By John Makulowich
Among the numerous utilities and applications offered to the computing public, those in the class called groupware must be counted among the more rewarding. The reason is simple: groupware in all its forms - from simple messaging and e-mail through common scheduling to sophisticated workflow management - allows colleagues to work more closely together to find solutions to shared, often critical, problems.
Examples are evident across the computing landscape - in AIDS programs, emergency response projects and legal initiatives. Ever since Lotus innovated with the introduction of Notes in 1990 and the Internet and intranets boosted the momentum, groupware has been on a growth spurt.
Its success has even prodded latecomers, such as Oracle, which is finally pushing its own version called InterOffice, and spawned a whole set of niche applications as diverse as IntraActive's InTandem, a World Wide Web-based suite of collaborative tools, and Pictorius' iNet Developer, an intranet site development tool.
Overall, it's a market still dominated by the household names in the computer industry: IBM Lotus, Netscape, Microsoft, Novell, Hewlett-Packard and Qualcomm.
Bret Ballinger, president of Groupware Technologies Inc., Milwaukee, Wis., recounts how his firm provided pro bono work to help the Milwaukee AIDS Project organize its case managers and satellite offices using Notes.
An AIDS service organization for people who are HIV positive, the Milwaukee AIDS Project was awarded a grant from both federal and state sources to computerize their 18 case managers as well as to connect the satellite offices they maintain across Wisconsin and to help coordinate with 20 other organizations.
"The types of work they do include housing and assistance to allow persons with AIDS to remain at home. They run an in-house dental clinic and coordinate medical care with local hospitals. The project also manages buddy systems and support groups, offers legal help for living wills and gives guidance in applying for services from state agencies and the federal government. Their focus is to enable clients to be self-sufficient. All these activities can benefit from a groupware application like Notes," explains Ballinger.
When the project first started, the staff thought the operation could be paper-based. However, with progress in AIDS treatment and understanding, people are managing their health better and thus living longer. This is a double-edged sword, the other side of which is the increasing cost of sophisticated care, such as drug combination therapies as well as a much larger client base to manage.
"The project realized they needed proactive case management, to make more contact with clients. They also needed a computer plan, not just a system to only serve the needs of case managers. Our staff spent six months studying what was going on with case managers," Ballinger says.
Overall, about four person years were devoted to the project, Ballinger says. A key issue was communications, for example, coordinating transportation to get a person to the clinic or to get a lawyer to work on a will. The bottom line was to work more effectively with limited resources, Ballinger says.
He chose Lotus Notes because of its calendar and e-mail tools; he then set up discussion databases and suggestion boxes, facilitating among and across agencies to allow, for example, physicians and lawyers to put comments in the system about the project's clients. The system offered not only flexibility, but also dynamic security.
Workflow Designs photo
"When groupware projects fail, the culture is usually the reason, not the technology."
- Todd Hunter, president of Workflow Designs
"Let me give you an example. Let's say I have a case worker at a hospital, an employee of an agency across town. That same agency has four case workers. I want to be able to have up-to-date information available to all primary case workers if a client walks into the hospital and a case worker collects and enters all the information," Ballinger says.
Especially pleasing to Ballinger was that they took 18 case workers, only one of whom had ever worked on a computer, and gave them one day of Windows training and two days of Lotus Notes and applications. By the third week, the case workers stopped using paper.
"Believe it or not, these 18 case workers are responsible for 1,200 clients," Ballinger says. "With this system, they can work more efficiently by seeing a list of the clients they need to contact and why. That's a more effective use of resources."
Another case study of groupware involves John Bowles, the chief information officer in the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services in Sacramento, Calif. He's quick to point out that he set up a support system for the entire state for under $500,000 using Notes.
"We have a double whammy here in California. We are the most populous state as well as the most disaster-prone state. There have been 13 major disasters in the last seven years, including earthquakes, major fires, flooding and riots.
"Our role is to coordinate the state-level response in support of local government. We have all the resources of the state at our disposal," Bowles says.
The importance of groupware is obvious. During a disaster, information flow is critical to providing a sufficient response, to get help to those in need. Bowles notes that there are two primary jobs during responses: to coordinate and allocate the state's mutual aids systems where and when needed; and gather, analyze and disseminate situation support, status summaries and intelligence about the disaster.
The answer was California's Response Information Management System, a statewide computer system to coordinate and manage the state's response to disasters and emergencies. A collaborative, distributed, client/server system, it links the different levels of emergency management inside California and automates California's so-called Standardized Emergency Management System. Developed by OES and located at more than 65 locations statewide, RIMS is based on Lotus Notes/Domino client/server and uses an intranet and the Internet for communications and interactive access.
RIMS is made up of more than 15 servers, 300 PC-based users and multiple, redundant communications networks including LAN, T1 WAN, modem land line, modem satellite, modem cell phone and Internet connections. Usage will expand to 500 users when all counties are fully deployed and up to 5,000 users when RIMS is deployed at the local level. Internet access allows local governments, the media and the public not directly on RIMS to gather situation and response information and to interactively fill out RIMS forms with any Internet access tool.
Not only does RIMS include resource management, intelligence reporting, cost accounting and a purchasing system, but it is integrated with geographical information systems to display interactive maps and photos and to access geographical, political and demographic information during a disaster.
Developed in less than 18 months, RIMS was deployed for under $500,000 with a user entry-level price of under $100, according to Bowles.
"Before RIMS on Lotus Notes/Domino, the system was based on paper, phones and faxes. We realized that was no way to manage all the information we were getting and still get a big-picture view. It was also no basis on which to set priorities and no way to follow up and make sure requests were followed up. Collating disaster intelligence information, producing a report and faxing it out was taking too long," Bowles says.
For Bowles, there were five primary business problems that he needed to solve in automating the system. They were: reduce the backlog of information, correct the misdirection of resources, overcome the lag time in state report generation, eliminate the duplication of effort by response and recovery personnel and produce clear historical records for training, audits and records. The system he set up solved all of them.
For those seeking to compete with the entrenched Lotus Notes, Bowles' reasons for using the product are instructive. They include the underlying communication infrastructure it offered along with the ability to coordinate and synthesize distributed servers throughout the state.
"There was also the ease of developing applications. Overall, it was easier, cheaper and quicker than other applications we had experience with. Combine the lower cost of entry - the $100 Notes site license - and ease of use were the keys," Bowles says.
Yet a third case in which groupware came to the rescue was in Texas. The passage of the Administrative License Revocation law determined that anyone found driving while intoxicated automatically gets his license suspended. That person also receives the promise that his case is processed through the legal system within 40 days. This combination could have created administrative nightmares in the Lone Star State.
"Our role is to coordinate the state-level response in support of local government; we have all the resources of the state at our disposal."
-John Bowles, chief information officer in the California Governor's Office of Emergency Services
According to Jeanna Carroll, marketing manager for Team Tech International Inc., Austin, Texas, the critical issue was gathering information from both prosecuting attorneys and the judges in the State Office of Administrative Hearings.
"It was unique in that two state agencies were using the system. Each agency has limited access to what they can do. That's because the judges can't see any information that would sway them in hearing a case and the prosecuting attorneys have information they want to keep private," explains Carroll.
Another challenge presented by working with two agencies on the same system was the requirement for two different interfaces. Not only were facility questions involved that affected just one of the parties, such as accessibility for disabled persons or translators for foreign-speaking individuals, but also certain information could only be entered by one of the parties, for example, the judges were the only ones with authority to enter findings from the hearings. A last requirement was that if the person issued the DWI were found innocent, all information in the system about that case had to be removed. The reason why is that, in principle, information in the system is considered public domain.
Her firm chose Lotus Notes, among other reasons, because it offered access control levels and secure environments in which each party had different access. Further, training was an important part of the process. The company actually completed it in one day, four hours for end-user training and four hours for administrators.
On the user side of the equation in Texas is Robert Owen, assistant to the chief of legal services for the Texas Department of Public Safety in Austin.
"Clearly, when the law was passed we needed a tracking and scheduling system for those arrested for DWI. This included folks who failed a blood or breath test or refused to take one and who had to go to a specific location for the hearing. The area covered all 254 counties in Texas," says Owen.
In 1995, Owen proudly notes that the system handled 67,802 cases. Using Lotus Notes with a series of modem hookups to the central location in Austin, field personnel transmitted information on the results of the hearings. At the same time these personnel transmitted data on whether the individual was suspended or not, the Austin central office was transmitting data back about the schedule for upcoming hearings.
"We have a real good system that is working very well," says Owen. "We intend to extend it to cover subpoenas, juvenile cases, concealed handguns, litigation, tort claims and open records requests. This includes administrative matters as well, such as appeals at all levels and maintenance of the master calendar."
A fourth case study for groupware was the Oklahoma City bombing that occurred in April 1995.
Todd Hunter, president of Workflow Designs, Dallas, Texas, remembers the events well. His firm responded to the governor's request to link agencies that could provide care to all the needy people out of work or out of homes as a result of the bombing.
"Many people realized in the aftermath of the bombing that there would be an outpouring of care. The difficulty came in matching that care with individuals. It covered everything from clothing and food to shelter and funding. For us, it was a distributed problem, trying to connect together different organizations, such as United Way and Red Cross with churches and banks, who were managing funds. What worked well was the Lotus Notes replication scheme. It allowed each agency to operate independently, dialing in and sending and receiving as well as updating their information each day," says Hunter.
Using shopping malls to gather information, such as Social Security numbers, to match care givers and receivers, Hunter and his staff stumbled upon an awkward fact: in a number of cases fraud was being conducted by individuals who were double-dipping. On the positive side, Lotus Notes allowed coordination of distribution and assistance - from blankets to soup kitchens to sources of funds for renters. According to Hunter, it allowed people to get back on their feet faster than in any other tragedy in Oklahoma history.
"We had a clear goal and a distinct challenge. The goal was to deliver care to people as soon as possible. The challenge was how fast we could mobilize care to those who needed it," notes Hunter.
Among the lessons learned by Hunter, one of the biggest was that training was critical, especially for people in the field. Another important lesson was time management.
"We realized the importance of setting up critical deadlines, of making sure everyone had specific times their activities must be done. In the groupware situation, most of the time you're dealing across department lines. It's very important to create milestones. We did that with the internal calendar in Notes 4.5," says Hunter.
He also realized that the drama of the situation focused everyone's intent. He feels that creating that drama in business situations could be an effective way to pull people together for events, such as peer reviews or executive summary. He's also mindful that in the groupware environment, the culture of the organization has the potential to be changed.
Says Hunter, "When groupware projects fail, the culture is usually the reason, not the technology."
While Lotus Notes maintains a dominant share of the market and clearly enjoys the dedication and commitment of its multitude of users, there are quite a few players on the outskirts seeking to carve out a piece of the market among, for example, trade associations trying to leapfrog from client/server to Web-based systems. Among them is Washington-based IntraActive's Dave Garrett, president and CEO, with the company's InTandem product.
"I see a splintering of the groupware functions as well as a wide variety of definitions. It's important today to look at the information structure and flow as well as the geographical structure. What's evident is that no two organizations are the same. While Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes may be perfect for one organization, for another they are not even feasible," says Garrett.
He feels that over the last few years, the typical organization that uses standalone PCs is focusing less on the PC and the information technology infrastructure and more on the IP-based Web for Internet, intranet and extranet communications.
"InTandem does not require major infrastructure deployment and can handle geographically dispersed shops. What we are offering is lower maintenance, monitoring and upgrade costs, instant deployment, a graphical user interface and easy to use and deploy applications. Some surveys estimate $200 to $300 per year per user to support a standard thick client. Your typical organization with an intranet can drop as low as $10-$15 per user," says Garrett.
Another niche player is Pictorius Software, Nova Scotia, Canada, with its iNet Developer, an intranet site development tool designed to allow multiple users in corporate environments the ability to easily create a Web-based presence with both push technology and dynamic HTML.
To Jesse Boudreau, president and CEO, the target audience is MIS people, "but the idea is to help them with their bottlenecks, whether applications or information publishing. With a managed Web environment that iNet allows, you can quickly set up the seeds of a Web site. All that's required is 20 minutes of word processing experience and teams of authors with MIS in support. We are offering a way to disseminate information as painlessly as possible."
At the extreme edge and in an unusual position is database market dominator, Redwood City, Calif.-based Oracle Corp., a laggard by any standard of groupware development. The company is starting to push its InterOffice application hard, a messaging, workflow and document management system that allows transport of plain-text as well as HTML documents and is intimately tied to the company's database applications. While parts of the product have been around for a while, the company is just now getting its act together to try and market its first offering, which it oddly numbered version 4.1.
According to Steve D'Alencon, senior director of InterOffice product management and marketing, the company expects to start shipping at the end of this month.
"We think the key approach is collaborative solutions and this is the year of the infrastructure. The fundamental focus of groupware is changing. The cycle of groupware is over, with its team computing and goal-oriented collaboration. In fact, groupware is a legacy system," says D'Alencon.
When all is said and done, the pretenders to the throne still have to deal with the space controlled by Lotus Notes. One person who's worked with the company since it launched Notes in 1990 is Lori Williams, now senior manager for Lotus Consulting, Cambridge, Mass. She is currently pushing the newest wrinkle, Notes Public Network. This product is a Notes application that sits on an Internet service provider or telecommunications provider.
"This product offers smaller organizations a rentable infrastructure. NPN is now found in nine countries," says Williams. "Work is also proceeding on Lotus Kona, a Java version of SmartSuite. Our approach is that it is easier to sell a set of functionality rather than technology."
She feels that IT organizations deploying Notes are inwardly focused. It's a different story when a firm uses applications that are customer-driven. In those cases, the impact on the revenue stream must be considered, especially if it might involve electronic commerce.
"That's difficult for IT managers to set up; it's not just an infrastructure issue. We are seeing trusted partners in extranet space and the need to come up with new hierarchy for a new type of user whose extremely careful about security," Williams says.