19/09/2006 - 22:00

Organised to unlock email

19/09/2006 - 22:00

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Perth seems an unlikely place for the development of tools to manage a globally ubiquitous product such as Microsoft Outlook, but by some coincidence two local firms have based their time management solutions around this common software.

Perth seems an unlikely place for the development of tools to manage a globally ubiquitous product such as Microsoft Outlook, but by some coincidence two local firms have based their time management solutions around this common software.

Both have their own unique histories and have come up with very different approaches to the same problem – dealing with a huge volume of information, largely but not exclusively through electronic form.

Unlocking Outlook Pty Ltd founder Stephen Barnes got into the business of dealing with information by chance.

Originally a lawyer from the UK, Mr Barnes had built a successful Hong Kong immigration business before moving to Western Australia to settle at South Yunderup.

Remaining connected with the Chinese business, he noted something odd back around the turn of the century – a significant reduction in productivity in his workforce.

“We had designed best practice administration systems,” Mr Barnes said. “They were phenomenally productive on case management but they were draining in email.”

This sparked a four-year odyssey of research and development that has led him to commercialise a software and training package called Empty Inbox.

Mr Barnes said he took time to learn the functionality of Outlook and delved into research about productivity.

Eventually he found a way of marrying the old processes with the existing functionality of Outlook – to help his staff manage not just email, but all their tasks. It worked, but it took 2.5 hours per employee just to set up.

Mr Barnes said he solved this by getting software written in China to make the changes automatically.

Needing to start a business to gain permanent residence, he did a test market deal with the business community in Mandurah, offering them the early version of Empty Inbox for nothing in return for their participation as “guinea pigs”.

“We surveyed everyone and it was a net positive across the board,” Mr Barnes said. “What I learned from this was that this business potentially had serious legs.”

Since then, Empty Inbox has evolved into a plug-in that creates its own user interface, or dashboard, rather than just customising Outlook.

The Indian-produced software has been through several versions and is now ready to commercialise.

Mr Barnes, who brought on a like-minded partner in 2005, is now seeking around $4 million from sophisticated investors in Australia and Hong Kong.

This solution is just one of several on the market attacking the issue with varying degrees of technical sophistication.

All, however, acknowledge that email is only part of the problem.

For Mark Lovekin, a founder of Perth-based Organised 1st Ltd, the computer and its email by-product are not the issue – though ultimately his own business has been enabled by it.

Bugged by his own inability to get organised, Mr Lovekin devised an information management system that brought everything out of his head, as he puts it, and placed it in one simple place.

“The problem is, we use our heads to do everything – they become congested,” he said.

Manually, this had some frustrations, which is why Mr Lovekin saw the benefits offered by increasingly sophisticated computer packages.

“When computerised calendars came in I fell in love with them because you only had to type it in once,” said Mr Lovekin, whose system is now primarily based on using Microsoft Outlook as a tool – using its calendar as the focal point for collating and processing information arriving in electronic (inbox), physical (intray and desk) and cognitive (from discussions and thoughts) forms.

As a management consultant and corporate doctor, he’d learned over many years that improving people’s ability to organise themselves was generally a key to making their businesses work.

In 1999, he engineered a turnaround in a 50-person banking unit based largely on getting everyone to adopt his system of organisation, which by now included dealing with the growing issue of email in the overall management of information.

“I realised it had more effect than my other consulting,” Mr Lovekin said. “If everyone has a clear head, they can achieve what they want to achieve without consultants.”

Soon after, Mr Lovekin brought in two partners, barrister and solicitor Paul Edgar and computer science authority Graham Reid, to form Organised 1st. Since then they have formed an organisation that can train up to 60 people at a time and is seeking to patent its process.

While these two WA companies both have global ambitions for their products, there is already a major international player in their sphere – Vancouver-based Priority Management System Inc.

Priority Management operates in 15 countries and was established as a training organisation in the early 1980s, although it readily acknowled-ges its big selling product is Working Sm@rt with Microsoft Outlook.

Not without a tinge of irony, Priority Management’s Applecross-based sales manager Andy Buchanan-Hughes said his company’s most popular system was created when major US client Microsoft appealed for assistance because its own staff had encountered trouble using Outlook – its own software.

“The Microsoft guys knew the features but did not know how to use them,” Mr Buchanan-Hughes said.

But he said this was just an evolution of the systems the company had been delivering in WA since 1988, and which it still offers on top of the now popular training focused on Outlook and similar programs such as Lotus Notes.

STANDING BY BUSINESS. TRUSTED BY BUSINESS.

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