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Personal information managers: useful tools for accountants.

Accountants must work efficiently with words as well as numbers. An accounting firm's or a company's numerical data usually fit easily into the structure of spreadsheets, databases and other traditional software products. But other information, such as appointments, notes, phone lists and outlines, simply doesn't fit. Furthermore, such data, normally collected and recorded according to individual tastes and habits, must be made more systematic to be useful to the organization as a whole.

To be effective, the accountant must have well-organized information. Good time and task management requires the ability to organize and access textual information.

PIMs can help the accountant organize many sources of text. With a PIM, the user can create many useful relationships among the data and then view the information arranged categorically rather than chronologically. PIM software offers a diversity of features. Because no two people work in the same way, features valuable to one user might be little used by another. Thus, picking the right PIM i s a very individual process.

PIM FEATURES

This article focuses on the following features offered by PIMs:

* Time and task tracking.

* Text retrieval ability.

* Outlining.

* Hypermedia.

* Phone dialers.

* Time and task tracking. PIMs designed for tracking essentially integrate tasks, appointments, phone calls, clients and expenses into a coherent format. For example, an appointment list can be cross-referenced to a client list, a to-do list and a Rolodex file. Many products allow the user to build a calendar for days, weeks and even months ahead. Some packages feature alarms for appointments and let users coordinate their personal calendars.

A key feature of many PIMs is the ability to link calendar items with notes and phone numbers from other parts of the database, thus allowing a CPA who is managing several projects to keep track of the information about the various jobs at hand. Since calendar and schedula management is crucial, this may be the most useful feature to accountants.

* Textual retrieval. The capability to retrieve text allows the user to look at information from various files based on user-defined keywords contained in those files. The most obvious application is searching out and relating information about clients and engagements. For example, the information base about an audit client would include the names and phone numbers of key personnel, a meetings schedule, a to-do list, notes on special needs or concerns about the job and other information. The user could enter the data, import key memos and then relate this information for later retrieval.

Most PIMs have some text-editing capabilities for data entry, and many allow the import of text files from word processors and other sources. Many PIM users consider flexibility of information access a key component. The ability to access information by subject and by a person's or company's name makes the PIM more powerful. Many PIMs let the user specify the desired links in information access. This results in the creation of data chains that can be used repeatedly.

* Outlining. Creating an outline on a PIM is easier and quicker than on a word processor because an outliner stores data in a hierarchical structure and manipulates headings and subtext as a unit. Preset tabs do the indentation. The user can expand and condense an outline on the screen, thus allowing any part to be viewed.

* Hypermedia. With hypermedia, also known as hypertext, unstructured data such as loosely connected notes can be linked, cross-referenced, expanded or condensed. Even if information is stored in different files, it can be linked by key words and phrases. Thus, the user can scan larger amounts of information while picking out all items related to a single topic.

Accountants are using hypermedia to link several sources of professional literature and standards for a single area of interest. The user also can perform keyword searches on diverse information about clients and engagements.

* Phone dialers. Many PIMs contain a phone number list and can automatically dial a desired number through a modem attached to the computer. Some products have the capability to log calls with date and time for later reference.

In addition to these five major features, PIMs offer many others, such as project management tools, index card filing, letter forms, expense logs and cut-and-paste editing.

HIGHLIGHTS OF PACKAGES

The highlights of 14 major PIM packages, which operate on MS-DOS machines, are briefly described below. The sidebar on pages 132-133 provides a summary of these packages, along with their features, prices and vendor information.

1. Act! is designed primarily to manage business contacts, including not only the usual information -- name, phone number and address -- but also a history of all contacts. The phone dialer keeps records of calls made. The program also contains a calculator and expense logs.

Act! searches for information based on user-defined matches. It can search for a client by service, first name and date of last contact. For example, if the user can only remember that work was done on Bob Adam's payroll taxes last March, the program can extract all information related to this service.

2. Arriba is best described as a midlevel PIM in terms of both features and price. Calendars can be set for up to three months in advance. It checks conflict scheduling, not allowing overlapping appointments. But it does not provide alarms (audio beeps or signals) to signal a conflict or the time for an appointment. Arriba works by creating" electronic folders" that contain all notes on a specific topic or client. A folder can contain up to 200 note titles, with each note up to 16K in length. Folders can be searched for specific notes, which can be displayed in outline form and then stored in another folder for future reference. Perhaps the software's best feature is the ability to customize the form of to-do lists and other information.

3. Of all the PIMs, Agenda is probably the most sophisticated but also the most difficult program to learn. It allows a great deal of control over information and handles tracking, outlining, text retrieval and hypermedia tasks equally well. If a buyer wants an all-purpose PIM, Agenda may prove a very good choice. Since it is similar to Lotus 1-2-3, Agenda is a little easier for Lotus users to master.

The basic workings of Agenda are organized around three primary elements. First are items, which may be entered either in outline format or as free-form text up to 350 characters in length. Second are notes, generally used as support information for items. Notes may be up to 10 pages long. Third, Agenda allows the user to define categories that serve almost as file names for items and notes. Agenda makes personal data fully integrated into a manageable body of useful information.

4. AskSam is a free-form database that enabls users to enter data in any form they choose. Although well-known as a text retrieval-based PIM, AskSam is equally adept at hypermedia operations. It can link information in ways limited only by the user's imagination and quickly retrieve that information. The complex text retrieval procedures make AskSam a bit difficult to learn, but use is faciliatated through flexible data entry. Its ability to print diverse reports is a unique feature for a PIM.

5. Current offers the user an impressive ability to customize and configure to specific needs. Up to 13 data types (character, date, dollar) are possible, and connections between data categories are unlimited. Current was written to work with Microsoft's Windows package, and the use of a mouse is clearly desirable. The package starts the user with four caterogies: appointments, tasks, persons and projects. Other user-defined categories are possible. Information can be retrieved in either list or text form, and tasks can be shown on a Gantt (timeline) chart. The calendar feature is set up for the current day and month with conflict checking and alarms possible. The phone dialer includes a logging feature. The package also includes a basic outliner and letter writer and offers the ability to import various types of files. Information can be retrieved with user-specified combinations of categories.

6. GrandView uses three "views" to help integrate information. First is the outline view, allowing thoughts and plans to be entered in outline form. Second is the document view, which uses a word processor to create presentation-quality documents. Third is the category view, used to sort and schedule data.

Categories are organized according to data and priority. In addition, the user can create new categories as needed. Once categories are defined, the user can integrate information by making assignments that display all related material in outline format.

The program is very easy to use, with pull-down menus and online help screens available. The flexibility of the categories makes it a powerful tool.

7. Guide has extensive hypermedia capabilities for all types of documents. The

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package is very much like a word processor. The software is written with a windowing/mouse type (graphical user) interface. The user linkis the data by clicking the mouse button on the desired words. Multiple files can be linked to make information flow together. The windows make cutting and pasting easy, and graphics can be imported into documents. Text styles and fonts are adjustable, similar to deskto publishing programs. If a user needs text management and linking, this package should be carefully considered.

8. Info-XL is easy to use. The opening screen contains the following, each in its own window: a daily schedule, a monthly calendar and the outline manager. Each window can be expanded, moved, hidden or pulled up for a full-screen and more detailed view.

Searches can be controlled by degree. The choice of specific, general, loose and open searches is helpful if a user has forgotten how to spell a last name or wants to look at all information related to "manage," such as manager, management, managing and managerial.

9. Instant Recall is well-suited for schedule and task management. The software works by assigning appointments, notes and to-do lists to basic categories, such as schedule, task, note or people. Scheduling is extensive for many time periods, such as weeks, months and quarters. Data can be viewed by selected day, for all appointments, by tasks or from notes. Selective viewing by a person's name or for certain tasks also is possible. Other features include a phone dialer and cut-and-paste operations.

10. IZE allows the user to import information from a variety of word processing and spreadsheet programs, including Microsoft Works, WordPerfect, Quattro and Lotus 1-2-3. IZE can search through these files for strings or key words and then move into these files so the user can manipulate the data.

One of IZE's more impressive features is the way it presents the results of the keyword search. It uses an outline view that displays the texts identified in a standard outline form. Outline sections can be expanded or hidden, and the user can see more detailed information in any area of the outline.

11. MemoryMate is a general-purpose PIM that carries out tasks with relative ease. The program operates as a free-form text database, allowing 120 lines per record, 32,000 records per file and multiple files. Hypermedia capabilities let the user relate records from many files. All records are dated as entered and can be viewed later by date. Searching is very flexible -- word, phrase and record-by-record searches arepossible. Cut-and-paste operations and import/export functions with other applications also are available. Although lacking the power of some PIMs, this product is functional and can be learned in minutes.

12. PackRat is designed to run on Microsoft's Windows and is an obvious choise for users of Windows. For others, the program can be installed on a Windows module supplied by the dealer. PackRat provides a phone log, auto dialer, expense log, clock, calendar and a notepad for simple word processing. It also offers a file of index cards, each of which can store up to 32K of text.

PackRat's tracking functions are performed by the use of agendas and tasks, which are separate but can be interrelated as required. The program organizes tasks along a project-management timeline that indicates the relationship among tasks. In addition, agendas are linked by starting times.

13. Primetime Personal uses a simple approach to information management by assigning data to one of four categories: schedule, phone list, tasks or assignment. The program excels at scheduling since it offers alarms and reminders, conflict checking and repetitive appointment scheduling. However, the program lacks the ability to relate items in different categories, making manual searches of whole categories sometimes necessary. The phone dialer makes no record of the date and time of the call.

14. Who-What-When, as its name suggests, focuses on three views of information: people, projects and time. The calendar, schedule checking and meeting manager features are its strengths. Data are entered through the daily calendar and name codes are attached, which facilitate later retrieval. Tasks are cross-referenced with the daily schedule, making it easy to view related data items. Memos can be attached to tasks and persons for reference. In addition to the usual calendar functions, such as conflict checking and alarms, the program offers the ability to keep schedules for other people and to check and update them. Also offered are a dialer, a pop-up calculator and simple project management capabilities. This package can be learned rapidly and is easy to use.

FINDING THE RIGHT ONE

Because PIMs have different approaches and features, a buyer should carefully evaluate individual PIM packages. Many software developers offer demonstration or trial packages at little or no cost. A review of two or three of the most promising candidates will tell a buyer which program best fits his or her personal style.

Ultimately, the user will need to assess his or her own approach to organization of information and then find the PIM most closely resembling that approach.

Personal information managers (PIMs), which are specialized databases, can help accountants better organize notes, appointments, phone lists and other information. Michael A. Cox, CPA, PhD, president of MAC MBA Seminars in Dallas, Texas, and William Cummings, CPA, PhD, associate professor of accounting at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, explain the major features of PIMs and summarize the features of 14 major PIM packages.
COPYRIGHT 1990 American Institute of CPA's
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1990, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Cummings, William
Publication:Journal of Accountancy
Date:Oct 1, 1990
Words:2369
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