Do your communications processes leave you hanging? Groupware can help people
get information and documents they need when they need them
By Larry Stevens
Special to GCN
The effectiveness of a government office rises and falls on the efficiency of its communications processes. Each time it takes a week to schedule a meeting, or a form gets delayed in the mail, or someone inadvertently works on an old version of a document, the agency loses valuable time. Even small efficiency leaks, in enough volume, can eventually take some of the air out of an agency's ability to operate.
Groupware helps eliminate some of those lapses in efficiency. With it, individuals and groups can work collaboratively in various ways. Groupware provides synchronous communications through things such as chat rooms, shared applications and electronic whiteboards. And it allows for asynchronous communications through e-mail and message boards.
The result is that people don't have to travel to meetings as often, and postal mail and phone tag become secondary options or are eliminated.Sharing alike
Most groupware products also ease document sharing with features such as check-in/check-out, which ensures that only one user works on a document at a time, and version control, which indicates when each document version was prepared, how many versions were prepared before and after a particular version, and who worked on each version. Groupware software also puts more control into the hands of end users. They can publish documents such as newsletters or memos, make changes to database entries'for example, to their personal address listings'and search for information stored in the groupware's document repository, which might be a third-party database.
And sometimes workflow systems are either embedded in a groupware system or are offered as an add-on. Workflow software automatically routes forms and documents throughout an organization.
Lotus Notes was the first high-end groupware system. Notes, as well as its two earliest competitors, Microsoft Exchange Server and Novell GroupWise, began as proprietary client-server systems. But all three products, as well as virtually all newer ones, have moved to standards-based connectivity and use Internet protocols.
Lotus Notes Release 5 provides e-mail, calendaring, group scheduling, contact management and task management. The new version is very customizable. Users can create a Headlines Page that displays things such as information about meetings, deadline lists, urgent messages, messages from specific people or groups, and news bulletins.
Users can bookmark information and use a browserlike interface to navigate through an agency's Notes database. The new version also has a number of features that support remote users, including the ability to access Notes through an Internet connection and to take information off-site in an optimized local directory catalog.
A newer Lotus suite, Lotus Sametime, lets users share documents and applications and collaborate in real time. The suite includes the Sametime Server, the Sametime Connect client, and application developer tools.'Sametime has three categories of functions: Awareness displays who is online; Conversation lets users send instant messages to anyone or start a chat session with several people; and Shared Objects provides for application-sharing or whiteboard sessions.
With application sharing, users can share any application on their desktop PCs, passing control of the application back and forth.'' Microsoft Exchange is known primarily as a messaging platform, but it has a good number of collaboration tools. Microsoft Exchange Scripting Agent lets users create event- or time-driven collaborative apps. And Internet Locator Server lets users host meetings, conduct discussions, and collaborate on documents or projects online and in real time.
An organization can use Microsoft Outlook 98 to automate business processes and create electronic forms. The forms can be created using any Microsoft Office application.
An advantage of Microsoft Express for current Microsoft Windows NT users is its integration with the Windows NT Server security model. Users can use the same password for their Windows NT user account and their Exchange mailbox.
Novell's GroupWise, which runs on Novell networks, provides e-mail, personal calendaring, group scheduling, imaging, automated workflow, task and document management, rules-based message management, and electronic discussions.
It includes a Universal Mailbox, which can receive all types of messages, calendar information and documents. The Universal Mailbox can be accessed using the remote client or a Web browser.
GroupWise WorkFlow Professional, an add-on product to GroupWise, uses symbols to represent actions and participants in a workflow.
Administrators can position the symbols to design a workflow, and the software uses the design to automate the assigning and reporting of tasks.
For example, you can design a workflow that automatically sends a requisition form to a series of employees who, based on the dollar amount of the form, need to sign off on it. As each user completes work on the form, it is sent to the next user and a graph or chart displays the progress of the workflow.
While the three products described above use Internet protocols, a growing number of products are entirely Web-based.
One such product, eRoom from Instinctive Technology Inc., lets project groups work collaboratively by entering a virtual project room on the Web. Once in the virtual room, group members can check documents out and in, drag and drop files to be shared'while the system takes care of version control'and participate in discussion groups.
The latest version of eRoom, 4.0, was expected to be out by the time this article is published. It will include a feature called Enterconnect, which will allow users to move information from eRoom to other enterprise repositories such as document management systems, other groupware products or a Web server.Cheaper alternatives
Most workflow products are expensive and require some know-how from the information technology staff to install. But small workgroups may be able to effectively take advantage of low-cost hosted Web systems.
|Checking in on groupware|
- Groupware applications allow synchronous communications through things such as chat rooms, shared applications and electronic whiteboards, and allow asynchronous communications through e-mail and message boards.
- Document sharing, another groupware feature, provides check-in/check-out, which ensures that only one user at a time works on a document. Document sharing also allows for version control.
- Calendaring, offered by some products, allows users to publish their calendars. Authorized co-workers then can make entries on the calendar, to add or remove a meeting, for instance.
- Workflow systems, often an add-on to groupware, automate the flow of forms and documents though the organization.
- Popular messaging and network systems, such as Lotus Notes, Microsoft Exchange Server and Novell
NetWare, have incorporated groupware as part of the system or as an add-on.
- Most groupware products have incorporated Internet protocols, and many now use a browser interface.
- Hosted Web-based groupware can meet the needs of agencies with light infrastructure.
At $12.95 per month per user, HotOffice 2.0 from HotOffice Technologies Inc. is a hosted, Web-based service that a small department with no infrastructure can set up for itself. For a monthly per-user fee, it provides calendaring, contact management, document management'including varied access privileges'and an online document viewer. It has a bulletin board that is accessible only to your organization, and online conference rooms.
Still too expensive? Here's something that is free. ActiveTouch Inc.'s WebEx Meetings, at www.webex.com, provides for real-time meetings and document sharing. When a meeting is established, all participants can view the same document in their browser windows. Users can mark up the document and type comments.
For many organizations, their intranet is their collaborative tool. By letting users make changes to their address book entries, post and delete job opportunities, and publish documents, an intranet can provide many of the basic advantages of groupware products.
If your department or agency hasn't gotten around to putting up an intranet, you can consider one of the 'intranet in a box' products.
Mindbridge Software Inc.'s IntraSmart, which requires only a Web browser, Web server and database, provides a large number of modules that allow for group collaboration, including document sharing, group and calendar scheduling, an employee directory, a threaded discussion board and bulletin board, and company bookmarks.
All of the groupware products discussed so far, other than the hosted Web services, have many features that affect virtually all areas of collaboration. But organizations that need only a few collaborative features may be able to find less expensive products that meet their requirements.
For example, if you only need basic team management and project tracking features, Team Agenda from Teamsoft Inc. can do the job for about $100 per user, in quantity.
It includes a Task Manager that displays a summary of all tasks within a given project along with the percentage of tasks completed. It has a Workload window that shows the work completed on each project by one or more team members and lets you view the total time spent by day and by project.
No groupware product will make an organization more efficient unless the product performs properly. Some products, such as IntelliWatch Pinnacle from Candle Corp., help administrators manage groupware.
IntelliWatch is a Notes management system that diagnoses Notes performance bottlenecks and analyzes Notes server usage. It is made up of four components: IntelliWatch Monitor scans Notes server logs for situations and conditions that can affect performance; Analyzer identifies trends and assesses their impact on the network; Tracer displays the performance impact of events inside the Notes server in real time; and Performance Manager can be set to measure any activity on the Notes network.No guarantees
While software itself cannot guarantee that group members will work together efficiently, groupware can at least solve some of the technical issues surrounding communications. Using these products, you can be reasonably sure that information will be passed around the group quickly. People will have the information and documents they need when they need them. What they do with that ability is up to them.'Larry Stevens writes from Monson, Mass., about information technology.These 17 products help agency groups get their act together
extranet and Internet
$30 and up
Santa Clara, Calif.
Web meeting and
Santa Monica, Calif.
Lotus Notes system
Boca Raton, Fla.
offers large number of
groupware tools with
creates a virtual project
space on the Web
$199 per seat
Uses Web to automate
work processes within
and between businesses
Integrated e-mail and
for the Internet
$55 per user
Suite for real-time
conversation and object
$16 per user
Helps set up a common
electronic work space
Messaging platform with
numerous tools for
Fort Washington, Pa.
Ready-to-go intranet that
Messaging platform with
numerous tools for
$718 for a
Primavera Systems Inc.
Bala Cynwyd, Pa.
Workgroup product aimed
at IT and application
Allows users to
participate in online
documents, chat and
Adds workflow features
to SiteScape Forum
scheduler and resource
$130 or less
organizing and prioritizing
$795 per seat