Working in the digital office will breathe life into the Web
GET ready for the digital office. Recently software giant Microsoft unveiled its plans to make its next generation of application software, due for release early next year, centred around the Internet.
Most modern application software, like word processors and spreadsheets, for example, have a capability to transform documents into types that can be viewed using a Web browser, but they don't have that as the default.
As a growing number of organisations rely more heavily on the Web to communicate and perform transactions, so they should concentrate on creating documents for that environment rather than for output onto paper.
Says Terry Annecke, the marketing manager at Microsoft South Africa: "The Internet is the network that ties individual networks together; an intranet is what ties people together in an organisation.
"No-one knows or cares which part of the network is the 'Internet or 'intranet' any more.
"Information needs to be viewed and accessed in any number of ways and tied together with networks of whatever description, whether information is shared over private networks, the Internet or a mixture of the two," she says.
"Companies have been grasping the wrong end of the Internet stick.
"In the past, the idea was that people would publish their spreadsheets and documents to an internal intranet to improve information flow.
"This concept did not take off for a simple reason - it was inconvenient to do so. Users had to convert a document to HTML (the mark-up language that Web pages are formatted with), and save a file into the correct intranet directory on a Web server. Not only does all this require time and trouble, but managing all of these documents becomes problematic.
"What is required to usher in the digital office is to make the space that people work in the 'Net space' from the start.
"The digital office has to stem from the people doing their work in the digital space. If the infrastructure and tools are in place that make a digital office more convenient to work in, it will be populated naturally," says Annecke.
Most information is created in only a small handful of applications: a word processor, spreadsheet or a presentation package.
In Microsoft's Office 2000, the software is designed with the Web-ready model in mind.
The software has been designed with the digital office as the default space: it saves documents in HTML or XML format automatically (XML is a new-generation Web mark-up language).
Documents created with the software are already part of a company's digital nervous system - they can be viewed with any standard Web browser.
They do not have to be stored on a special Web server; they can be stored anywhere on the network.
"A paper-based office, filled with multiple scrawled-on photocopies of printouts, is inefficient," says Annecke. "Working in the digital office you 'subscribe' to specified documents.
"Say you always want to be aware of changes made to the monthly sales-figures spreadsheet, the software will notify you automatically if a change is made. You only need to concern yourself with something when it needs your attention; the technology reminds you if you need to."
She says being able to share documents easily is the first pillar of a digital office. The second pillar is getting rid of unnecessary paperwork.
"We looked carefully at all the forms our company used to have, forms for anything from setting pension fund payments to applying for medical aid. There were hundreds of them.
"We realised that there is absolutely no reason to fill in bits of paper," she says.
"The normal practice for a staff member wanting changes made to their medical aid package is for them to fill in a form and send it to the human resources department by internal mail. After a few days a clerk in human resources will get the piece of paper and type the details into the computer system. This kind of system is dated, but it is the norm.
"Why can't the staff member simply go to the human resources department's Web page and change their own details? This saves the individual time, and the company money. We have implemented a digital nervous system using our intranet and now have only a limited number of forms," she says.
The third pillar of a digital office is that access to it must be convenient and quick, from anywhere.
"This is where the Internet's power is enormous: it virtually spans the globe and is getting quicker and bigger every day," says Annecke.
"There are a number of ways to access data securely over the Internet over an encrypted tunnel. If I cannot nip into an Internet café in Amsterdam to schedule an appointment with colleagues for when I get back to Johannesburg, what is the point in having Internet access?
"The Internet is not and should not be an inert library of trivial information - a dead Web. It is the means for companies to make their employees communicate information more effectively, more cheaply, and without physical location being of any concern.
"The digital office allows this to happen," says Annecke.