Agencies expand use of groupware

Although groupware technology has been around for several years, federal agencies have dramatically expanded their deployment of sophisticated groupware applications, with a growing emphasis on using the World Wide Web.

Groupware is collaborative computing that encompasses everything from calendaring and scheduling to electronic forms and workflow applications. It relies on e-mail as the transport to make it all happen seamlessly and to help people work together more efficiently.

Federal agencies have been slow to take full advantage of groupware's capabilities, generally limiting their use of groupware to basic messaging. But now, not only are agencies relying on groupware more and more, but they also are making full use of the advanced groupware features that products such as Microsoft Corp.'s Exchange, Lotus Development Corp.'s Notes and Novell Inc.'s GroupWise have to offer.

In particular, agencies are taking advantage of new features in the groupware products that support Internet and Web standards.

"The Web has changed the face of groupware," said Frank Vretos, senior systems engineer at Microsoft. "There are a lot of [groupware] applications that may be done by a simple Web application or a transaction database. Whether you're using Exchange or an SQL database or a simple Web application...we have the breadth of product offering that differentiates us."

Through the Exchange client— the latest version is called Outlook 98— users have immediate access to calendaring and scheduling applications, Vretos said. Exchange 5.5 Enterprise Edition supports Internet standards such as the Internet Message Access Protocol, Simple Mail Transfer Protocol, Lightweight Directory Access Protocol and News Transfer Protocol for online discussions.

Exchange 5.5 Enterprise Edition comes with Visual InterDev to create automated workflow applications. Service Pack 1 for Exchange 5.5 will add basic document routing and will use public folders— accessible by anyone on the network— so users can monitor workflow processes.

Lt. Col. John Ylinen, chief of the Army's decision support management office, is an Outlook 98 and Exchange 5.5 user. "We use public folders, and we're looking at WorkFolder, which creates a special type of public folder we will use to track actions," Ylinen said.

Meanwhile, Lotus Notes 4.6 provides groupware features based on the concept of a database. "Notes really provides two capabilities," said Steve Lewis, director of product strategy at Lotus. "First is messaging, which is defined by e-mail, calendaring, scheduling, Web integration and discussions. And the foundation of Notes is the database architecture that is used to deliver business applications that are associated with workflow."

Notes is a combination of collaborative and transactional applications, Lewis said. Notes allows users to work collaboratively as well as do end-to-end business transactions, such as conducting electronic commerce.

The Army's Simulation, Training and Instrumentation Command (Stricom) is relying on Lotus Notes to help re-engineer the way the agency works.

The agency was especially interested in Notes' capability for managing information workflow, said Jim McBrayer, the chief information officer at Stricom, which operates a Notes 4.6 network that is used by 1,000 people.

"We picked Notes because we were re-engineering the command. A document comes in, we put it into Notes and distribute it based on who needs to know or respond. Notes is a workflow tool for becoming paperless."

Stricom plans to install a Lotus Domino server so that users can communicate, via a Web browser, with anyone, regardless of where they are, McBrayer said.

Groupwise 5.2 provides Web access and integration with the Internet, said Richard Carlson, the director of major market operations at Novell.

"We have workflow, imaging, the ability to conference via e-mail similar to a bulletin board system and [to] send e-mail to a pager, and document management, which provides [the ability] to develop forms and route them around," Carlson said.

GroupWise is unique in its tight integration with Novell Directory Services and its use of a directory, he added.

Price also is a differentiator, according to Carlson. "Typically it gets down to total cost of ownership. The Gartner Group found that we were a third cheaper than Microsoft [Exchange] and half as expensive as Lotus [Notes]," he said.

Janet Swisher, the project manager in the Systems Acquisition Office at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said about 200 people in the office are using GroupWise 5.2 running on a NetWare 4.1 local-area network.

"The best feature is the integration of calendaring and messaging," Swisher said. "Another nice feature is document management. We can share e-mail and files, and the user can decide who is allowed to see that information without the help of an administrator."

International Data Corp. anticipates the rise of team-oriented groupware applications and the adoption of real-time collaboration through instantaneous e-mail and chat rooms this year. Users will look for new features, especially support for the latest Internet standards and product integration, according to IDC.

"I see a lot of groupware being merged with Web site design," said Sara Radicati, president of The Radicati Group, a market research firm in Palo Alto, Calif. "We are seeing what was groupware turn into Web sites that have forms capabilities."

Christopher Lynberg, a computer specialist at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said he used Exchange 5.5 to create a help-desk form that can be accessed by 10,000 Exchange users via the Web. "We could have stayed with MS Mail, but it's old technology, and Exchange is a vast improvement," he said.


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