by Joanne F. Gucwa
This is the second in a three-part series based on my part of the presentation "Two Killer Apps and Their Strategic Epicenter" given in San Diego on November 5, 1998 at 20/20 Foresight, MRA's Fall Education Conference. If you couldn't quite make it through the first article (appearing in the March issue), well, this one is about as dull. Consider yourself forwarned.
For the most part, the first article focused on capturing information that's already out there. This article focuses on isolating the information you need, and the final article will focus on creating new information. This is not just any information, but information that fulfills our defined mission as market researchers: to transform garden-variety information into Business Intelligence.
Let's briefly take a moment to define Business Intelligence, to make sure we're all talking about the same thing. Wally Bock offers a definition I particularly like in his article "Frequently Asked Questions about Business Intelligence" at http://www.bockinfo.com/docs/bifaq.htm.
"Business Intelligence is the process of getting enough of the right information in a timely manner and usable form and analyzing it so that it can have a positive impact on business strategy, tactics or operations."
Getting enough of the right information in a timely manner and usable form. That's what this article is all about: getting the "right information."
You've gotten these results: you go to your favorite search engine, type in a key word or phrase and get 65,473 hits. Use a boolean expression and you're down to merely 961 hits. Information overload! And it's more like thorns than roses. The critical factor is, how do you get to the meat, to the critical "needle in the haystack" piece of information you need?
And then there's e-mail overload. You're subscribed to a couple of dozen e-mail periodic newsletters (is ours among them?), site updates and daily -- perhaps hourly -- newsfeeds, not counting your "regular" business e-mail. You're a packrat and can't bring yourself to trash them, but now you've got nearly a hundred megabytes of stuff, probably 10% of which is truly useful, and it's threatening to overwhelm your RAM. Or your network administrator's sending you D-Day (D'Delete by Tuesday or I'll delete it for you) warning notices.
The whole issue here is separating the wheat from the chaff. And then burning the chaff.
There are three major means of isolating the information that's vital to your objectives from the rest of the data, factoids and generally useless dross that pollute the Internet:
a. Cultivating root resources
Successful researchers develop sources and processes to take effective advantage of those resources. You're among them, so you know these as well as I do. I'm assembling them here in categories that have helped me recall (and quickly access) all the resources I've collected and found useful over time...and also on the off chance that there may be a tidbit or two here that you haven't tasted yet.
Some families of root resources on the Web, listed in very rough sequence from the broadest based, research (archival) sites to the most focused, with current, late-breaking news:
Space limitations preclude my listing more than just a couple of Web sites in these categories in the sidebar, so please take all these with a grain of salt. They happen to be sites that I tend to use quite a bit, but are by no means necessarily the best resources for you.
Search engines and directories
For one thing, I've got nearly a dozen different "favorite" search engines, depending on the kind of information I need. I'm sure you do too, so there's no need to list the Atop 5". There are also search engines that search the search engines (metasearch engines) and provide you the "top ten" hits of the engines you choose. Actually, this is nothing more than practicing one of the cardinal rules of research: NEVER (if you can help it) rely on a single information source. See sidebar for a short list of metasearch engines.
Statistics Sites and Databases
Trying to pinpoint a number (such as the number of Midwesterners conducting on-line banking) that has at least a remote resemblance to reality is like one of Einstein's theories. You can measure position or velocity, but not simultaneously. Especially in the high tech world. Of course some statistics, such as census data, are out of date long before they're published. (You knew that though, didn't you?)
Sites Linking to other Sites
In the eyes of this beholder, the greatest source of the Internet's beauty lies in hypertext, the ability to leap directly from one resource to another with just a mouse click. See sidebar for some good "links to other sites" sites.
These are usually the on-line issues of print publications as well as made-for-Web e-zines. This is purely a matter of your own interests.
At this writing in early March, we were receiving just under 60 (!!) periodic free e-mailed newsletters, ranging from daily to once-in-a-blue-moon publications. This is not quite as daunting as it seems at first glance (although I admit to a gasp when I counted them just now). Some of them are from our hardware, software and service vendors (e.g. our ISP, browser, Web site hosting service, Eudora e-mail program). Others are specific to our practice areas (the internet, marketing, consulting, management) or personal interests.
The sidebar lists some Web addresses of free e-mailed newsletters (including our own TECHMANAGE which focuses on market information and consulting issues).
"Over 11,000 free newsletters" proclaims the home page of The Newsletter Library. This site offers an extensive listing of subjects you may check in order to receive free mailed (e- or snail, it's unclear) newsletters. The company forwards your list to the newsletter producers in the categories you check. Newsletter vendors pay $50 to become part of the library, and another $25 to have their sites linked to its own. Neither marketing (or market) research nor "research" is one of the subjects; I haven't requested any newsletters or signed on as a vendor, but the concept is interesting enough to be included here. So, caveat emptor (sign-or? since you're not buying anything). http://pub.savvy.com/
The CyberSkeptic's Guide to Internet Research is a printed, monthly newsletter about the use of the Internet in research. It is mailed 10 times per year and cost is $149/year to private, for-profit organizations. http://www.bibliodata.com/
URLs from outside sources
I don't know about you, but I get a lot Web addresses from our associates and contractors, people who know my interests, and from traditional, pulp-based publications (even from an occasional ad on the side of a bus or TV/radio). I file them under appropriate categories (see the third section, "taxonomy") for later retrieval when I need them.
Some of these are in the form of newsletters e-mailed to you daily (see above), and others are accessible through newspaper and newswire Web sites or sent directly to your computer screen through the magic of "push" technology, pioneered by Point Cast http://www.pointcast.com/ a little over a year ago.
Signal-to-noise is the way engineers measure the amount of meaningful information of the total data received. I don't know about you, but I need all the help I can get in sifting through the slag that manages to get downloaded in my quest for information.
What are some of these noise reducers?
The challenge of using multiple sources is that while they all have their own special strengths, they also all have their own little quirks. One accepts "+" as a Boolean expression, the other only recognizes "AND." Sigh. When you discover a couple of search engines that seem to work particularly well for you, go to their on-line help or dig deeper to see what other tricks they have up their sleeve to make your research even more efficient. Let me give you just one example.
HotBot offers these choices when you click its "more options" button:
"Look for" all the words, any of the words, exact phrase, the page title, the person, links to this URL, Boolean phrase
"Language" any language, Dutch, English, Finnish, etc.
"Word filter" must contain, must not contain options for the words you choose; "more terms" allows you up to four such term and option combinations per search
"Date" to limit your results by length of time preceding the current date or before/after a date you choose
"Pages must include" image, audio, video, etc.
"Location/domain" to limit searches to .com, .edu, etc., and/or specific countries or continents (which you may choose from an index)
"Page depth" to specify top page, any page, personal page, etc.
"Word stemming" to search for grammatic variations of your word, such as "thinking" for your word "thought"
"Return results" to show number of results to be shown in one scrolled page (max. 100) and length of description, from URL only to "full descriptions"
All of the major search engines and directories (such as Yahoo, which is technically a directory and not a search engine) are looking to become your personal portal to the Internet (advertisers pay by the set of eyeballs or other plans that all rely heavily on the number of visitors to the site). This is why you'll find scores of links to other information sources that so many researchers tend to neglect, such as Usenet. This is also why many search engines and directories, such as Lycos http://www.lycos.com/ and Yahoo http://www.yahoo.com/ take the concept of "mass customization" seriously, trying to build loyalty by allowing you to personalize their page to your individual tastes.
One site that presents you with multiple search engine and other sources right up front is iSleuth.com: http://www.isleuth.com/ Interestingly, I did a search using the following:
["knowledge management"+taxonomy] and came up with zero. Doing the same search on HotBot http://www.hotbot.com resulted in 430 hits (iSleuth.com does NOT list HotBot as one of the 6 search engines it queries). I rest my case..
For automatic e-mail sorting, filters go a long way in preserving your sanity. I use Qualcomm's Eudora Pro (Version 4.1) which offers extensive filtering and sorting capabilities. In fact, I use Eudora as my contact management system...and automatic trash compactor. If a message has a combination of "sex" or "adult" in the subject header and in the body, off it goes, unread. Same goes for some mailers that won't let me "unsubscribe". Sure beats wading through a lot of spam.
I understand that Pegassus works similarly. Users of Windows 98 report that Microsoft's Outlook offers contact management that's tightly integrated with its other programs bundled in its office suite. The REAL value of filters, however, is in their set-up, a taxonomy issue, discussed in the next section below.
Relational databases are wonderful for slicing, dicing and locating that very special needle of information in your data hay, but very time consuming to learn and set up. Two software programs in addition to Outlook that offer nifty solutions for dealing with information overload:
Info Select from Micrologic http://www.miclog.com/index.html and Sidekick, from Starfish Software www.starfish.com. Both these programs have fast and easy search-and-retrieval mechanisms for quickly locating notes, files, calendar schedules and other gazillion bits of information you've tucked away and forgotten where you stashed them. Outline and database functions of these software tools offer additional means for you to home in fast on your brilliant ideas and valuable resources.
Your Own Bookmarks
Most Web browsers provide bookmark or "favorites" features that let you set up instant access to important sites. I use folders to avoid long scrolls down uncategorized lists (see taxonomy below).
c. Developing a Practical Taxonomy
So much to do, so little time! It was always so and it will always BE so, I'm afraid. Taking the time to develop a classification system for a wide range of information resources (and sometimes the information itself) is a time management practice that will pay real dividends in terms of your efficiency.
You don't need artificial intelligence, an expert system, or "fuzzy logic" to set up an information retrieval system that works for you. What I've discovered for setting up filters and folders is this:
I learned these the hard way. Our brains can keep only a few concepts up front simultaneously. My information resources were forever getting lost until I set up my filters and folders in my e-mail and information management software in the following top-level categories:
(I also have Marketing and Personal top-level categories, but these are outside the scope of this discussion)
Let's take a look at the first four categories.
My next-level subsets include Contractors, Resources and Personal Contacts. The Resources have third-level categories that include skill sets and geographical location.
This is one place you can violate the dirty-dozen (12 or fewer categories) rule, and set up industries by alphabet, e.g. automotive, biotechnology, chemicals, electronics, etc.
Functions and Processes
For me, these are areas such as consulting, management practices, finance, survey design, research sites.
Here is where I keep important information on registrations, passwords, updates and upgrade announcements...basically administrative details.
Active information stays in e-mail, others are moved to my Info Seek program. Still other information goes into a relational database that I've designed specifically for my own needs.
So, bottom line is this: whenever I get an e-mail message, download something from the Internet (or even acquire information in the "real" non-virtual world, such as business cards), it gets filtered or moved.
Is this a perfect solution?
Hardly. It's more like a work-in-process. It will always be an evolving system as new tools are developed and my needs change. The good news is that you can always find ways to improve your productivity. Take some time now, especially if you are running your own business, and just do it. You'll get immediate results. I promise.
Mamma ("the mother of all search engines") http://www.mamma.com/
Dogpile (yes, that's its name!) http://www.dogpile.com/ Whereis: http://www.whereis.com/
Statistical Resources on the Web: http://www.lib.umich.edu/libhome/Documents.center/stats.html
Though clearly also a link site, this is one of the finest resources when you're looking for statistics.
Fedstats: One Stop Shopping for Federal Statistics: http://www.fedstats.gov/
STAT-USA/Internet Home Page: http://www.stat-usa.gov/
Edgar database: http://www1.FreeEDGAR.com/
You can even download financial data directly into a spreadsheet.
For the occasional elusive word when the Muse visits, A Rhyming Dictionary for Poetry and Songwriting: http://www.writeexpress.com/online.html
The Business Start Page: http://www.bspage.com/
Vivamus Market Research: http://www.vivamus.com/
A Business Researcher's Jumpstation: http://www.brint.com/Sites.htm
The Zenith MediaNet Commercial Sites Index: http://www.zenithmedia.com/mapuse00.htm
The Info Service: http://info-s.com/
Entrepreneurial Edge Online: http://www.edgeonline.com/
Ward's Communications Auto Industry Websites : http://www.wardsauto.com/autosites/wards_sites.htm
American Journalism Review: http://ajr.newslink.org/news.html
4,925 newspapers online
CEO Express: http://www.ceoexpress.com/
All Business Network: http://www.all-biz.com/datadir.html
CIO Magazine: http://www.cio.comE-mail Newsletters Biotech Marketing and Business Development: http://www.biotactics.com/whatnew.htm Computer Telephony Integration: http://www.tmcnet.com eMARKETER eNEWSLETTER: http://www.emarketer.com/eservices/eserv_newsl.html Information Week:: http://www.informationweek.com Manufacturing Marketplace: http://www.manufacturing.net TECHMANAGE: http://www.techmanage.com
Outsourcing Interactive, an on-line resource of the Outsourcing Institute : http://www.outsourcing.com/
Purchasing Magazine: http://www.manufacturing.net/magazine/purchasing/
The New York Times on the Web: http://www.nytimes.com/
PR Newswire: http://www.prnewswire.com/ Click on "today's news" for the 100 most recent stories of the day.
Point Cast http://www.pointcast.com/
Reprinted with permission from the Marketing Research Association, PO Box 230, Rocky Hill, CT 06067-0230, © 1999, MRA, 860-257-4008, www.mra-net.org
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