Groupware fosters online collaboration

Groupware automates on an intranet what used to be done with routing slips and
highlighters. But groupware doesn't run only on intranets. For years, offices have used
products such as Lotus Notes on clients and servers, written to different platforms. That
often locked users into using products that could work only with Lotus Notes. 

No more. Vendors have not only developed groupware designed especially for intranets, but
also have modified longtime groupware to accommodate them. Lotus, for example, has made
its notoriously proprietary and expensive Notes into something more powerful, more open
and less expensive. You can now access Notes apps with a World Wide Web browser. 

Depending on your infrastructure, platform-independent information sharing and workflow
management can be easier than you think. But before you buy or install anything, figure
out what you want. 

Most government offices have a hodge-podge of platforms. Think about where the workflow
from your office goes. Is the budget analyst up on the seventh floor using groupware? If
so, install the same product or find one that will work with it. 

Study your workflow. You can replicate your processes or take the opportunity to refine
them. More communication between workers sometimes makes bottlenecks. Talk with the end
users to avoid investing thousands on a great setup only to have it ignored. 

Groupware affects everyone, so you will need everyone's backing to make it work. Set up a
user advisory committee to give feedback before, during and after the groupware
installation. In your strategy, allow for some level of training for everyone. 

Now comes the hard part-picking the right groupware. As with most computing purchases, you
will have to balance features and price. If you want an application based on a browser or
e-mail, the cost per user will be low. 
 


If your users expect more power, you'll have to invest in client software, which will
cost more. On the server side, look for a package that runs on many platforms and network
operating systems. 

Depending on the number of users you support, you might have to dedicate more than one
server to the groupware application. Database replication becomes very important here.
Some groupware products have server clustering for good reliability and scalability. 


The groupware market is evolving fast. You can buy an overall solution in one package or
pick components a la carte. The large products such as Notes, Novell GroupWise 5 and
Digital LinkWorks usually have modules that support various functions. Many work with
third-party products. 

Let's take a look at the important considerations in your choice. 

 System requirements Look for a package that will require few system upgrades.
Most groupware is for Microsoft Windows 95, so you have fewer options if you use Windows
3.x, Windows NT, Unix or other platforms. 

 Network standards and protocols  If the groupware will run on an
intranet or you want Web connectivity, choose a program that supports TCP/IP. Ask your
vendor about bandwidth. If your network carries heavy traffic, the program should be
optimized to use minimum resources on your network type. 

 If your users access large systems such as a Digital VAX server or IBM AS/400, look
at host

 Understand the various protocols and standards the software supports, such as the
Secure Sockets Layer, Messaging API, ActiveX, Java, X.400 and Simple Mail Transfer
Protocol. 

 Messaging  This is the root of workflow management and the usual medium
for data exchange. Many groupware products can do Web messaging or have Post Office
Protocol 3 mail clients. Others dovetail into existing mail clients and servers. 

 Many messaging products either perform groupware functions or have applications that
tie into them. Some programs work on a peer-to-peer model, others on a client-server
model. If you want to store and manage documents or are looking for an enterprise
solution, consider client-server products. They allow centralized backup and security
control. 

 Conferencing  Real-time conferencing is similar to online chatting but
pulls together a specific group of people the way a conference call does. It gives instant
group access to documents and a way to record what went on and what was decided. Without
leaving their desks, participants can develop documents and plan and execute entire
projects. 

User interface  This can be a browser, a mail client or a standalone
application. Look for something intuitive and easy to manage. One advantage of a browser
or mail client is that people are familiar with the interface. Users may need time to
learn how to navigate a standalone application. 


The present trend is an interface users can "live in." That means they can do
up to 80 percent of their work without leaving the interface and launching something else.
Notes, for example, has a plug-in called Components, a collection of basic applets for
word processing, spreadsheets, charting and file viewing inside the Notes
environment. 

Security One of the benefits of electronic documents is that security, if properly
initiated, can be far superior to anything you can provide for a physical document and
still have it accessible. 

From control of user access to encryption of sensitive information, groupware serves as
your best security guard. Two aspects that are often overlooked are easy administration of
individual or group rights and variable security levels. 

Calendaring and scheduling  These features are meant to control workflow and
project management. They're often not as full-featured as standalone applications. But
they should be able to control timing of projects and document creation, as well as group
scheduling. 

Workflow automation and document management This is the bread and butter of the
groupware market. A groupware product should be able to set general rules to control
document flow based on author and type of document. Some packages even let you draw
graphical workflow diagrams that automatically regulate document handling. 

 Management control is key. With large numbers of documents, you must have facilities
for archiving, backup and access control. 

Remote access  If many of your users travel or work at remote sites, this is
essential. The software should make remote access seem just like working at a computer
attached physically to the network. 

Groupware that works with a Web browser can give access to documents, but full features
often are unavailable. The more seamless the interface, the easier life will be for
users. 

Because network computing has grown so complex, groupware implementations are as unique as
fingerprints. Research is essential as you ponder client and server operating systems,
network protocols and the work your users do. 


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