Cogito Inc.Richland, Wash.

Dec. 21, 2004
Cogito knowledge-management software
Doug Bartholomew, Samuel Greengard, Glenn Hasek, John Jesitus, Scott Leibs, Kristin Ohlson, Robert Patton, Barb Schmitz, Tim Stevens, and John Teresko contributed to this article. It seems that for every mention of the "paperless office" at least a hundred new laser printers take root in the corporate landscape, yielding a bumper crop of reports, memos, presentations, and every other type of document imaginable. Cogito Inc. doesn't claim that its new software technology will usher in a paperless age, but it does believe it can correct what it perceives as an imbalance between knowledge and documents. The purpose of documents, argues company founder Dallas Noyes, is merely to communicate knowledge. But documents have essentially become knowledge, because they are the only means -- currently -- by which businesses share what they know. This is bad, Cogito argues, because managing a vast flow of documents is complicated, expensive, and prone to error. For example, how many times is the same information entered into a system because there is no central place from which everyone can retrieve it? How often have you asked yourself which of two almost-identical reports contains the correct third-quarter performance information? How much computer memory is devoted to housing each user's personal copy of a given document? Cogito believes it has a way to end this enslavement to the document: store everything as knowledge, not data. "Most of the software that exists today," Noyes says, "functions like an electronic pencil -- you create all the same types of documents you used before computers, only you do it electronically." Cogito's software uses "sentient technology" to capture information about something -- a valve in a nuclear powerplant, for example -- and then provide that information to the user in whatever form the user needs, be it a drawing, a report, spreadsheet, etc. "It's similar to what some accounting systems do now," Noyes says. "They can generate many different kinds of reports from information in a database. We've extended that concept to schematic drawings and many other types of information." Using Cogito, a company could enter in one place all the information about that nuclear valve. Then, using just a handful of commands, a user could request any number of diagrams of the valve. With conventional systems, each diagram would have had to be created and stored. Some CAD programs can provide alternative views, but they operate slowly and require a lot of computer resources. Cogito says its system looks at the knowledge about the valve and quickly produces the diagram the user needs. "Imagine someone asking you to draw a four-inch square," Noyes says. "You don't actually have images of every possible sized square in your brain to retrieve. You know what a square is, you know how long four inches is, and you use that information to produce the drawing. Our system follows that model of human intelligence." Although Cogito says its system can be extended to textual data, its early focus is on engineering drawings. That valve in the nuclear powerplant may show up in process flow, logic, piping and instrumentation, panel schedules, and many other types of drawings. Change one thing about the valve, and all those drawings have to be changed. If all that information is stored centrally using Cogito, then a quick change to the valve information will automatically be reflected in any diagram the user requests. Cogito's system may well provide an elegant way for businesses to cope with the morass of documentation they deal with, but Noyes admits that to do so businesses will have to be willing to work differently. Nick Houlbrook, a senior engineer at British Nuclear Fuel Ltd. in Sellarfield, UK, is an early user of the Cogito software. He says that the plant's operations and maintenance people are finding it very useful. "They can request various views and see them online very quickly," he says. "They don't have to wait while drawings are produced. On the design side, where we need drawings, the system can give us the documents we need quickly and accurately." Houlbrook says that Cogito's approach to information, storing it as knowledge rather than data, "makes you fairly skeptical when you first look at it, but when you put actual information in the system and see what it can do with it, it becomes very convincing." Cogito runs in any Windows for Workgroups environment; a Pentium machine is the preferred desktop device, and any network file server will support the knowledge-network software.

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