A deluge of data is flooding our personal and business lives at an unprecedented rate, and most of us are struggling to keep it all in check: multiple e-mail accounts, contacts, documents, calendars, databases, pictures, etc. are surreptitiously spreading across our world at warp speed. The incredible thing though is that we can’t seem to be able to avoid thinking that all this information is absolutely necessary for us to proficiently navigate our terabyte-grade world. Like daring circus artists, we launch ncredible high wire e-mail balancing acts, followed by flying contacts synchronization plays and twisting document management performances.
More often than not, we completely lose our business bearing in the process.
A simple question though comes to mind: is all this data necessary, and most importantly, is it essential for us to be able access all this data at all times?
If the answer is yes, it is most likely because we do not really have a precise understanding of what all this data is about, and what parts are truly valuable to us and our businesses. In this case, it is paramount to slow down for a brief moment and take some time to sort through it, evaluating it, and organizing it.
Meanwhile, here are a few free tools that can greatly improve the way you store, access, and handle the most common type of data for your everyday productivity.
Google Docs is a collaborative suite that allows the basic functionality of Microsoft Office with great collaborative features. When paired with Gmail and Gears, automatically integrated with all Google accounts, Docs becomes a powerful repository of data for ubiquitous online and offline access.
A product based on the same technologies, but with far better features, great integration with Microsoft Office and specifically designed for small businesses is Zoho. Most of its features are free and live well integrated in their Zoho Business suite that allows for a smooth office productivity, file storage, e-mail management experience, online, offline, and on mobile devices such as the iPhone. It even offers features such multi-party conferencing, online presentations, and collaborative wikis. It still has some usability quirks, but it is growing fast and getting more polished by the day.
If your core needs are around basic office productivity, another very compelling option is Think Free, which offers a well tried productivity suite available online and offline with great document management and storage options. A very slick version for mobile devices is also available.
If companywide personal information management, such as contacts, calendars, notes, and e-mail are your primary concerns, Zimbra is a fantastic product by Yahoo! that fully integrates with Microsoft Outlook. It is also accessible through its fully-featured Web interface and its proprietary desktop companion. The hosted version of Microsoft Exchange, offered as a fee-based service by many independent providers, remains a strong contender in this type. Both Zimbra and Exchange are designed to synchronize extremely well with desktops and mobile devices.
Finally, if you are stretched across so many e-mail addresses, calendars, contact managers, social networking sites, and online document repositories that you cannot even remember all the passwords, Plaxo may just be perfect for you. Thanks to a mix of Web 2.0 mashups and old-school synchronization across your desktop applications, Plaxo does a pretty good job at aggregating all your information in one place.
Remember though that most likely only a small part of all your digital information is truly key for your business, and that portion is what should be made available to you ubiquitously, backed up continuously, and well protected. Everything else can live on good old hard disks or even backed up on DVDs for reference.
Focus on that information that matters and your business life will be simpler and more successful.
Andrea Peiro is a recognized authority, author, analyst and speaker on high-tech marketing and use of information technology in small and mid-sized businesses. He has been frequently interviewed and featured in such media outlets as The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and Inc. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.