My Action Management Story

Thursday, June 21st, 2001
The story of my eProductivity Action Tracking and Wireless Messaging/Database Systems

This narrative is a work in progress. As I write this, I realize that there is a much richer and more detailed history to share and that it should probably be broken into sections by theme. This document will give you a good summary. Someday, I hope to document the full ICA Story with photos and testimonials.

(First revision, June 21, 2001)

The origins of my ICA eProductivity methodologies and my eProductivity Template for Lotus Notes began in the mid 1980's when I received a contract to teach a course on systems analysis and design methodologies for the Naval Ship Weapons Station at Pt. Hueneme, California.  In the class, the focus of the project outcome was to be an Action Tracking system.

For its day, the system was really quite powerful as it allowed groups of people to track their actions using a single shared computer. I accomplished this by having the system print "Action Slips" each morning that were to be distributed to the staff. In the evening the slips were collected and progress noted in the system. In the Navy, what we now call "Waiting Fors" were called "Suspenses." The system was written in a no longer existent language called dBase II and ran on the CP/M Operating system in 32K of RAM. What initially began as a training example, quickly became a popular production project -- with copies distributed, to numerous Naval installations across the United States.  Although my services were intended for the one Navy base, I had been paid well for my consulting, so I did not mind that people were using it everywhere. (It was actually fun to receive calls from other bases around the country and hear how they were using the system that I had designed.)  Here is just one of several letters of appreciation which I received that describes the impact of this system for the Navy. (View PDF File)

Prior to this, I had been contracted by the Air Force Flight Test Center, Edwards Air Force Base,  to assist them in deploying the new "Microcomputer Technology" on the base. What started out as a one month training series, grew into 13 years of contract awards. That was a great deal of fun. I especially enjoyed being around and watching the beginnings of the Space Shuttle program tests.  In any case, in the mid 80's, one of the projects that I worked on was to design a system that became known as the ICA ISRD Tracking system. ISRD stood for "Information Systems Requirements Document." To put it simply, the system I designed was to track all stages of action through completion for communications systems support at the base.  The system was written in dBase III for MS-DOS. This was a big improvement over the 8 bit CP/M version of dBase II.

This was really my first introduction to breaking my personal activities down into the very next action. I was accustomed to doing this with the programs that I designed but I had not made the connection between the power of this method in computer programming and the productivity enhancing value of doing this with day to day activities. It would be many years later before I internalized this concept while at a MAP Seminar. (MAP stood for Managing Action and Projects) and was the forerunner to GTD, developed by David Allen. At that time, I was thinking only about breaking down the tasks so that base personnel with limited management skills could grab an action slip, do the task and turn in the slip indicating completion. I had not really connected to the value of managing myself that way. (Too bad it took me so long to learn.)

In the early 1990's I began to move away from providing technology consulting and training services to the military. Using a then-popular development language, DataFlex, I went on to design a number of commercial action tracking systems using several different Action Management Methodologies. (Many of the processes which I developed for these systems have influenced my eProductivity Template for Lotus Notes.) Dataflex was one of the first powerful 16 bit multi-user database applications. It was the multi-user capability that allowed me to begin to create collaborative systems. The system grew in popularity among my corporate clients and we used it in-house for many years.

With the rise in popularity of e-mail systems, I designed large corporate deployments of a messaging system called cc:Mail. Many of my designs were for global systems with tens of thousands of users in dozens of locations around the world. (cc:Mail was eventually gobbled up by Lotus who was later gobbled up by IBM in their efforts to expand the Lotus Notes market share.) Since I was one of the first cc:Mail Resellers and Integrators, Lotus contacted me to become part of their first group of Lotus Notes Business Partners. I chose not to accept the offer because, at the time, I did not want to take the development time when cc:Mail was selling like hot cakes and I was so busy designing corporate messaging systems.

The following year, I joined the early Lotus Business Partner Program and I began to produce collaborative applications for Lotus Notes. I had designed a number of client/contact tracking systems into which I built my Action Tracking capability developed earlier.  I deployed a number of these systems for my corporate clients. With each iteration, they grew to be more and more complex.

I first met David Allen and Russell Bishop of The Productivity Development Group (PDG) in 1992. They were teaching a powerful personal productivity methdology using a paper based system called Time-Design. I remember very specifically, a passionate discussion with David and Russell over my automated systems and the merits/demerits of paper vs computer for action management. They were using a very powerful and efficient paper-based system and I was pushing for a complex computer based system that had evolved to include everything, every feature, but the kitchen sink. A few months later, I received a call from David and Russell asking me to come to Santa Barbara to deploy Lotus Notes in their organization. Notes 3.0 had just come out and I was looking forward to the many new development features in 3.0 that were not previously available in the prior release. I have continued to provide technology related consulting services for David Allen & Company since then. Their organization is entirely Notes Based and uses many custom eProductivity applications which I have designed to support their collaborative work.

That same year, I attended my first MAP seminar, led by Russell Bishop. It was there that I realized that my systems, though powerful, were in some ways, more complex than they needed to be for personal action tracking. I started to write a much more streamlined system based entirely on Lotus Notes, yet small enough to be run on a 386 laptop.

Over the years that followed, I implemented (and scrapped) several different Lotus Notes based Action Management systems. As I reworked and pared down these systems, they became easier to use and I became more productive in turn. I integrated many of the concepts from the MAP seminars into these early template designs.

In 1992 one of my clients, asked if he could take one of the products which I had designed a few years earlier -- the ICA Information Gateway -- and build a software company around it. I agreed, and later became Chief Technology Officer of the new software company -- Peloria Technology Corporation. The products which I designed -- PagerGate, MailScout, and the ICA Information Gateway -- were used to facilitate communications and collaboration in an e-mail environment, and built upon cc:Mail as their platform.  After the Northridge Earthquake in 1994, our products were deployed overnight to FEMA and the Governor's Office of Emergency Services to support the emergency workers across California -- we were not even in beta at that time so it was a real trial!

Peloria Technology Corporation ("Peloria") started on a shoestring budget in a back office and grew to be a leader in the exploding field of e-mail message management and wireless connectivity.  With its core products, Mail Scout (reg), Grand Central (TM) , and PagerGate, Peloria was corporate America's preferred provider of message management technology for enterprise-wide e-mail systems.  Enterprise customers included Gillette, the Immigration and Naturalization Service, Fannie Mae, Bank of Boston, the Department of Interior, and our largest customer, the U.S. Postal service with over 80,000 licenses purchased.  Grand Central shipped October 1997 and was the first product to allow users always-on-always-connected "2-Way" wireless email message management.  Customers included NASA, US Naval Academy, FAA, Computer Science Corp. and Warner Bros.

Several hundred thousand licenses of the product were sold. Lotus continued to promote these products for some time. (If you have an old Lotus Applications guide, you will find write-ups on my products, the ICA Information Gateway, MailScout, and PagerGate.)  In 1997, I left Peloria to go back into private consulting. Peloria continued in business for another two years and then closed their doors.  

While I enjoyed my years as Chief Technology Officer at Peloria, the corporate life and travel was not one that I wanted to continue living. (More on that another time)

While at Peloria, I had the opportunity to do a lot of work with Software Agents and one-way and two-way wireless systems. I became chair of the Filters and Intelligent Agents Group of the Electronic Messaging Association (EMA) and wrote and spoke regularly for their publications and conferences.

The work that I did with the Intelligent Agents (A misnomer I often regret) has also influenced the design of my current eProductivity Template for Lotus Notes. I have designed many assistive and predictive technologies that will watch what I am doing as I manage my actions and then offer specific recommendations on how to process things. While I have not yet managed to build all that I have designed into the working product, the logical concepts have been worked out.

Though the screen shots don't really reveal it, there is a fair amount of assistive technology within that makes it very easy to capture and create/manage actions. In other words, the template understands how these are to be managed and assists with the process - even to the point where I have had agents that pop-up with the ever famous "So, what's the next action" question whenever a project is created or an action is completed.

As I mentioned, while I was at Peloria I designed a lot of software for the one-way and two-way wireless messaging market. Skytel was very generous and supported our efforts to take the ICA Information Gateway and turn it into a wireless messaging hub for their system. We had a number of systems using simple two and 4-line Alphanumeric two-way pagers from Skytel that allowed us to manage our email, query real-time systems, and update early Notes databases. Ultimately, the early two-way messaging systems were too unreliable and the market for these never really caught on. Probably the most limiting aspect of two-way messaging in the 1990's is that the carriers really did not want to sell air time for text messaging and priced their services accordingly. Our monthly air time charges for the handful of pagers that we had were often in the $3000 to $5000 range. Fortunately, Skytel wrote off these charges for us. In any case, spotty coverage and high air-time rates made two-way messaging impractical in the 1990's.

On my own again as a freelance technologist, I began to focus on productivity tools for personal and groupware applications. When the Palm came out, I rushed to buy it and try my systems on it. Unfortunately, there were no tools to sync between the Palm and Notes at the time. Then, along came a company called Globalware (Later gobbled up by AvantGo) with their Pylon Pro Product. This allowed me to seamlessly manage information on both my Palm and in Notes. Now, I was on a roll.

One of my most exciting relationships was with a company called Newspager Corporation of America (NCA). I had linked up with Tony and Dan at Newspager in 1992. Their product was a tiny database pager, produced first by Uniden and then By Motorola as the Inflo Database Pager. Here's a photo of me with the Savant database pager which replaced Motorola's Inflo unit. This was a pager with 128K Ram and a very capable Pager Database Management Operating System called PDM/OS.

In 1996, I designed a number of one-way and two way database applications such as the Flash! Wireless Database Publisher for Lotus Notes. I am thinking of reviving this project and adapting it for the RIM service and devices. The RIM network is proven and they have good tools to develop wireless applications.

I maintained a consulting relationship with NCA as their Director of Advanced Messaging Applications. Though only one way, I wrote a number of database applications that integrated cc:Mail and Lotus Notes into the databases on the pager.  I also had the opportunity to influence the design for a small handheld database receiver called Compass. It is much like the Wireless Palm is today. The product was huge compared to the Palm but it did have an 8 color screen and really was the ultimate geek accessory. Here's a photo of me with the Compass unit. While consulting for NCA, I designed several two-way applications for the planned future versions of these pagers; however, the pager and the wireless network never materialized in time for me to test my designs. Ultimately the RIM pager and network began to show sufficient promise that I think I would have focused on the RIM next. Newspager Corporation closed their doors in 1999. Their president, Tony Fascenda, went to work for Aether, which is a key company involved with RIM.

By this time, the Palm had established itself as the market leader. Though it lacked the wireless capabilities which I had come to enjoy, it was small and inexpensive.   I bought a set of Metricom Radios and built up a small base station in the mountain community in which I live. This allowed me to run around town and have a fully wirelessly enabled Palm years before it became feasible to do so on the public networks. In fact, even though there are now wireless networks for the Palm, it would not surprise me if it were another 10 years before we see any kind of radio coverage up here.

Since the To-Do lists on the Palm are so very basic, I was forced, unwillingly, to further simplify my Action Management Systems in order to make them work on Notes and yet remain fully compatible with the Palm. After several iterations, I believe I have a truly stellar system.

If you are like me, and you are trying to track even a hundred projects and several hundred actions in your system,  you know how hard it is to quickly capture your projects and actions.  Around the same time that I joined Peloria as CTO, David Allen introduced me to the folks at Actioneer who were working on an amazing action capture tool for the Palm. They eventually came out with a version for Lotus Notes as well. (If you look on your Release 5 CD of Notes, you will find the free public version of Actioneer for Lotus Notes. Personally, I would recommend skipping the free version and just buying the public version.)

Since my template respects the standard Notes To-dos, any system that integrates with this can be used. I like Actioneer because it is fast, easy to use, and allows me to quickly capture my thoughts and ideas into my Palm or my Notes system. Over the past two years I have used the Actioneer tool as a capture system for my template. I guess the only complaint I have with it is that they never saw fit to allow for a very long subject line. It's still a great product and I do recommend it. You can learn more about Actioneer at their site:

This more or less brings you up to the present. You can learn more about my The eProductivity Template for Lotus Notes here. My template is now much further along, compatible with many releases of Notes, and incorporates many "agent" style logic features to help me manage my projects and actions.

What's next? Well, I am now focusing on the agent side of the template. By building agents that will watch and learn, I believe that I can make an interactive desktop partner that will help me manage all my stuff.

to be continued...


Eric D. Mack

(c) ICA.COM, Inc. 2001

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