On Wednesday, as part of a keynote speech to executives gathered in Redmond, Wash., for Microsoft's annual CEO Summit, Chairman Bill Gates showed off new server software that aims to help workers find data stored on their company's computers as well as information located only inside the brains of their colleagues.
The next release of Microsoft's SharePoint server software will have a feature called Knowledge Network that automatically builds profiles of employees and their areas of expertise.
That's important because a ton of business data is stored in brains, rather than hard drives. Estimates are that anywhere from 50 percent to 80 percent of a company's institutional knowledge is inside of its employees' heads.
A lot of important knowledge is not written down in a document, said Jon Beighle, a general manager in Microsoft's online services group.
Today, workers in large companies have a tough time figuring out who of their colleagues knows what. Microsoft's technology tries to ease that task by looking through workers' e-mail and other data and then automatically generating working profiles.
The software also takes a page from social networking sites in the way that workers get matched up with in-house experts. The software can see if the information seeker and expert have any worker friends in common who might be able to make an introduction. Workers can also choose whether they want to be open to being contacted directly. Recognizing the obvious privacy concerns, Beighle said the software allows a worker to view and alter his or her profile before it is made available to colleagues.
"It does it in a very open and transparent way so people have an opportunity to see their profile and make changes," Beighle said.
At the summit, Gates also explained how Microsoft is trying to beef up its capacity to search the information that is in computers and servers.
Within Office SharePoint Server 2007, Microsoft is adding the ability to search through different types of corporate data. The next version is expected to tap not only data stored on intranets, but also data in business applications like Siebel or SAP. Microsoft is in the process of transforming SharePoint from a portal maker to a broader server-based complement to Office.
Gates also previewed a Windows Live Search program that will enable workers to search their desktop, across a corporate network, and the Web from within a single program. That software, still in early development, is scheduled to show up in beta and be released in final form in the second half of this year.
Market research firm Gartner estimates that the global market for enterprise search software and hosted services will grow from $335 million last year to $525 million by 2010.
Microsoft already has some enterprise search abilities with its current SharePoint product, but more is needed, Beighle said.
"We're solidly in the game," he said, adding, "We know we need to invest more in this area."
The new SharePoint product is slated to be made available as part of the Office 2007 launch, which will take place in October for large businesses and in January for small businesses and consumers.
For companies that only want SharePoint's search abilities and not its business process, portal and other capabilities, Microsoft is also adding a new SharePoint Server for Search product that offers just those tools. The company did not say how much the new software will cost, but said it will be available in October.
From Gates perspective, workers today suffer from both information overload, as well as information "underload," a. In an e-mail to customers, Gates said that an estimated 30 percent of information workers' time is spent searching for information, an activity that annually costs businesses about $18,000 per worker in lost productivity.
"We're flooded with information, but that doesn't mean we have tools that let us use the information effectively," Gates wrote in the e-mail, which was sent on Wednesday.