David Strom

Groupware: Ready or Not

by David Strom

Trying to evaluate groupware products can be a daunting proposition: you may not

know enough to ask the right questions, let alone figure out what products to buy or what

applications to develop. But lurking in the background is a firm conviction that you need

better communications among your own staff, and maybe you also need to figure out ways to

more closely tie your customers to your business. Here are some suggestions from those who

have already made the leap.

First off, how do you get started? Most of our groupware veterans found applications that had

high and immediate payoffs and could be easily implemented. In other words, they first went

after the lowest-hanging fruit. These applications could be fairly mundate sorts of things, such

as automating expense reports and performance appraisal forms that are drugery for most of

us to fill out. 

"We first told everyone they had to turn in their expense reports through Notes about two

years ago. The result was instant and complete participation," said Steve Kaplan, president of

Ryno Imaging Systems, Inc. of Benicia, Calif. (707 746 6252), a large Notes systems

integrator that also uses Notes internally to connect his 30 employees.

"We put up an application that contained our personnel performance measures on

Attachmate's Open Mind. Users of both PCs and Macintoshes would then edit this document

collaboratively. By using the security features of Open Mind, an employee and his manager

can edit this performance evaluation form on an on-going basis, which allows for more robust

performance appraisals than just a yearly or quarterly review," said Michael Saunders, a

systems analyst with the personnel department of Virginia Polytechnic Institute in Blacksburg,

Va. (703 231 5706), who has 15 users of Open Mind product among 150 PC and Macs in his


A real benefit of groupware is the ability to cut down on turnaround time

for decisions and meetings, so that corporations can become more responsive

to their customers' needs.  "We use Lotus Phone Notes and a pager gateway to our Notes

server to communicate with our staff. This enables us to provide tremendously quick response

times for our customers. It gives us a great competitive edge," said Richard Sha, who is

president of Sason.Entre in Malvern PA (610 296 9286), a systems integrator who has used a

variety of groupware products.

"Knowing what we know now we would implement these technologies such as Phone Notes,

pager gateways, and wireless modems sooner to gain competitive edge for our clients," he

said. Kaplan agrees: "We provide much faster and much better customer service wit over 120

different Notes databases to support our in-house operations."

Eric Sall is director of strategic technology for Lois Paul and Partners, Lexington, Mass. (617

862 4514). LP&P is Lotus' public relations firm and has all 80 of its employees using Notes.

LP&P also is connected to six of its clients with Notes as well. "Information is our stock in

trade. If one account team needs to do research on a trade show, they can refer to existing

information and not have to re-invent the wheel. This speeds up responsiveness to our clients.

We can also become more proactive and spend less time training new team members, since

they can view the past relationship with a client or a particular editor," said Sall.

Groupware can also improve delivery of client reports and other information, making your

business more competitive. Grace Eckert is a product manager for CCH Inc. in Riverwoods,

Ill. (708 267 2193) a tax and business law information provider. CCH developed its own

Notes-based electronic products called Capital Changes Daily reporter via Notes. (It also

publishes a paper and CD ROM version of the information as well.) "This has all sorts of

securities-related industry data such as transaction details and value and used by large

brokerage firms. Although we could distribute this information in other formats, Notes allows

us to present it in a easy-to-use format and allows the customer to use different views to

easily search and examine the data. We also save on printing and distribution costs, and our

customers get this information immediately, rather than having to wait two weeks for the

paper publications," said Eckert. 

"Our business is to connect buyers and sellers of legal services by providing electronic

commerce, collaboration and information exchange. Using Notes' shared database architecture,

we have built an application that allows law firms to work in much tighter partnership with

their clients and hence provide greater value to their clients," said Cynthia Lavoie, marketing

director for ELF Technologies, Inc., Mercer Island, Wash. (206 232 7808), a firm that uses

Notes on all of its 60 employee's desktops and provides collaborative solutions for law firms.

Groupware is appropriate for those business processes that lend themselves towards

collaborative work, especially when the project team is located in many different cities and

had to coordinate their efforts. 

"A typical customer is a corporate legal department that may work with hundreds of outside

law firms and need to coordinate case information and work practices. Notes provides this

coordination to ensure a coherent work flow," said Lavoie. She also has used Notes internally,

to assist their own development efforts. "We develop customized electronic software and use

Notes to manage our own internal development projects," she said.

Groupware can also be a plus for telecommuters or help those staffers that are frequent

travellers. Says Lavoie: "We have a team of people that work for us out of their homes. The

only way we can work together as a closely-knit team is to use Notes. This database has

information such as the individual responsibilities of each team member and project status

information from a variety of perspectives."

"We often work on large complex product introductions that require all sorts of detailed

information that changes often. With Notes we are able to manage these events with a

'borderless' team of people. Information is created once with less overhead," said Sall. "Notes

allows a local team member to have all the strategy and history information at her disposal,

even if she normally services a different division of that client or works in another office

across the country. We also have several telecommuting staff members, as well as working

parents who can maintain more flexible hours."

"The product team for Capital Changes Daily is located in three states, and we rely

extensively on Notes' email functions to reach consensus decisions regarding our product and

its enhancements," said Eckert.

It can also prove a benefit for those projects that require careful attention to a myriad of

details that need tracking, such as conference planning or large-scale engineering design

efforts where the record of who did what activity is almost as important as the ultimate


"We keep track of customer information and their network setups as well as track every

single call that is made to our clients along with their ultimate resolution. Notes prevents

things from falling through the cracks," said Kaplan.

"One of the benefits of using Notes over ordinary email packages is that the entire discussion

that leads to a project design decision, or to landing a new customer, is preserved," said Brian

Dougherty, president of Wink Communications, a small Alameda, Calif.-based software

start-up. (510 337 6309). All 14 employees use Notes.

Groupware can also bring out the more introverted staff members, who are reluctant to voice

their opinions in face-to-face meetings: "We have some very good engineers who are very

quiet in group meetings. Yet sitting in front of their computers, they participate a great deal in

our Notes discussions databases," said Dougherty.

Another advantage of groupware is to bring the management of information closer to the

people who create and maintain it. "The people that create and own the information manage it

themseleves -- what a breakthrough! Who else is better suited for this task?" asks Jon Simon,

who is a systems analyst with Chevron USA Production Co. in Houston, Tex. (713 754 5655)

who runs three thousand PCs along with some Notes and 250 pilot users of Collabra Share

that are located in five different states.

Plan, plan, plan. Any successful implementation of groupware requires careful study of the

underlying business itself. Kaplan mentioned one organization that adopted Notes, but for the

wrong reasons. "We found one company that had a fairly extensive paper-based procedures

manual. They copied this information into Notes, rather than automating the business process

and procedures. This turned out to be a mistake, and eventually the company had to scrap the

application. We won't even consider doing any Notes installations unless we spend at least a

week analyzing a client's situation first," said Kaplan.

Reflecting back on his experience, Sall says "We would spend a lot more time up front to

define and roll out an initial set of applications." 

Allright, you're convinced you need groupware, and you've identified the initial application to

automate. How do you figure out which product or products to buy? Notes is certainly the

most prominent, but it isn't the sole solution for every groupware opportunity. 

"Notes is used mainly as a focal point for common information, such as the corporate phone

book and as a respository for corporate travel policies, while Xcellenet's RemoteWare is more

for the day-to-day data transfer between our home office and retail stores," says Dean

Thompson, who works in the Centers of Expertise in Operating Services at BP Oil Co. in

Cleveland, Ohio (216 586 2106) and uses both Notes and RemoteWare in his company. Notes

is installed in 2800 desktops around the world, and RemoteWare can be found in about 3,000

retail locations worldwide. "Notes is optimized for the LAN environment, while RemoteWare

is better for the remote environment. Notes is more for enhancing productivity among people,

and helping to keep track of projects. RemoteWare has helped us cut communications costs

by thousands of dollars, as well as cut down on the amount of administration time required

for collecting our retail data. Xcellenet has a key niche in the marketplace that no one else

has yet taken advantage of," he says.

Another way to pick the right product is to look carefully at how inbred email is in your

corporate culture. Different groupware products work better in different corporate cultures.

One of the key factors is determining how comfortable with email are your existing users. If

everyone in the corporation already has an email account and most use it, then products like

Collabra's Share could prove beneficial to adding the ability to track discussions


"Share was attractive because of its open architecture -- we run it in conjunction with our

Microsoft Mail email system -- and its low total cost of ownership. It leverages our current

network without introducing new protocols. We didn't have to purchase any new hardware or

design a complex infrastructure to support it. Administrative overhead for Share is relatively

low," said Simon. Open Mind is better for those organizations that have less of an existing

email culture, according to Saunders. 

A good rule of thumb is that if you just require discussion-related applications, consider either

Open Mind or Share. If you need to connect lots of remote users, look at RemoteWare. And

if you want to develop lots of custom applications, then consider Notes.

Another way to pick groupware products is to ask your major customers what they are using.

If they are satisfied with their groupware configuration, consider connecting them to your own

staff with the same products, to offer a competitive and closer relationship with your

customers. "Most of our customers for Capital Changes Daily (a Notes-based service offered

by CCH) already had Notes installed on their networks," said Eckert.

"We allow one of our customers access to our Notes discussion database so they can see the

impact on scheduling and design decisions," said Dougherty. This kind of connection saves

time involved in lengthy progress reports and meetings, as well as drawing his customer into

the design process itself.

"RemoteWare allows us to communicate electronically with some of our vendors and

franchise partners. We can send electronic orders and update our price books and delivery

confirmations. All a user has to do is choose a menu option to transmit the data back to

Cleveland," said Thompson.

"Some of our clients use Notes to run their own internal organization's PC help desks.  They

can replicate with RYNO's Notes-based support system and actually open an incident and

track the progress of the call. Indeed, having this electronic connection is so important and

such a time-saver for both ourselves and our clients that we are giving all of our clients that

don't have an email connection one of our PCs running email so they can connect to us," said


"We keep all sorts of client-specific information in Notes databases, so that our firm becomes

an extension of the client's enterprise. Our clients, typically large high-tech firms, can find out

the status of press releases, users, upcoming product reviews and speaking opportunities

on-line whenever they need to," said Sall.

What kind of support staff is required to install, train and maintain these products? Our

sources agreed that the more time involved up front in setting things up paid off down the

road with minimal maintainence. Many of the firms -- both large and small -- used outside

contractors to get their software installed and running. "We hired a consulting firm to set up

Notes and our VP of engineering does most of the maintenance in his spare time. So far it

has not been much of a burden on him," said Dougherty. 

"Both Notes and RemoteWare were installed by outside contractors," said Thompson. 

"RemoteWare takes a lot of time up-front to configure things. But once you have done this, it

takes minimal time to maintain. Three people spend a very small fraction of their time

maintaining RemoteWare."

"Setting up and using Open Mind is very simple. Each user has had a two-page reference

card and was able to get up and running in a short period of time. Using some of the more

advanced features, such as document sharing and security required additional training,

however," said Saunders.

Others agreed that training can sometimes be time-consuming. For RemoteWare, Thompson

"visited each district and conducted a two hours hands-on session with groups of managers,"

he said. Collabra's Share has similar characteristics: "Deployment of Share has been

surprisingly easy to manage. We found we can teach the basic mechanics of the product in

less than half an hour. The real training issue has been how to organize and manage the

information," said Simon. Sall agrees: "We now have a six hour new-employee orientation

session which covers all the computer applications in use. About half of this focuses on

Notes. We also offer frequent one-hour courses that cover more advanced techniques and


Not everyone feels that groupware training has to be very involved: "We have only been

using Notes for a month but it is already woven into the fabric of the company, including

tracking engineering projects that has topics for each of the software components being

developed for that project and customer tracking databases. We offered no formal training

courses yet everyone has taken to Notes like a duck to water," said Dougherty.

"We're very bad on providing internal training, but the forms we design are so easy to use

that everyone picks it up very quickly," said Kaplan. "Our Notes training consists of a 30

minute training session and handing a user the manual. However, most of our Notes users are

very computer literate, so this minimal training hasn't been a problem." Lavoie agrees:

"People have caught on very quickly -- not much training was needed."

Finally, be prepared to invest some resources into supporting your groupware applications. 

"We have a technical team of 3 people full-time who maintain our Notes network and those

networks of our customers," said Lavoie. Sall at Lois Paul has four full-time systems people

to support all IT needs, with about half of this group's efforts focussed on Notes.

Thompson at BP also has invested in suppporting Notes: "We have one full time and two part

time staffers to maintain Notes."

Products mentioned:

Lotus Notes (Cambridge, Mass.) 617 577 8500

Xcellenet RemoteWare (Atlanta, Geo.) 404 698-2952

Collabra Share (Mountain View, Calif.) 415 940 6000

Attachmate Open Mind (Alpharetta, Geo.) 404 442 4000


David Strom writes about technology and runs his own consulting firm in Port Washington,

NY. He can be reached via the internet at david@strom.com

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David Strom David Strom Port Washington, NY 11050 USA US TEL: 1 (516) 944-3407