The devil is in the details

The devil is in the details

Groupware solutions have come a long way since the days of DOS-based e-mail packages. They've evolved from a mere alternative to the telephone to the backbone of a com-pany's communications strategy. IS managers agree that the benefits of Internet-based groupware far outweigh the cost and the pain of implementation.

Wang Laboratories, once a computer manufacturer, now offers a range of network and desktop services for IS departments. The company has offices in approximately 130 countries and employs nearly 10,000 people. The IS employees at Wang are in the process of rolling out Microsoft Exchange Server 5.0 to the entire company at a rate of 100 users per day. Their goal is to deploy Exchange on every desktop, and they plan on using Exchange as a full groupware application, not merely as an e-mail system.

Before Wang selected Exchange 5.0, its employees were working with a variety of applications, including older versions of Microsoft Mail, Wang Office, Lotus cc:Mail, and Lotus Notes. The management began to realise that it was becoming hellishly expensive to run such a varied collection of old applications and decided to make a change. They chose an Internet-based groupware application because they wanted an industrial-strength e-mail system that would work on a global basis. A good chunk of Wang's workforce spends most of their time on the road, and the company wanted them to be able to keep in touch with the home office over the Internet.

Cormac O'Reilly, vice-president of information systems at Wang, has had no notable problems rolling out Exchange to its nearly 10,000 employees. It has been difficult, however, connecting the Exchange users to the other employees who are still using old applications.

"Microsoft has been very helpful in making the connections happen - including one 10-hour help desk call," O'Reilly says.

Internet-based groupware has already proven to be tremendously helpful in getting groups of people to communicate and share information. At Wang, the success of the business depends on passing information along to its customers and field staff.

"Teams of people in different locations can collaborate on bids or build client profiles with the help of Exchange's public folders," O'Reilly says. "The replication feature ensures that all contents are consistently updated."

Consulting company Arthur Andersen has been using Lotus Notes since 1992. The company is in the process of updating to Version 4.5 and is installing some Lotus Domino 4.5 servers in specific departments such as research and development. Before the company installed Notes, it was using a Wang e-mail system that did little to assist group communications worldwide or to help coordinate with outside clients. According to Toby Bell, director of rapid application development at Andersen, Notes has been beneficial in helping people manage materials.

"You can post information in a common database so it can be used as needed by the organisation," Bell says. "There are less redundancies and a significant cost reduction."

Notes' discussion protocol provides a terrific way to leverage knowledge by allowing anyone to ask for information from everyone in the organisation. The full-text indexing capability lets users do simple keyword searches so everyone can find information easily by typing in a few associated terms.

"Teaching people how to fish in the information ocean has helped our business tremendously," Bell says. "Now anyone in the organisation can answer a client service question."

A hard road

Groupware's benefits are obvious, but the underlying costs may not be so plain to see. Mark Lillie, a member of InfoWorld's Corporate Advisory Board, discovered that each successive version of Novell's GroupWise required more memory in the desktop machine.

"That meant that while every department wanted the new version, they were not prepared for the hardware upgrade costs associated with it," Lillie says.

Bill Kreisle, a technology manager, recently implemented a Microsoft Internet Information Server-based intranet in a medium-size company. The installation required converting the entire workstation collection to support the TCP/IP protocol. With nearly 1000 computers, this became an issue in terms of cost. Compuware decided to upgrade all the workstations to Windows 95 so they could take advantage of the integrated IP stacks. Because the company still relied on several DOS-based programs, there was trouble getting Windows 95 to support some DOS-based drivers and programming calls.

For this particular installation, training was minimal on the simple and straightforward intranet but extensive on the new operating system. Upgrading the hardware was another unexpected problem.

"The new operating system paved the way for ongoing solution upgrades, but it was something of a shock when the next version of Internet Explorer required 60Mb of space to install," Kreisle says.

A smooth groupware installation is also grounded in the understanding that the cost of the solution is only half the battle. The first step is to get the whole company involved, even if it means instituting special programs to rally the troops.

"Don't do it if you are not willing to train and if you do not have people who will sell the capability to the corporation," Lillie advises. "People will not use the application without help and encouragement, which may be the biggest challenge for implementing this type of application."

At Arthur Andersen, Lotus Notes has helped the company become what it calls a "knowledge-sharing organisation". To reach this goal, the company instituted a program dedicated to knowledge management. Andersen expects everyone in the company to use e-mail as the primary application for sharing information, instead of relying on Ma Bell. They also feel it's important to open up communication beyond one-to-one on the theory that one idea builds on another, resulting in a thread.

Lotus Notes has been key to the success of this type of communication.

"Groupware has become the workflow tool," Bell explains. "It has given us the ability to work anywhere at any time with anyone in any way."

It's Kreisle's opinion that the key factor for success or failure in implementing a groupware solution is how receptive the employees are to working together, which is an approach that differs slightly from Bell's.

"You will have the most success if the employees are searching for ways to collaborate, and they believe that groupware is the answer," Kreisle says.

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