kick-off meeting. I can’t help but remember how many times my family and I found ourselves searching for content we needed - often struggling to get it from one device to another these last few weeks.

The ease with which we can capture digital memories is staggering. I must have recorded several hundred JPEG and RAW images by New Years day in addition to hours of generally awful video with my new Canon Vixia. My MacBook threatened to shut down if I saved one more file and wouldn’t even open a web page until I moved 50 Gigs of older photos off it.

I first tried copying data to a terabyte drive connected to my airport extreme, but even with N band WiFi I received a 37 hours to complete message and then saw the transfer interrupted. I finally gave up and just used a portable Western Digital drive and sneaker net. That was just the beginning. Not all the data we needed this holiday was on the same Mac or server and yours truly finally paid the price for not properly naming photos last year. I almost missed my ShutterFly card delivery deadline as a result.

Once again, the value of meta data has been hammered into my head. I need better ways (or habits) to keep track of all the stuff that makes up my digital life, both at home and at the office. My challenges with rich media certainly aren’t limited to chronicling my family either. We’re developing more audio, video and graphic resources than ever before to help our growing software and SaaS businesses. While we do a better job of categorizing content we make at work, there’s still plenty of room for improvement.

I was excited to learn about some of the new features in iLife that Apple announced last week because I think they can help me address some of these content organization challenges. For example, being able to categorize photos by location using Google Maps could help me find them more easily because that metadata relates well to the way I remember things. In photo face recognition could be similarly helpful.

From a business perspective, I’d like to see how I can use this kind of metadata once its stored in our company’s ECM system. This might improve how we discover and share rich media within workgroups as well. Most ECM systems are capable of storing plenty of metadata, but I don’t think many get used much for this purpose. That’s because it’s a hassle for users to add it when all they really want to do is retrieve or save a file and move ahead with their job.

Applications like iLife or those which scan email messages can help automate the process of generating valuable metadata and make ECM much more beneficial for end users. In turn, this could make ECM systems more valuable to businesses, as they promote increased activity and a better chance for content to be shared and re-used. As the content we use to conduct business inevitably becomes richer it would seem that ECM should continue to have an important role to play – even if it’s just helping me find that image I need for the overdue brochure.

Obviously, ECM can do much more than this, but by leveraging enhanced meta data ECM performs an invaluable task. It helps build a better relationship between users and their data by creating improved context. This helps us better recognize and conceptualize data – turning it into actionable information we can more easily put to work.

Next week, I hope to look more carefully at some other data capture technologies that can help automate meta data creation and categorization. This might be a good way to address compliance requirements as well. In the meantime, why not try some of this yourself? Test drive Xythos on Demand with your own data capture tools for physical or electronic documents.