A look at how groupware allows small-company employees to work simultaneously, saving both time and money.
Today's groupware lets people in small companies do everything from work simultaneously on the same document to carry on 'face-to-face' electronic meetings and record conversations over time
What attorney Bill Wright was facing was a failure to communicate. First, one of his three partners suddenly up and left, taking 17 employees of the Bellmawr, N.J., law firm and lots of clients with him. Then, within days of his departure, the prodigal lawyer sued his former partners. Of course Wright's firm turned around and filed a countersuit. What with impromptu hallway discussions, emergency meetings, news flashes, urgent requests for background, and the rest of their caseload, the remaining staff at Farr, Burke, Gambacorta & Wright barely had time to breathe. "We had to find a way to help us handle the flood of information," says Wright. "And we had to find it fast." Simple E-mail, he knew, would not suffice. He needed something that would organize and catalog information, not just zap bulletins around the office.
What Wright and his colleagues did was to turn to groupware, a category of software used, as the name suggests, to help people work in groups. Instead of holding one meeting after another, they bought and installed a program called TeamTalk (from Trax Softworks) on their network and started using it to discuss business. When Wright had to produce a draft of a proposed settlement, for example, he no longer had to rummage through notes from previous discussions and interrupt his partners with time-consuming questions. Instead he simply looked in the program's database for a record of earlier memos and messages relating to the topic.
A year after the suits were settled, groupware had become the interactive glue holding Wright's firm together.
Not long ago, small firms like Wright's (which earns about $2 million in revenues each year) could not have availed themselves of groupware -- not unless they wanted to go bankrupt in the process. Seven years ago, when Lotus Development introduced Lotus Notes, the groupware pioneer, the software cost an eye-popping $62,500 for 200 users. It was difficult to set up and use, requiring the kind of expertise and training rarely found in smaller companies. Now not only are top-of-the-line products, including the newest version of Lotus Notes, much cheaper, but many more choices are available. (In April, Microsoft came out with a direct competitor to Notes, a platform called Microsoft Exchange Server.) The smaller guys can now take advantage of groupware's ability to help people scattered across a building -- or a continent -- create blueprints, reports, memos, and diagrams as if they were sitting at the same conference table.
That's not all groupware can do. Today groupware enables you to access a database of everything from doodles to discussions, run electronic meetings, track work flow, and carry on and record conversations over an extended period of time. And that's only the beginning.
But don't take out your checkbook before you know the whole story. With the more sophisticated products, you can't just pop in a program and expect to get it up and running. Indeed while the actual software can cost anywhere from $100 to $1,000 (it's often priced according to the number of people using it), the real expense for fancier fare lies in installation, training, and maintenance. For every $1 of Lotus Notes, small businesses pay $3 to $5 in consulting services, according to David Coleman, managing director of the Collaborative Strategies Division of GroupWorX, a small management-consulting firm in San Francisco that concentrates on groupware and knowledge-management tools and strategies. Still, especially with lower-end programs, small companies can get their groupware going without too much trouble.* * *
Many Strokes for Many Folks
The term groupware refers to anywhere from 5 to 12 different program types. Some programs include many features; others are more limited. Packages like Lotus Notes can incorporate the services of outside consultants who can customize an application for your business, install it, and train the troops to use it. Others are simple enough to set up and use on your own. Finally, while most groupware requires a local area network (LAN), including a server and attached client computers, alternative software is available that uses the World Wide Web. Two examples are RoundTable (from ForeFront Group) and WebBoard (from O'Reilly & Associates). Experts expect an explosion of this groupware over the next year as software producers rush to convert their products to the Internet.
For small businesses, a few of the most useful groupware-application categories are as follows:
Knowledge sharing. The bermensch of PC databases, knowledge-sharing groupware lets you store information in just about any form -- diagram, free-form text, memo. Searching through a "knowledge base," as it's called, is also easier than searching through a garden-variety database because it involves fewer steps. Everything is in one place and accessible.
Group calendaring and scheduling. This kind of groupware allows you to check schedules and set up meetings with other people.
Real-time meetings. Participants can be linked together in a network over which they answer questions, make comments, and vote -- all anonymously if they choose. This category of groupware allows users to read and respond to information on their screens and to participate in brainstorming sessions without being put on the spot. Or with videoconferencing software and a video camera attached to their computers, managers and their distributors in, say, Kuala Lumpur, can hold a "face-to-face" meeting.
Bulletin boards. This type of groupware lets you carry on "conversations" over long periods of what's known as "nonreal time." All comments are stored and organized in easy-to-retrieve form. So, for example, if in August you want to see what staffers said about your product launch last January, you just call up their comments.
Group document handling. You and your colleagues can work simultaneously on the same document on your screens. Most of us don't work that way, however, so it may be the least-used type of groupware. That could change as groupware catches on.
Work flow. Groupware can help you analyze your business processes, tracking the status of documents -- who has them, who's behind, who gets them next.* * *
Calendaring, work flow, knowledge sharing. It all appealed to Rita Bloom, owner of Creative Parties Ltd., a $3-million, 28-year-old events-management company, in Bethesda, Md. Bloom handles vast amounts of information. When you work on lengthy assignments, as Bloom does, crucial details can slip through the cracks. For years that possibility haunted her. Then Bloom found what she thought would be the solution: a groupware program to help her staff stay on top of the many bits and pieces that go into planning a giant fete.
It all started in January 1994, when Bloom attended a special-events industry trade show, in Orlando. There she saw computer systems for caterers, florists, and the like, but none for event planners like herself. "I figured, why couldn't I do that, too?" she recalls.
Once she began to research software and interview programmers, Bloom decided that an off-the-shelf program wouldn't do. The planning process had to account for too many quirks and crises. The reggae band hired for a party might wear something too wild for a conservative group of guests. Or the curtains in a recently booked ballroom might clash with the client's favorite color scheme. Bloom needed a program that would give all of her staffers immediate access to the myriad details that go into an event -- what appetizers are going to be served, what time the band is going to take a break, what the centerpieces should look like.
Four months into her search, Bloom paid a local programmer $2,000 to design an application using FoxPro, a database-management program from Microsoft. But the application wasn't right. Finding information was cumbersome and time-consuming.
So Bloom went back to the drawing board. She had finally chosen a consultant, when her daughter Tracy, who was working in marketing for Lotus, in Cambridge, Mass., suggested she consider Lotus Notes. Tracy flew to Bethesda and made a presentation to her mother. The talk persuaded the elder Bloom to go with the Lotus offering despite the price -- $45,000. Connexus Consulting Group Inc., an Andover, Mass., groupware consulting firm, designed and installed the system on eight 486 computers and a Compaq server.
By late 1994 the system was installed. Then came getting the staff up to speed. About half took to it in a month; the rest took six months, except for two computer novices who, says Tracy Bloom, "have a mental block against it." (They're still trying to learn.)
Rita Bloom now runs the entire business on the system. From their workstations, staff members can retrieve information, in just about any form, relating to every phase of the event-planning process. Call up the name of a client, and you'll see correspondence, floor plans, schedules of events, invoices, even scanned-in photos of fabric swatches and musicians. And if you want to add in, say, the name of a new master of ceremonies, with two clicks of the mouse you can call up a new-vendor sheet on the screen, fill in the necessary information, and you're done.
Or suppose a client or a supplier calls with an urgent question. In seconds anyone can supply an answer. Recently, for example, a caterer called with a desperate last-minute query: Should the tablecloths on the bar be pure white or yellow and white? Bloom simply called up the event and, scrolling down, found a picture of the fabric swatch for the guests' tables. It turned out it was a mustard-yellow floral print likely to clash with the yellow and white cloth. She chose the pure white.
Thanks to the new groupware, Bloom is expanding the business from nonprofits and private individuals to corporations. "We don't look like a small-town mom-and-pop operation anymore," says Bloom. "We look like a 21st-century company."* * *
When Bill Wright set out to find a program to help his beleaguered law firm, the large variety of groupware categories didn't concern him. "We didn't need all the bells and whistles," he says. "Just a way to share information." So in the fall of 1994, Wright started reading magazine reviews of bulletin-board and knowledge-sharing packages and came across a rave for TeamTalk. It seemed to do what he wanted: route and store questions and comments in an easy-to-retrieve -- and easy-to-append -- way, thereby reducing the need for meetings and freeing staff to attend to other duties. To Wright it promised an office where diverse information would be accessible to all. Moreover, all the reviews agreed that TeamTalk, compared with other packages, was a snap to install. He bought the program, which cost around $500 for five users, in October 1994. In about two hours, Wright, an amateur techie who has avidly followed high-tech developments for the past 10 years, installed it on four of the office's 486 computers.
By the end of the week, TeamTalk had become a seamless part of the firm's operations. Whenever a lawyer needed to ask a question or make an important announcement, instead of calling a hurried gathering of the partners, he or she would send the message over the system. Later those with access to the files could look up the information and add to the database as the situation evolved. (A bonus was an improvement in office morale as the number of closed-door meetings dropped.)
By the time the suit and countersuit were resolved, in January 1995, Wright and his colleagues had decided they couldn't do business without their groupware. Their application now has 14 users (partners, lawyers, paralegals, and the office manager) and covers 32 topics, from legal procedures to new cases. If, for example, a bankruptcy judge makes an idiosyncratic procedural ruling about foreclosures, an associate adds that tidbit to the pertinent topic. Some topics are available to everyone; others, like the one that disseminates confidential information about management, is open only to partners. A pregnant attorney created a subject area related to her cases so that others could track her cases while she was on maternity leave and so that she could get up to speed quickly when she got back.
Best of all, the number of meetings has been cut in half, allowing the firm's partners to spend more time on billable work. Less important matters that might have involved a lot of phone calls and back-and-forth discussion often can be settled in minutes. When the office manager wanted to set a new dress code (she felt that casual Friday had crept into the entire week), she just added the message to the management area in TeamTalk, and the partners responded within minutes. (They decided to table the issue.) Not only was the groupware a lot easier to maneuver than regular E-mail, but the lawyers knew that down the road, when they decided to make a decision, everyone's comments would be there, neatly organized and simple to look up.
Wright is considering switching to a program that would make it possible to share information with big clients, many of whom also use groupware within their companies. That's something TeamTalk can't do. But for the moment, he says, "we don't need anything more. The status quo is working just fine."* * *
If you have to link up clients and suppliers, groupware can do that too. David Johnson, co-owner of Johnson Johnson Crabtree Architects, an architectural firm in Nashville, works with as many as 50 subcontractors when designing a hospital or a medical center. It's a healthy business, generating $1.5 million in annual billings. But mailing diagrams, blueprints, and reports to outside engineers, suppliers, and clients and then getting them back again can take days. Not to mention, says Johnson, "the problems and confusion caused when 15 people in 15 far-flung locations each has a copy of important material and then somehow can't find the document when you finally get hold of them."
Using Lotus Notes, Johnson wanted to build a knowledge base of information on a project, from blueprints to photos, that everybody could tap into or update any time of day or night, from anywhere. "I wanted it to seem like we were all in the same office," he says.
First, in April 1995, Johnson hired groupware consultant INFOadvantage Inc., in nearby Brentwood, to design an application to fit his business. (He already had just about all the hardware he needed.) Then his 12 staffers spent two months learning the basics.
Second, Johnson's computer consultant expanded the system to incorporate every phase of the work process (total cost: about $60,000, including design, installation, and training, plus a server). Next came the big show. Johnson called a meeting of about 20 outside engineers and subcontractors. "We said, 'We believe this is the way to do business, and we'd like you to join us,' " recalls Johnson. As an added incentive, he offered to help install a free copy of Lotus Notes and provide monthly training sessions, at a cost to Johnson of about $1,500 per location. Ten people signed up right away.
Johnson tried the system out on a project designing a 60,000-square-foot medical-office building, in Florence, S.C., linking the owner, structural and mechanical engineers, and the contractor's main and field offices to his system. It worked like the proverbial charm. Before, when everyone had to review the necessary drawings and product samples for a project (that means windows, light fixtures, and the like), each individual would look the materials over and then mail them to the next person. With the new system, people just had to look the information up in the knowledge base and make their comments. And unlike traditional databases, there wasn't just one master copy of the data to tap into; everyone had his or her own copy, which was updated at frequent intervals. An architect in Tennessee and an engineer in South Carolina, for example, could each look up the same information at the same time and make changes. Everyone else's copy would be updated the next time each person opened his or her file. And when Johnson was on the road, he could respond to questions about a project by consulting meeting notes on his laptop. At the same time, Johnson could produce the agenda for the next meeting, knowing that the notation would be replicated in everyone else's database almost immediately. The result: the building took eight months to design and construct, about four months less than it would have in the old days.
Now Johnson is using groupware for all his jobs, and most of his subcontractors and clients are on the system. (INFOadvantage has turned the application into AdvantageWARE groupware for the construction industry, which should be available this fall.) What's more, in the past year Johnson increased his staff by only 20% while increasing the firm's volume by over 36% -- growth that he attributes in part to the use of groupware. "We're going to make the system a condition of doing business with us," says Johnson. "Working without it is too cumbersome."* * *
The Big Picture
A picture on a computer not only is worth many words, it also can do wonders for collaboration. That's what Greg Voisen, owner of North County Financial Associates Inc., a financial-planning firm, in Vista, Calif., with $1.5 million in gross premiums, discovered. He hooked his eight employees up to a groupware program that presents information visually, showing relationships among clients, prospects, projects, and salespeople. Over six years Voisen tried various programs to track the status of his salespeople's work with clients and prospects. In 1987 he installed a $795 contact-management program called ACT!, from Symantec Corp., onto eight workstations hooked up to a server. That program kept a record of addresses, phone numbers, and other key information. Two years later he switched to TeleMagic, from TeleMagic Inc., for $1,295, when a colleague convinced him that that contact-management program would handle more information more efficiently over a network.
But Voisen knew he needed something more. He wanted a program that would not only keep track of background information but also show the progress of each project, so that anyone in the firm could tap into a central repository of data and immediately see where he or she stood in relation to the rest of the puzzle. Then, after looking at more than 200 choices, Voisen found a new groupware program called Vineyard, from Data Fellows of San Jose, Calif. (408-244-9090), at the Com-dex Trade Show. He bought a copy for $1,000 and paid approximately $3,000 to two computer consultants (Advanced Access Automation Associates, in San Diego, and Pathfinder Projects Inc., of Calgary, Alberta, Canada) to migrate the data from TeleMagic to Vineyard. (It now tracks the status of 6,700 prospects and clients.)
How does it work? Say Voisen is trying to sell a package of financial products to a local manufacturer. All the information -- names, addresses, past conversations, letters, memos, and contracts -- would be filed away and cross-referenced under various headings. More important, in another area, anyone who wanted to could click on a file and bring up a visual display of links between salespeople, the prospect's employees, its other clients, its past projects, and documents, to name a few possibilities. If the display showed that the prospect had worked with one of Voisen's long-term clients, a salesperson might call that customer and ask him to put in a good word for the company. Or if North County Financial had made a proposal to the client a few years earlier, Voisen could pull up the document and read it over.
The payoff: the ability to keep track of his top-40 clients and top-40 prospects more efficiently than before. Since 1987, when he first started tracking clients and prospects with groupware, Voisen has seen average growth each year of 7%.
Now, if only a groupware program could read a client's mind. . . .* * *
Anne Field (email@example.com) is a freelance writer based in Pelham, N.Y. She specializes in stories on small business and consumer affairs.
Here are some of the more popular groupware products, listed according to category. (Remember that most programs perform more than one function. Lotus Notes, for example, does just about everything.)
Lotus Notes, Lotus Development Corp., Cambridge, MA (800-828-7086, http://www.lotus.com). Cost: Notes Mail Client, $55; Notes Desktop, $69; single-processor server, $495; multiprocessor server, $2,295; each client, $27.
Microsoft Exchange Server, Microsoft Corp., Redmond, WA (800-426-9400, http://www.microsoft.com/exchange). Cost: Microsoft Exchange Server Enterprise Edition, $1,970; Microsoft Exchange Server, $699; each client, $54.
Group Calendaring and Scheduling
CaLANdar, Microsystems Software Inc., Framingham, MA (800-489-2001, http://www.microsys.com). Cost: $595 for 10 users (includes server cost); Web Scheduler, $995 per CaLANdar network.
OnTime Enterprise, FTP Software Inc., Andover, MA (800-559-5955, http://www.ontime.com). Cost: $994 for 10 users (includes server cost).
OnTime for Networks, FTP Software Inc., Andover, MA (800-559-5955, http://www.ontime.com). Cost: $828 for 10 users (includes server cost).
Enhanced CU-SeeMe, White Pine Software Inc., Nashua, NH (800-241-PINE, http://www.cuseeme.com). Cost: $69Ñ$99; software server, $395.
GroupSystems, Ventana Corp., Tucson, AZ (800-368-6338, http://www.ventana.com). Cost: $895 per user (volume discounts available).
RoundTable, ForeFront Group Inc., Houston, TX (800-867-1101, http://www.ffg.com). Cost: $500 for five-user server; up to $5,000 for unlimited number of users.
FirstClass, SoftArc Inc., Markham, Ontario, Canada (800-SOFTARC, http://www.softarc.com). Cost: $495 for five users (includes server cost).
TeamTalk, Trax Softworks Inc., Culver City, CA (800-367-8729, http://www.traxsoft.com/traxsoft). Cost: $59 per user.
WebBoard, O'Reilly & Associates, Sebastopol, CA (800-998-9938, http://webboard.ora.com). Cost: $149.
Group Document Handling
Face to Face, Crosswise Corp., Santa Cruz, CA (408-459-9060, http://www.crosswise.com). Cost: $59 per user.
ActionWorkflow Enterprise Series (includes Process Builder-Analyst Edition, Builder-Developer Edition, Process Manager, and Software Developer Kit), Action Technologies Inc., Alameda, CA (800-WORKFLOW, http://www.actiontech.com). Cost: Process Builder-Analyst Edition, $495 per user; Builder-Developer Edition, $3,995 per user; Process Manager, $4,995 for 10 users (includes server cost); Software Developer Kit, $4,495 per developer.
FormFlow, Symantec Corp., Cupertino, CA (800-441-7234, http://www.symantec.com). Cost: $399 for starter kit [one designer component and three fillers (users)].
JetForm Filler Pro, JetForm Corp., Ottawa, Canada (800-538-3676, http://www.jetform.com). Cost: $149 per user.
Groupware: Technology and Applications, by David Coleman (Prentice Hall, 1995). A comprehensive look at the technology and the market.
Groupware: Collaborative Strategies for Corporate LANs and Intranets, by David Coleman (Prentice Hall, 1996). Coleman's second volume focuses on intranets and is aimed at the groupware-literate reader.
Virtual Workgroups (BCR Enterprises Inc., 800-227-1234, http://www.bcr.com). A bimonthly magazine about electronic collaboration. Subscriptions are free to qualified subscribers.
The World Wide Web
Collaborative Strategies (http://www.collaborate.com). Industry trends, product information, methods, plus lots of links to other sites.
Comp.Groupware (comp.groupware through your search engine or http://www.cis.ohio-state.edu/hypertext/faq/usenet/ comp-groupware-faq/top.html). The URL address is mind-boggling, but typing it in is worth the effort. A soup-to-nuts site, with information on books, consultants, vendors, and conferences. One of the best.