In the old days, Katherine Emery held technical meetings every Friday. Since the consultants at her 11-employee computer-support company work primarily in clients' offices, Emery wanted to make sure they had a chance to share ideas. So each Friday at S-O-F-T Industries, in Southington, Conn., consultants facing difficult technical problems could ask their peers for advice.
Now Emery has a better way. Instead of returning to S-O-F-T's offices for protracted meetings, her consultants conduct their technical discussions on-line. Using a shared, loosely structured database created with Lotus Notes software, consultants can get help from their far-flung colleagues without leaving their clients' buildings. In the past the knowledge gleaned in each meeting was readily forgotten; today S-O-F-T's consultants can easily locate previous discussions in the database.
Since Lotus Development launched Notes, in 1989, "groupware" has become more commonplace in large corporations. Notes is rarer in small companies, probably because it's comparatively expensive and requires significant technical support. Jane Eisenberg, Lotus Notes' product-marketing director, estimates that a 25-person company using Notes would probably have to devote about half of one person's time for support and administration.
Still, some small companies like Emery's are solidly sold on groupware. Emery says Notes enables her company to offer improved customer service as well as better technical support. S-O-F-T used to keep manila files bulging with client information. Employees stored everything from site-visit reports to phone logs in those files -- where they generally languished. Now those reports are filled out on-line, and they're easily available to any authorized user. Emery can quickly search for unresolved customer-service calls or review a customer's complete record. Consultants out in the field can do the same, as well as update their databases by calling in with a modem.
However, it took one of S-O-F-T's consultants about 200 hours to prepare all the databases. Emery estimates that a company without in-house programming talent might spend $20,000 to $30,000 on a similar installation, plus $10,000 a year in ongoing development. That includes the cost of the software itself -- about $4,500 for a 10-user set. And since Notes requires a client/server local area network, Emery's estimate also includes a $3,000-plus dedicated Notes server using the OS/2 operating system. "This is not a plug-and-play product," she emphasizes. Still, she believes groupware will change business as much as word processors and spreadsheets have.
There is a lower-cost way to try Notes. This past fall Lotus released Notes Express, a $130 product that delivers five commonly used applications, including one for discussion and one for retrieval of reference material. And developers are selling off-the-shelf Notes applications, which may reduce the need for customized programming.* * *