Saturday, July 08, 2006

Why you need VIC CRM.

Today I want to touch on the philosophy that's driven the development of VIC CRM. I'm also going to do some comparisons with Microsoft's nearest desktop equivalent, Outlook and OneNote combined.

Augmenting the Human Intellect

VIC's features reflect what I want in an information organizer. I examined the way I work and designed the system to assist me in two very important ways: storing information efficiently and quickly, and accessing it as quickly.

I think of VIC as an extension of my own memory (and my team's). And I want it to be as convenient for me to use as my own memory. VIC records my conversations (be they telephone, email, or written). It holds all the niggling little facts for me (such as product registration keys, dates of purchase, etc). It knows about my contracts (when they were signed, when they're due, what are the terms). It knows all my customers, their contact information and selected birthdates. It knows about my appointments and to-dos and reminds me when they're due, with appropriate lead time. It saves me time by keeping documentation templates on-hand so I can just fill in the details. It even dials the phone for me to save me effort.

All of this is designed to happen as smoothly and as quickly as I could devise. When I'm sitting at my desk, I'm augmented. I really took to heart the "mother of all demos" and Douglas Englebart's work at SRI's Augmentation Research Center and tried to apply those concepts here. As I've mentioned here, what an information organizer should be is "eidetic memory to augment my own." Information that's collected and stored is pretty useless. Think about it... what good is a library full of books that nobody reads? And what good is a reference library if you have to thumb through tomes of information to get the one datum you need?

One of the things that came out of my work on on Lotus Notes systems and on VIC CRM in particular is a realization of how my memory works. When your brain is gathering facts any classification of them is so automatic that you aren't even aware it's happening. If you're a normal human, you don't choose where facts are stored in your brain. You don't "open a folder" and "organize your thoughts". When we say that we're organizing our thoughts we're actually analyzing them, classifying them, and discovering relationships between them. That's very different. In your brain, what's vastly more important than the storage of your information is the ability to retrieve it and utilize it.

IBM "gets it.". IBM's Lotus Notes is the platform upon which VIC is built. Likewise, Google "gets it.". Retrieval is of prime importance, and getting the information into the system should be as trivial as possible. One of the things I did with VIC was ignore the "folders" metaphore entirely (and I did it long before Google's gmail existed). Instead, you can categorize a document in as many ways as you like. Later, you can retrieve your documents with full-text search, or you can view them by categories. If a document is categorized multiple ways, you'll see it listed under every applicable category (this is a capability of Lotus Notes that makes it the ideal platform for a program like VIC.)

Tearing down the fences.

As important as properly classifying information is the ability to look past preconceptions, so I removed artificial distinctions from VIC's design. All correspondence is the same, whether it's email, fax, printed letters, or phone conversations. The medium of transmission may differ, as may the immediacy of the contact, but when you strip away these trivialities, these are all simply "correspondence". As a result it's possible for the VIC user to view interactions in ways that are simply impossible with other programs.

Another artificial distinction I've removed involves scheduled activities. Strip away superficial differences and embellishments and you're left with the fact that everything you do is simply an activity that occurs within a specified timeframe. I then allow that some activities (To-Dos) have have a date but no specified time. Some (meetings) involve people other than myself. There may be a number of such embellishments. But because at their core these are all the same thing thing, I can view all of my activities in ways that aren't possible with most popular programs. In VIC these are all simply "Journal Entries." While I can still see all my phone calls, or my emails, or all correspondence with a particular customer I'm not limited in this regard, and I don't need to search for data to view my data in these various ways. (There's a search utility in VIC, but you'll use views more often).

And it goes deeper. Sending or receiving an email or having a phone conversation is an activity as well. It's the activity of communication, performed at a specific time. So VIC tears away the artificial distinction between the Inbox and the Calendar (I can even view my Inbox as a calendar if I like). I can look at every activity I've recorded in one place, just as I can with my own memory... only with perfect recollection.

By removing structural barriers between the different kinds of documents, VIC can do for my memory what Excel does for numbers. If you're familiar with PivotTables you're familiar with the concept of being able to see different "cuts" of your data. I do that with memory.

Getting the information into VIC is as seamless as I could make it. For instance... VIC knows my correspondents and their email addresses and phone numbers. Why should I need to manually drag their emails into folders? I don't. VIC categorized incoming correspondence for me. It recognizes the source of the communication and sorts out the relationships. I doesn't just enable communication, it augments it. For example, if I just received an email from a customer and have a sudden need to call him, I don't have to look up his phone number. I just click "Dial" and VIC picks up the phone and calls for me. VIC knows what I want.

And that's just what I can do on my own. Using a Domino server I can share these memories and activities and plans with other people I work with. Members of my team with security clearance can see everything that's going on with each customer. If I'm not available and a customer calls, it's OK. To a great extent my team knows what I know because when I'm working I live in this software.

And remember what I said about seeing different cuts of my memory? When VIC is used to share this information among a team, you can use that ability to discover relationships that you wouldn't have otherwise known about. It's your memory, squared.

As you can see, VIC isn't your run-of-the-mill PDA. Once you've used it, it's part of you, and very difficult to do without.

How VIC compares to Outlook and OneNote

I started work on VIC five years ago. This year, of course, there's anticipation about the upcoming Microsoft Office 2007 release, which will include an updated Outlook (with Business Contact Manager), OneNote, and other components that should by all rights have similar capabilities. After all, Notes + VIC does more than Microsoft Outlook does. It takes the addition of OneNote or something like it to add some of the informational organization to Outlook. And let's assume for a moment that you're using VIC on your own, since it would take the resources of an IT department to duplicate VICs features for a team using SharePoint and Exchange. Remember, VIC costs nothing, and it runs on Lotus Notes, which is under $150.

Marc Orchant has posted a pretty fair summary of Microsoft's OneNote program on the Microsoft Office 2007 preview site. I responded in his blog with many of the comments I'm making here. My initial comments were that it has some interesting (if unimportant) features, but that they missed the important point of retrieval. I noted that the OneNote team seems to take the position that OneNote's organized because you can separate things into tabs or pages, or spaces on a page. I think it's unorganized because you have to do this to have any real hope of finding anything again.

I took another look and haven't changed my mind. OneNote makes you remember how things are organized. VIC organizes things. It's a hugely significant difference. Having Outlook and OneNote is like having a filing system, whereas having VIC is like having a really good secretary who does all your filing for you and can immediately lay her hands on any document for you on request.

Because you don't have to worry about the specifics of getting information out of the system, VIC's interface can be cleaner. To my eyes, OneNote's interface is seriously crowded. You've got so many in-your-face chotchkas that nothing really stands out. If you're one of the people who have "banner-blindness" you know what I mean. The UI overload in OneNote also leaves less room for actual note-taking than you reasonably need. My philosophy of the user interface is "show me what I need to know now. Let me easily get to everything else." That's what VIC provides.

I also found that OneNote and Outlook, though they work together, do so in a "bolted together" fashion. Remember when I said that there are no fundamental distinctions in VIC between activities of any kind and correspondence? In VIC, for example, To-Dos and Activities all appear in the Journal's calendar. That's not true in Office 2007. Your emails are in Outlook... search for them there. So are your activities. But there is a fundamental distinction between a Task (to-do) and an Event (activity). They don't both appear in the calendar, and won't appear in the same list. Your notes, though, are in OneNote, quite possibly scattered among various notebooks, certainly scattered among various tabs. It's disjointed. It's disorganized. It's kludgy.

Office 2007: A Study in Mixed Metaphors

That "bolted together" feeling shows through the entire User Interface. Remember, Outlook and OneNote are components of Office 2007. One of the new features of Office 2007 is the removal of the drop-down menu paradigm. These are replaced with "Ribbons" in the core components such as Word and Excel. Let's ignore for a moment that users are well-acquainted with menus (In VIC, for instance, you can do just about everything without the system menus, and have been able to for years). The new "Ribbon" paradigm is spottily implemented. Both Outlook and OneNote use menus, except that Outlook uses a Ribbon (not menus) when you're creating a new event or task. OneNote doesn't use a Ribbon at all. But OneNote doesn't even use menus consistently, choosing to throw in yet another paradigm. OneNote indicates a dialog where you'd normally see a submenu; then it opens a sidebar instead. This steals your screen real estate.

A difference in philosophy

It's not my intention to bash Outlook and OneNote, though it's difficult to avoid the appearance of bashing. My intention is to illustrate a difference in design philosophy. Microsoft's solution is about components. It's about various tools that you use to work, but that don't really work for you. You may be able to make them do some work with scripting and servers and a stable of MCSEs, but is that where you want to go today?

If your work in Office appears organized, it's because you put a lot of work into it to make it so. If you're satisfied with that, maybe you're just not used to a better way.

VIC CRM is a knowledge repository and processor. I call it CRM (customer relationship management) because that's the purpose for which it was written. The specific category is SFA (sales force automation), but I don't do much in the way of pure selling and have still found VIC absolutely indispensible. The thing is, I don't think it matters much what you're using your computer for, you need this or something very much like it.

VIC is open source. That means it's free for you to download and use. I won't ask a penny. It's also under construction, so there are portions where you can still see the rafters. But even under construction, in many ways VIC outperforms to the latest and greatest from the biggest and brightest.

That's my opinion and I'm sticking to it.

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