Agencies take slow road to groupware

Groupware vendors keep reminding users is more than just electronic mail. It's collaborative computing - discussion groups information workflow calendaring and other software that lets people work together more efficiently.

But for various reasons many federal customers have had trouble implementing the more advanced capabilities of groupware built into software such as Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange and Novell Inc.'s GroupWise. Database vendor Oracle Corp. also has entered the fray with its InterOffice product suite for basic collaborative computing.

These packages are designed to serve as middleware on which organizations can build their own applications. But up-front development costs time and personnel constraints and other issues have kept advanced groupware applications on the back burner so for many federal users groupware is still mostly e-mail.

But groupware vendors are trying to change that. An industrywide drive toward World Wide Web client technology and an increased emphasis on workflow have been making the groupware environment more robust and more user-friendly. All that hard work seems to be having results.

For example the U.S. Information Agency last year initially implemented Lotus' Notes product not for its e-mail capabilities but because it made a good software development environment.

The Army's Decision Support Management Office an Exchange customer probably resembles most other users in the slow but steady move toward advanced groupware applications. While Exchange is being used today for e-mail and calendaring applications "we hope to move to shared space and true collaboration " said John Ylinen chief of the office.

Defining the Term

While the concept of groupware is generally well-understood the exact definition varies from vendor to vendor.

Lotus coined the term "groupware" a decade or so ago when it first announced Notes. The company's "3 C's" have pretty much dominated conversations about the software since then. Groupware according to Lotus includes communication collaboration and coordination of activities among groups.

Oracle with its rival InterOffice product simplifies the definition. Keith Williams product manager in the New Technologies Division at Oracle Government said groupware is "a set of collaborative tools that give you the ability to share information." InterOffice is a groupware package with a Web-based front end. It handles the usual groupware jobs of messaging scheduling workflow etc.

Novell which sells GroupWise cites a laundry list of capabilities including messaging scheduling management and collaborative software.

"A vendor says that groupware is `what we do '" said Ian Campbell director of collaborative and intranet computing at International Data Corp. a Framingham Mass.-based research firm. "But if you step back to a high level groupware is] software that allows or helps employees perform their daily business activities."

The strengths of the various groupware products reflect the companies from which they come.

For example Oracle touts the size of InterOffice's database back end. "Notes gives you 4G of data storage and you have to move data from one database to another " Williams said. "Microsoft's Exchange has a 16G data store. Ours gives you the Oracle database at the back end and that's a terabyte and more] of data. We have a truly scalable back end."

Mitra Azizira systems engineering manager for Microsoft's Federal District said the strength of Exchange comes from its extensions to other products such as SQL Server the company's database offering and Windows NT. Exchange was designed for "hybrid applications" that draw on other software packages Azizira said.

Similarly GroupWise benefits from its close ties to Novell's networking capabilities.

However whatever the differences virtually all the groupware vendors have set their sites on the Internet. Each vendor's groupware product suite incorporates a Web client component or will do so by the end of the year.

For groupware vendors the exciting part about the Internet is that it extends the groupware concept beyond the software's native environment.

"The Mac was always a `when we get to it' platform " said Mike McLaughin senior director for public-sector sales for Novell.

Novell is dedicated to its Universal Desktop technology in which e-mail data files and all other collaborative data are accessible in the same way. "It's our view that the Web browser technology plugs well into that metaphor " McLaughlin said. Novell has demonstrated a Java-based Web client for release within the next year.

"The Internet is an explosion of opportunity " said Ken Bisconti senior marketing manager for Notes and Domino at Lotus. "All the fuss about standards and protocols will start to die away because there won't be a difference between any of the vendors."

Internet-enabled groupware "lets the users leverage their hardware investment " Oracle's Williams said. "We can now run on everything from a very thin client all the way to the thickest client. If you need character-mode access we can now provide that too."

Netscape Communications Corp. meanwhile has joined the chase with Collabra which is groupware software that is integrated with the company's ubiquitous Web browser software.

Campbell thinks that all this emphasis on the Internet may be misplaced. "I'm at the point of saying `enough already '" he said. "Yes fully encompass the Internet allow the browser to act as a client. Now move on."

The Internet does represent a ubiquitous type of client and vendors do need to support it he said. But there are other more vital tasks that need to be done. "For most vendors workflow and ease of use need work too. That's the direction these vendors need to refocus on " Campbell said.

For the most part groupware vendors have treated the federal marketplace as an extension of the private-sector market. "There is a lot of overlap " said Keith Attenborough product manager for Notes DMS at Lotus. "The government acts like a major enterprise. You've got people working in teams pressing a project through a review and approval process."

Like the commercial sector recent emphasis in the federal sector has been on financial management according to Doug Parham director of client services at CMA Inc. Government Marketing Services a consulting firm in Vienna Va. "At the simple gut level agencies] are wrestling with this huge problem of how to handle their finances. E-mail and electronic commerce will support that but] they are only an interface. There is a tremendous emphasis on being productive."

The government does have an increased interest in security - reflected for example in the requirements of the Defense Department's Defense Message System industry observers said. DMS now under development will provide DOD with a secure global electronic messaging system.

Also more than many commercial customers the government "enterprise" tends to be particularly widespread geographically and its infrastructure is enormously heterogeneous when it comes to hardware platforms vendors said.

But most of all "the federal market is driven by standards " Novell's McLaughlin said. "[Standards] dictate what [the government] can do. But [it] wants more choices while having those standards."

The drive for standardization was partially behind at least one groupware adoption. The Army's Decision Support Management Office had been using e-mail for more than 15 years but it recently switched to Microsoft's Exchange in large part because of its close ties to other Microsoft products.

The office bought Exchange last year because it needed "a [Windows] NT architecture client/server capability and the robustness of the Exchange system " the Army's Ylinen said.

The U.S. Information Agency already uses groupware for far more than e-mail even though the acquisition of Lotus' Notes was more or less serendipitous. As part of the executive branch of the government USIA explains and supports foreign policy and promotes U.S. national interests through overseas information programs.

The agency was looking at a tracking system for correspondence. "We needed to develop a system where we could deliver unclassified cable traffic to the desktop instead of paper " said Carl Vesper director of the Networks and Support Division in USIA's Office of Technology. "We had been printing 10 million sheets of paper a year."

The agency looked at commercial off-the-shelf products and was eyeing a standard relational database when a consultant suggested Notes. USIA found the product to be a tremendous productivity tool in the development of the agency's CableXpress software. It took about a year to build a straw man in Lotus Notes and the company got the complete system up and running within 45 days.

The Environmental Protection Agency also uses Notes in its Regulatory Management Division which tracks the status of regulations developed under statutes such as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts."We don't write them but there is a big process internally and externally to track the regulations from beginning to promulgation " said Darryl Adams an environmental protection specialist in the EPA's Regulatory Management Division.

"We went through a major revision of the process of developing regulations in 1994. By the summer of 1995 we decided the internal database we used for tracking had to be updated " Adams said. The division acquired Version 4 of Notes. "Even with an older version of Notes it was very powerful. We could do workflow...[by taking] the current paper process the reviews the level of approval and [moving] information around the agency."

Bare-Bones Functionality

Although some are beginning to take advantage of workflow and collaborative computing capabilities most government users are still using only the bare-bones functionality of their groupware products. "They're swatting a fly with a shotgun " Oracle's Williams said.

The problem is that there are a lot of up-front costs associated with advanced groupware applications and the money for such projects may not be easy to come by.

"With any product people take advantage of less than half the functionality " Novell's McLaughlin said. "That's because of personnel needs lack of training and difficulties bringing the education down to the user.... To take advantage of computer products requires bodies and budgets."

Part of the problem with getting productivity out of groupware is a slavish devotion to standardization according to Campbell. "They keep striving for standardization " he said "but standardization is rarely the right thing to do." The same tool may not be appropriate across the organization. "It's like standardizing on a Size 8 shoe " he said. "Some people will be pretty happy but it's the worst thing for an organization."

Campbell added "Users have this belief that the less complexity the lower the cost to manage. The goal isn't less complexity but maximum return."

-- Lazar is a free-lance writer based in Tenafly N.J. He can be reached at jl4hire@ix.netcom.com.

* * * * *

At A Glance

Status: Agencies are buying groupware but - with a few exceptions - are still not making full use of its functionality.

Issues: Users continue to be daunted by the complexity and cost of developing full groupware applications.

Outlook: Good in the long run. Agencies do appear interested in developing their groupware applications especially as the technology develops in its use of the Internet.

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