A White Paper by Lotus Development Corporation
In many ways, groupware defies definition. Nonetheless, this software category has captured the attention and imagination of Information Technology (IT) professionals, line of business managers and end users, not to mention software suppliers. While most businesses have not developed a clear definition of groupware, they are keenly aware that leveraging the knowledge of employees and trading partners is the key to survival and success. Furthermore, businesses know that a clear competitive advantage lies with those who can effectively manage and exploit their intellectual assets.
Most definitions of groupware tend to focus on singular technologies with relatively narrow design centers. Not surprisingly, suppliers of products centered around communication — “pushing” information out into an organization — view messaging as the core technology for groupware. Likewise, suppliers of products centered around collaboration — sharing information and building “shared understanding” — tend to view computer conferencing and shared databases as central to groupware. Those with products aimed at assisting individuals and groups in the coordination of complex tasks involving a rich mix of delegation, sequential sign-offs, etc., are apt to view application development tools that support task and workflow automation as the sine qua non of groupware. It’s because groupware is at the convergence of what were previously considered independent technologies (messaging, conferencing, workflow, etc.) that there is so much confusion about its definition and scope.
As obvious as it may seem, if we start from a belief that groupware should help individuals work together in a qualitatively better way, we find that groupware represents an integration of these technologies. This book uses a simple framework for group work, based on three categories:
- Communication – rich electronic messaging;
- Collaboration – facilitating a rich, shared, virtual workspace; and
- Coordination – adding the structure of business processes to communication and collaboration, so as to implement an enterprise’s policies.
Through closer examination we will determine the conditions under which each technology model breaks down when used by itself. From this we learn that group applications require rich combinations of technologies. Furthermore, what makes a groupware platform powerful is its ability to support the dynamic movement between and through these three modes of group work: communication, collaboration and coordination.
Thus, groupware is not a laundry list of features and functionality, but is instead a platform that simply and elegantly mirrors this convergence. A groupware platform, therefore, is represented by the integration of three primary technologies:
- An object store in which corporate knowledge — messages, documents, forms, memos, reports — can be housed and managed.
- A distribution and access model that allows users to easily locate and disseminate information.
- An application development framework that leverages the native underlying services of the object store and distribution/access model.
Of course, a groupware infrastructure must take into account the general requirements of workgroup environments. Specifically, these include:
- Integration with external resources. The point of origin for workgroup information is often external to the groupware environment (i.e., desktop productivity tools, relational databases, etc.).
- Platform independence. While groupware applications often begin as departmental implementations, many eventually result in company-wide deployment. Platform independence is critical to ensuring universal use and investment protection.
- Mobility. A groupware infrastructure must be capable of supporting many geographically dispersed sites, including home, laptop, and notebook computers.
- Inter-enterprise applications. As businesses begin to rely on customers and trading partners as essential players in the automation of business processes, the ability to seamlessly extend the application — from the start or added as an afterthought — is an important part of a groupware infrastructure.
No business process application can be written that fully anticipates every situation. No matter how many exceptions and special cases are accounted for, people will discover new needs as they explore an application’s depths and as new business situations present themselves. Thus, we conclude that any system designed to create, manage and leverage corporate knowledge is, by definition, of enterprise scale, and therefore must meet these criteria:
- It must support the full breadth of client, network and server operating systems.
- It must support mobile and remote workers.
- It must support seamless inter-enterprise interactivity
A groupware system that is architecturally correct in the sense that it supports the convergence of communication, collaboration and coordination is nevertheless doomed to failure on an enterprise scale if it does not also deal with the pragmatic realities of nomadic workers and inter-enterprise communication.