Co-operation is the corporate style of the '90s and now there's a perfect tool to go with it - a system which allows users to enter, search and share key information in ways never before possible.
Groupware, a rapidly rising star in the IT firmament, is a true child of its times. Unlike the character of its selfish, go-getting '80s predecessor, the organisational style of the '90s veers towards caring and sharing. Groupware, a software system which enables users to share information, seems the perfect tool for a newly co-operative culture.
Run on a client server or PC network, groupware allows unstructured information such as text to be disseminated throughout an organisation. User departments design databases to hold the information which they vitally need to do business. Users can then enter, search, share and organise this key information in ways never before possible. Replication enables information held in the same databases - but in different locations - to be synchronised regularly. Motor manufacturer Saab, for example, uses groupware for marketing used cars. Dealers throughout the country have access to the latest information which is replicated across the network three times a day.
Groupware is commonly confused with messaging but differs in one vital respect. In messaging users have to specify to whom E-mail messages are sent. With groupware, users enter information into a common interest database and anyone who is interested can access this database and enter their comments. E-mail is a 'push' and groupware a 'pull' activity.
Moreover, interest in this activity is growing. Lotus Development's Notes, the leader in the field, was launched in 1989. Roughly half of its total sales were made last year. There were 1.35 million users worldwide spread over 5,000 firms by the end of 1994 and that figure represents only 1% of the estimated potential. Jim Manzi, CEO of Lotus, believes there will be 20 million users by 1997. Notes's domination of this burgeoning field, however, is unlikely to continue unchecked as a number of competitive products - notably Microsoft's Exchange - are due to enter the fray later this year.
The UK has an estimated 100,000 groupware users spread throughout 700 companies. Price Waterhouse which was a pioneer in 1989, now has 40,000 users worldwide, Unilever has 12,000 and SmithKline Beecham 7,000. Groupware has become so important to competitive advantage that many firms are reluctant to discuss applications. Most users, however, are still at the pilot stage. Consultant Robin Lowis of Gimlet Management Consultants, who has spent the last five years working with groupware, believes that most installations are restricted to providing islands of information within companies. Better results, he says, will be achieved when it is viewed as part of an overall strategy of change.
The data heaven which groupware promises is, however, viewed by some employees as a threat. Most are accustomed to handling information for their own use only. Information, moreover, has often been seen as a source of power. Some find it difficult to adjust to an open information environment. Salesmen, for example, can object to all and sundry having access to their contacts and some talk of being spied on. To resolve such problems, top management must be seen to lead the way on groupware. In the last resort certain areas of access can be regulated at the application design stage.
Once employees have been won over, the applications of groupware are enormous. Information can be divided into three categories: library, discussion and activity tracking. Library information is for reference only. A good example is Allen and Overy, the City solicitors, which is well on its way to equipping its 1,200 staff worldwide with PCs and Notes. John Rogers is in charge of the programme and explains that there was an enormous amount of information and experience locked up in people's heads, files and libraries which ought to be shared. A variety of databases were designed and partners and fee-earners both feed information into the system and use it. New applications are proliferating rapidly.
The second category of information consists of discussion databases. Comments, questions or ideas are entered into a database in order to attract good quality responses. Henley Management College, for example, uses Notes for long distance MBA courses. Computer communications manager Fenella Galpin explains that 700 course members, some working from home in Britain and others abroad in different time zones, have a need to discuss courses with their peers and tutors. They can enter their comments into discussion databases and invite responses.
Groupware's third use, activity tracking, is its most common application. In the equity division of a leading Swiss bank, for example, stockbrokers are in constant contact with representatives from more than 50 major clients. All contacts are now recorded with access open to all users. Pre-groupware, none of the brokers knew what their colleagues were saying. Now that they know of every contact that has been made, they are much better informed and morale has improved considerably.
Zeneca Pharmaceuticals International has found groupware similarly useful. Graham Burton, IT manager in Zeneca Pharma's UK sales organisation, has installed Notes, 'on a wall-to-wall basis'. About half the staff are salesmen working from home and can look up details of their customers before making calls. They know of every contact made with the customer by every member of Zeneca staff and the information flow has alerted them to others in the organisation who can help with marketing.
Co-operation rather than competition characterises the groupware ethos. Firms who use Notes often wish to share experiences with one another and this facility is provided by the Lotus User Group which manages a discussion database. A growing number of large corporate Notes users - already 120 - are joining the group which also provides technical support and a variety of services, including access to World-Wide Web and the Internet. Chairman Simon Moores and User Group members talk of the changes that groupware has brought about: strong support for team working; a huge reduction in the use of paper; better information at meetings; shorter, sharper meetings with better decisions, improved internal communication.Unilever is one of many firms which have found that groupware leads naturally to business process re-engineering and to 'virtual teams' consisting of people in different disciplines and departments across different countries. The old communications tools - mail, fax, phone and messaging - were inadequate. Groupware is the perfect team tool.
While users are convinced of groupware's merits, it has taken time for firms to work out the best formula for its implementation. Two mistakes commonly occur. The first is to have a lengthy pilot scheme during which the impetus may be lost. The other is to let user departments implement groupware on their own. Lacking sufficient technical expertise, users can duplicate applications, design applications poorly and set up directories and an overall structure that is restrictive when the system expands. Ideally there should be IT control of standards and structure. But Professor Holtham of the City University Business School warns that IT departments can smother groupware which, in essence, is a strategic user-led concept. The solution is for IT staff to get closer to users and more firms are indeed setting up teams consisting of both IT staff and users for developing applications.
Smoothing the way for co-operation between the IT department and end-users is not, however, groupware's greatest challenge. Research by International Data Corporation suggests that the greatest benefits came from cross-enterprise or extended-enterprise systems where customers, suppliers, business partners and retail outlets all have access to a firm's databases. However, extending the co-operative ethos from within to between organisations may, for many, prove too much of a cultural shock.