Thanks to a new generation of software, now may be the time

It happens just about every morning, around 5:00 a.m. My body is not yet up, but my mind is already racing. "Will what's-her-name call today? . . . Must get the letter out to Omnicorp. . . . Meet with the visitors from Cleveland. . . . What's the name of their president? . . . Should I tell Otis today? . . . Is it time to start year-end reviews?" And so it goes. Day after day I find myself returning to the same topics I mulled over the morning before.

To relieve this overload, I used to buy appointment calendars with all sorts of tear-out sheets. But keeping a diary never worked. My notes about product changes might be useful at the next budget review, but they were mixed up with observations about factory costs. And to be able to find what I had promised in a phone conversation, I had to reconstruct when the conversation took place. However useful my notes were when I wrote them down, after a few months I had no way of relating one to another. In theory, computers should be helpful in handling the accumulation of follow-up items, ideas, appointments, promises, phone calls, and customer visits, and for years I hoped that I would be able to use a computer as an auxiliary memory.

When good word-processing software became available, I started to transcribe summaries of conversations that I could later retrieve by key-word searches. After a while, though, this experiment fell by the wayside because there was no convenient way to call up related entries. A filing cabinet with scraps of paper tossed into folders turned out to be a much more practical solution. When relational database software became available, such as Double Helix II, I spent a few weekends converting my paper notes into records that could relate phone calls to projects and then to people. I also tried hypertext applications, such as Guide, AskSam, and Focal Point with HyperCard, and finally gave up. It was too difficult to cope with random pieces of information that did not fit exactly into the predefined formats. And when something changed, I had to go through an elaborate process of redefining all of the records in the database.

Next I tried logic "outliners," such as Grandview, More, and MaxThink. They are good tools for organizing a management presentation or for structuring a business report. Outliners take a subject and break it down into subheadings, sub-subheadings and further sub-sub-sub-headings so that a reader or listener can follow your sequence of thought. I tried to adapt them to organize my communications, but it didn't work. Outliners assume that all good thinking has a hierarchical structure, that major issues have logical sub-issues, and so forth. They follow a treelike analogy of placing everything into unambiguous relationships. Ordered logic works well for trees: branches are connected to the trunk, twigs are connected to branches, and leaves are neatly lined up along the twigs. But most of us don't have minds that work that way. If you're like me, your affairs keep changing all the time and frequently run in circles. What may look like a routine phone inquiry makes sense only if you relate it to other people and events. The relationships between our phone calls, appointments, contacts, and dates are better represented by the patterns of a bramble bush than by a flow chart.

You can imagine my skepticism when Lotus Development Corp. (the originators of 1-2-3, the most popular spreadsheet program) announced a new package that "lets you work the way you think." It's called Agenda and is tagged the "personal information manager.'

Six weeks ago I went to a business show and tried it out. I immediately bought a copy (list price $395 for IBM PCs and compatibles), and have been experimenting with it ever since. The reference manual is a bit formidable because the program is loaded with all sorts of options; however, if you strip it to its essentials as demonstrated in a quarter-inch-thick manual, you can be using the program in less than an hour. (To take full advantage of Agenda, if you move around a lot, you might want to consider a laptop computer with at least a 20-megabyte hard disk.)

How does Agenda work? There are three major parts to it: items, categories, and views. To manage your personal information, Agenda relies on your entry of items. These typed entries cannot be longer than 350 characters. Typically an item is a headline-like summary of a message, event, task, and so forth. You can attach to each item a note, which can be up to seven pages long. Your note can be in the form of a letter, an electronic-mail message, scanned text, or data imported from other applications.

Without some type of structure the items would be like heaps of paper dumped on your desk. The ordering is done by a category manager. You can start your personal system by creating information categories, such as calls, customers, competitors, prospects, wild ideas, or anything else that strikes your fancy. You can also use predetermined categories that come with the system, such as "due dates," "when-committed dates," and so on. When you enter the items into the computer, you can assign them to one or more categories. Agenda separates the entry of information from the structuring of information with the clever device of multiple filing. For instance, a few sentences of competitive information can be automatically placed in a proposal outline, a customer call record, a status report to your board, and on your follow-up list. In this respect Agenda imitates the way your mind works. You do not keep information in tight compartments, but instead reshuffle and reuse it in unpredictable ways.

With Agenda, you can create a new category whenever you wish and then describe which previously collected items should be distributed to it. For instance, if you open a new sales territory, you can tell the computer how to rearrange all of the sales records according to a new set of rules. You can perform similar manipulations by means of thought-outliner software, such as Grandview, but Agenda really shines with the ease with which large chunks of text can be rearranged. I was particularly impressed when I changed the name of a salesperson in a customer's report. The software recognized the name change, picked it up, and automatically reclassified it into a different category. In another case I changed a deadline from "tomorrow" to "end of December," and Agenda automatically rearranged my to-do list. Agenda has been programmed to understand some words and to translate them into dates, priorities, and checklists. The capacity of the software to recognize key words and then do automatic filing is an efficient way to keep an electronic notebook.

The major innovation of Agenda is its flexibility in displaying multiple views, which you define, of your accumulated information. It enhances your capacity to see previously unrelated data in a new format. Agenda operates on text the way a spreadsheet program operates on data: when you change an item entry in Agenda, it will automatically refile the information and create new ways of viewing its relation to everything else. For instance, you can rearrange your action list by priorities, such as red alert, pay attention, or disregard. You can evaluate a person's performance by his or her record of delivering results. You can take jumbled assertions from a meeting and come up with well-organized notes that summarize agreements, decisions, and action plans. You can use the program to extract from a record of random events a readable monthly activity report. You can gather scraps of gossip about your competitor and come up with an overview that displays how disjointed pieces of information fall into an intelligible pattern.

With all of my deadlines, uncollected fees, pending contracts, and unanswered letters, do I sleep any better? The truth is, I still wake up at 5 o'clock in the morning to plan the day. The difference is that now I do not rehash worries I put into Agenda yesterday. Instead, I concentrate on items I can unload today.

Paul A. Strassmann managed the computerized information systems for General Foods, Kraft, and Xerox from 1960 to 1977. From 1977 until his retirement in 1985, he was vice-president of strategic planning at Xerox. His home office is in New Canaan, Conn.

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If there aren't enough hours in your day, consider the plight of the average executive

* The average executive wastes nearly four workweeks a year because things are misplaced, misfiled, mislabeled -- or just missing.

* The average executive spends three 40-hour workweeks a year on wasteful or unnecessary business telephone calls.

* The average executive spends six weeks a year in wasteful or unnecessary meetings.

* The average executive spends one month a year reading or writing wasteful or unnecessary office memos.

Source: Surveys conducted for Accountemps, a division of Robert Half International Inc.