As the onetime editor of a magazine dedicated to enterprise portals, I've always been interested in workplace technology and the ways people will interact with systems as well as one another in the future. My philosophy then and now has been, 'give someone a better way of working and they'll embrace it.' If you're just reinventing the interface without regard for a given user's productivity, don't bother; people will cling to the tools they trust to earn their living.

 

As a result, I've been keeping an eye on the reborn concept of Enterprise Information Management (EIM), a buzz term this year signifying the latest attempt to bring structured and unstructured information together. So far, it looks like a bundling of BI tools, portals and enterprise content management (ECM) with a security and access layer below all the information. Some renditions will likely feature composite applications, role-based application end points that are brought together to serve a given user. It's a likely combination, but more spin than a real, unified product set so far.

Also, the EIM concept has been discussed more as infrastructure than interface, which is why I was interested to see a pair of Forrester analysts, Erica Rugullies and Connie Moore, talking and writing about what they've called the Information Workplace (IW). At first I thought this was still more confusion, but it started to sink in the more I listened. (Rugullies and Moore are writing a column on the topic for the July/August edition of BI Review. -ed)

According to the analysts, the four building blocks of the IW are portals, content (structured and unstructured), collaboration and office productivity. The likeliest proponents are vendors that offer all these products, namely IBM, Microsoft and perhaps Oracle. "The thing that got us thinking about this was thinking, 'Is SharePoint content management, portal or collaboration?'" It's all three," Rugullies says. "Same thing with the Oracle collaboration suite. We're looking at more and more features finding their way into this platform we're calling Information Workplace."

Better yet, the Forrester analysts passed along a case study they've written about Verizon's approach to the IW, which includes a rich portal, a speech portal for offline access, a "right-time" communications platform and dashboard functionality. One of the neat things Verizon does is that it not only considers many job types: IT workers, executives, contractors; but also job dimensions, roles that Forrester refers to as "dreamers," "problem solvers" and "doers." Technologists have designed the system to mirror the ways in which these people taught themselves to be productive on their home desktops, rather than impose a corporate stamp on all users.

Much of Verizon's system is built on IBM technology, but also converges with phone systems and PDAs. Depending on roles, a ringing phone can open a map showing caller location, a likely boon to dispatchers and sales managers. There is video programming and conferencing that can be initiated by a phone call and so on. Executives can choose from a revolving dashboard of financial, field operation or call center information.

It's more than technical wizardry. Once a company starts to think this way, the productivity possibilities present themselves. So far, the communications platform serves workers internally, but Rugullies says that's only part of the corporate knowledge base. "They have 300,000 employees, but if they roll it out to retirees that's something like 900,000 people. Yes, they can do benefit support but the bigger part is capturing all the knowledge in the retiring workforce. They'll find ways to have people working a little bit here and there, contributing in ways you wouldn't have thought of a decade ago."

There is certainly a business process and workflow engine angle to IW, Rugullies says. "Verizon has attacked are these processes that you'd think would be pretty basic, yet with 300,000 employees are very hard to manage: 'I am planning to retire, what do I need to do?' 'Someone got hurt on the job in my department, what do I do?' 'We need to outfit a new office for someone, what do we do?'" What Verizon is doing is streamlining processes through easily accessible interfaces, single sign-on to back-end systems and direct links to such processes, she says.

Just how the IW model will flesh out is hard to predict. With all the talk of service-oriented architectures, you'd wonder if a unified product set would be necessary if IT could just plug together services into any custom user interface. That may one day be the case. On the other hand, an inexpensive and flexible platform that could leverage services would allow IT to focus more productively elsewhere. In the end, it will come down to desktop contentedness. As I often tell people, I have an old stapler on my desk that is still an important part of my personal file system. Prove to me that I don't need it and it will go straight into the circular file.