Groupware is a category of software designed to help groups work together by facilitating the exchange of information among group members who may or may not be located in the same office. Often, groupware users are collaborating on the same project, although groupware can be used to share a variety of information throughout an entire organization and can also be extended to clients, suppliers, and other users outside the organization. Groupware is an ideal mechanism for sharing less-structured information (for example, text or diagrams, as opposed to fielded or structured data) that might not otherwise be accessible to others. It is also used to define workflow, so that as one user completes a step in a project or process, the person responsible for the next step is notified automatically.
Groupware packages offered by different software vendors will include different features and functions, but most typically include the following components:
1. Calendaring and Scheduling. Each user maintains an online calendar to track appointments, days out of the office, and other times when he or she is unavailable. Other users can view their colleagues' calendars to look for "free" time for scheduling a new meeting. The user arranging a meeting may then send an announcement to meeting invitees and track their responses. Some packages also incorporate the ability to reserve a meeting room and any needed equipment, such as a video projector.
2. Discussion Databases. These are topic-specific databases where a user can post an idea, question, or suggestion on a given subject, and other users can post their responses. A discussion board may be set up for a short period of time to gather comments, for example, on an upcoming event, or left up indefinitely, say to solicit new product ideas on an ongoing basis. Usually, the name of each person who posted an item is recorded, but anonymous postings are an option.
3. Reference Libraries. These are collections of reference materials, such as employee handbooks, policy and procedure manuals, and similar documents. Typically, only certain users are able to post materials to a reference database, while other users have "read only" access—that is, they can view the materials but are not authorized to make any changes to them.
4. Email. This is probably the most heavily used groupware feature and is used to send messages to other groupware users. A message may be addressed to one or more individuals or sent to a group, such as "Sales," that includes the names of all people within a given department. Generally, users are also able to send messages to individuals located outside the organization.
Although email is an essential component of groupware, email and groupware employ different methods for disseminating information. Every email message that is sent must have one or more recipients listed in the "To:" field. This is called the "push" model because it pushes the message out to the recipients whether or not a given recipient is interested in receiving it. Groupware uses the "pull" model, in that each users accesses and pulls from the various group-ware applications that information which is of relevance to him or her.
In addition to these typical features, some group-ware packages provide the functionality for users to design their own custom database applications. By using this capability, a department could create and use a database that is tailored to its specific needs. However, for more complex applications, an organization may want to consider hiring an outside developer to design the application.
Groupware functionality may also include the ability to control who sees a given piece of information. Access can be limited to specifically named individuals or to members of a group, such as all managers, members of the accounting department, or those employees working on a sensitive or confidential project. For example, job descriptions may be accessible to all users, but access to related salary information may be limited to managers and members of the human resources department.
HOW GROUPWARE WORKS
Groupware software can be divided into two categories: server and client. Depending on the size of an organization and the number of users, the software is installed on one or more computers (called "servers") in a network. Server software can also be installed on computers located in other locations, from a nearby city to another state or country. The server houses the actual applications and the associated information entered into them by the various users. If more than one server is used, the servers will "speak" to one another in a process called "replication." In this way, information held in the same database, but in a different locations or on a different server, is exchanged between the servers. Once this is accomplished, the servers are said to be "synchronized."
Each person using the groupware has the client software installed on his or her desktop or laptop computer. The client software enables the user to access and interact with the applications stored on the servers. Some users may be "remote;" that is, they are not in the office on a full-time basis but rather use a modem or other type of connection to access and use the groupware.
GROUPWARE IN ACTION
When faced with a lawsuit from a former partner, Bill Wright of the New Jersey law firm Farr, Buke, Bambacorta & Wright turned to groupware to help organize his firm's response. "We had to find a way to help us handle the flood of information," says Wright. Using groupware, the firm created a repository of memos and other documents related to the case, and this repository was available to Wright and others to post their own documents as well as read materials posted by others. With just one place to look, Wright was able to more quickly prepare required materials. Although the suit has long since been settled, the firm continues to use groupware to discuss key issues, share case notes, and maintain other information.
Groupware enabled employees of an accounting firm in Atlanta, Georgia, to stay out of the office and still keep in touch and functioning for several weeks when access to the center of the city was limited during the 1996 Summer Olympics. Most of the 40 employees of Porter, Keadle, Moore LLP used laptops to work from home for the duration of the games. As partner Bill Keadle noted, "I hardly saw anyone for a month, but we managed to stay in touch." The firm relied not just on the groupware's email capabilities, but also on various applications, including discussion and reference databases.
For David Johnson, extending groupware beyond his own firm was key to speeding the completion of construction projects. Johnson, co-owner of an architectural firm based in Nashville, Tennessee, was looking to simplify the process of routing blueprints and other documents to as many as 50 subcontractors who may be involved in a given project. Sending materials via "snail mail" to one subcontractor, who would review them and send them along to the next subcontractor for review, was a time-consuming process. It was also, as Johnson notes, frustrating dealing with "the problems and confusion caused when 15 people in 15 far-flung locations each has a copy of important materials then somehow can't find the document when you finally get hold of them." By using group-ware, Johnson was able to create a knowledge base for each project that everyone involved with the project could access. "I wanted it to seem like we were all in the same office," he said. When Johnson tested his new system on a project designing a 60,000-square-foot medical office building, the results were exactly what he wanted—the project took about four months less to complete than it would have using the old system.