Too many e-mails? Too many phone calls? Too much time spent searching the Internet? Knowledge workers, from sales staff and consultants to designers and engineers, all know what information overload feels like: stress, confusion and reduced productivity are just some of the side effects. An EU-funded research project has developed and deployed a promising solution that makes handling these tasks much easier.
Most people in Europe and the rest of the developed world are, in one way or another, knowledge workers these days. From customer support representatives fielding calls about products to architects drafting new projects, millions of people spend much of their working lives dealing with information: in e-mails, documents and databases, on the phone, on the Internet or searching their corporate intranet. But often the information they need to do their job efficiently is not at their fingertips.
'One study found that the average corporate worker spends a quarter of their time on e-mail related activities alone and that doesn't include the time spent searching for material on the web or on their corporate intranet,' notes John Davies, the chief researcher for Future Business Applications & Services at BT Innovate & Design.
Dr. Davies and a team of researchers from seven countries identified three key areas where knowledge workers need help and where ICT can be of assistance: accessing and sharing formal knowledge, accessing and sharing informal knowledge, and ensuring quick access to information specifically related to the task they are carrying out, their so-called task context.
Working in the Active project, supported by EUR 8.25 million in funding from the European Commission, the team developed a set of innovative tools and applications to make knowledge workers' jobs easier, help them work more efficiently and in turn increase productivity - in line with the EU's goal of becoming the world's leading knowledge-based economy.
Using a range of technologies, from data mining and semantic search to machine learning and process modelling, the tools make up the 'Active knowledge workspace' (AKWS): a set of applications to enable users to manage their task context and prioritise information delivery, while also helping them share and access the informal knowledge of colleagues. The system, which integrates easily with common e-mail, word processing and knowledge management software, is currently being used by Accenture, one of the project partners, and on a trial basis by BT and Cadence, another partner.
'We didn't want to create another new tool that users would have to install and run separately from their existing systems. AKWS embeds itself in commonly used Windows and Office software,' Dr. Davies, the Active project coordinator, says.
Firstly, it allows users to define their context and can automatically suggest a context for them. For example, when a sales person receives an e-mail from a client, the system would automatically provide them with links to information related to that client within their workspace, dramatically reducing the time they need to spend finding information. Web 2.0 technologies and semantic tagging further enhance the performance of the system.
Multitasking made easy
'One of the hardest things for workers to do is switch context. They're working on one project and an e-mail comes in that needs to be dealt with urgently and they suddenly find themselves off down another path. The Active system helps them switch between task contexts quickly, improving their productivity,' the project coordinator explains.
It also learns from how they perform certain tasks. Intelligent software, developed by Slovenian project partner JSI, looks for patterns of repetition in how they go about their work and stores them as processes to be used in the future, not just by the worker themselves but also by other workers.
'While companies have formal processes for certain tasks, we all have our own ways of doing things. A worker might find a shortcut, a more efficient way, or develop a process to get a task done that isn't documented anywhere,' Dr. Davies says.
A consultant working on patent applications might first search a certain database, then check with an expert, or fill out an application form, all in a given order. 'This kind of knowledge is rarely written down,' Dr. Davies notes.
The Active tools intelligently and automatically store this knowledge and make it reusable so the worker does not need to 'reinvent the wheel' every time a new project comes in. And, instead of sharing this knowledge informally, in chats around the water cooler, for example, the knowledge can be shared formally with other co-workers.
The response of workers to the system has been very positive, the coordinator notes, pointing to the results of three trials conducted by the project at Accenture, BT and Cadence.
At Accenture in France, the Active tools have been used to augment the consultancy and technology services company's existing knowledge management systems, primarily in the enterprise search sector.
'Consultants, as you can imagine, work within very tight time constraints and are therefore highly motivated to reuse knowledge. We had 104 consultants involved in the trial, and the vast majority said they wanted to continue using the Active tools,' Dr. Davies notes. The company has since started using the system commercially.
Similarly, BT has extended the trial and continues to use the AKWS system with members of its sales team in the United Kingdom. 'Sales people often have to switch context very quickly and our evaluations showed that the tools really helped,' the coordinator says.
At German semi-conductor design company Cadence, meanwhile, the Active tools were used to document and reuse complex design processes followed by electronic design engineers, so the knowledge could be passed on to new employees.
The Active team have made some of their software available under an open-source license so other companies and researchers can benefit from the technology, and they have published a book, 'Context and semantics for knowledge management: technologies for personal productivity', based on the project results.
'If workers can reuse knowledge more effectively and work more efficiently, everyone benefits: the workers themselves as they are able to get more done, their companies through increased productivity and, evidently, the economy and society in general,' Dr. Davies notes.
Active received research funding under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme.