Groupware offers benefits and drawbacks

A few years ago, workers performed their tasks, such as product design, on
desktop computers without having to interact electronically with others. Today,
cable or phone networks tie more and more desktop computers together out of
necessity. These networks include "servers" that store data and direct traffic,
and a new class of software called groupware.

What is groupware? In general, groupware describes a group of technologies designed to enhance interpersonal communications, collaboration, and productivity. Groupware covers everything from sophisticated electronic mail packages to entire office automation suites. Typical applications include: group authoring, scheduling, decision-making, brainstorming, project tracking, and workflow.

The term "groupware" identifies any software that enables users to share or track things with others. As such, groupware is basic to the implementation of many new organizational concepts. These concepts, many believe, must be adopted to compete successfully in the current business environment. They include:

Decision-making by cross-functional product teams, especially when the members are geographically dispersed.

  • Flexible organizations that require extensive communications.

  • Collaborative efforts between vendors, subcontractors, partners, and customers.

  • The virtual corporation.

  • Employees working at home.

  • And the advent of increased employee autonomy.

These concepts are being used in an effort to meet the increasing requirements for higher product quality, better customer service, lower product prices, greater innovation and more flexible, responsive organizations. And, although groupware is still in its infancy, some 200 vendors currently market useful groupware products. These range from basic electronic mail packages to more integrated packages like Lotus' Notes and Microsoft's Exchange.

As standards are developed, users become more sophisticated, and as the market matures, groupware will likely focus on the integration of four basic functions:

Calendaring and scheduling with intelligent filtering and routing capabilities.

  • Group document processing, including workflow, document and image management.

  • Conferencing, which supports real-time desktop video conferencing.

  • Shared-data-base products, including "Notes" or Digital's "Linkworks."

Groupware adds a dynamic interactive dimension to the network environment. Although groupware forms part of a network environment, not all network applications can be considered groupware. Presently, most groupware applications are workgroup-oriented, but eventually they will be enterprise-oriented.

And, studies have shown that groupware can make design, production, and sales teams more efficient, save time, and bring companies closer to customers and suppliers.


Ask the Manager

Q: What is the status of Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange?

A: According to the Dec. '94 issue of Fortune, Lotus Notes is now being used by a number of people in business to collaborate with one another, and to share knowledge or expertise without the constraints of distance or time-zone differences.
Notes can be used by a firm to build and maintain its collective intelligence. It can also be used to build info links to key customers and suppliers. This practice could receive a big boost this year when AT&T plans to launch a service called Network Notes. This will allow firms to dial up on AT&T computers arrayed in what it calls "server farms," to store and to replicate databases for the firms's customers, suppliers, and internal use.

Q: What about the groupware Microsoft Exchange?

A: Microsoft Exchange, designed to compete with Lotus Notes, should be available in the later half of 1995. Considering Microsoft's size and influence, this could make for a very interesting situation.
According to the November 30, 1994 issue of the Wall Street Journal, Novell, Inc. has allied with Collabra Software Inc., a small, closely held maker of groupware, to improve its ability to compete with Lotus software.
The two companies announced a marketing and technology agreement under which Novell will sell Collabra Software and work to integrate its product into Novell's group-use line. Novell's move strengthens its hand against Lotus, which is the market leader.
Collabra's product adds a bulletin board capability to Novell's existing groupware, allowing users to collaborate across a network, one of the features Notes offers. Novell's huge distribution channel will sell the Collabra products.

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