Tuesday, September 1, 1998

Will the real groupware please stand up?

The invention of groupware: collaborative computing

In the early days, the concept of groupware was simple: communicate and collaborate. The term "collaborative computing" was in vogue for some time in the early 90's. This was the first incarnation of groupware. Collaborative computing included email but in the early 90's email was all the rage and customers understood it much better than collaborative computing. Although Lotus made some effort to position Lotus Notes and Domino as a messaging product, this never became the primary market focus and simple collaborative computing evolved into business process reengineering which briefly became the incarnation of groupware.

What Lotus did right was to build all of their groupware applications on a common client/server database system and make this system extensible as a software development environment. In this sense Lotus was far ahead of any competition. Only recently have Web-based application servers and workflow engines arisen to challenge the capabilities of Lotus Notes and Domino as a development platform.

The reinvention of groupware: business process reengineering

With the trend towards business process reengineering, Lotus saw a great opportunity for collaborative computing by leveraging its workflow capabilities. Of course, it is possible to reduce paper, automate workflow, and change business processes so that they are less labor-intensive and more reliant on collaborative computing technology. Lotus made progress with this approach but reengineering business processes requires a high-level management commitment to groupware.

A key enabling technology of business process reengineering is workflow, which is a primary component in Iris Associate's original concept of groupware. Workflow makes it possible to model business processes in terms of information flow, individual roles and responsibilities associated with information, and access control. Workflow makes it possible to transfer knowledge of business processes to an automated system and to modify these processes based on new automation and integration capabilities provided by integrated "groupware".

The business process reengineering approach has much to offer to some businesses but little to offer others. Some types of businesses can benefit tremendously from reengineering and taking advantage of collaborative computing technologies. However, the benefits are not equal across vertical markets. The reengineering approach made possible by workflow can make it more difficult to sell the concept of groupware versus more traditional technologies such as email or client/server databases. In most cases, workflow capabilities within a given company are not universally applicable, thus "groupware" is inhibited from becoming ubiquitous in the way that web or email technologies almost invariably do.

What Lotus did right was identify and pursue the reengineering opportunity, both within a business and in the area of business-to-business collaborative computing. What Lotus was doing in the mid 90's later evolved in the context of the merging of the corporate market and the Internet community into intranets and extranets. That evolution signaled a collision between Lotus Notes and the World Wide Web which Lotus moved to resolve in 1996 by embracing the web and reinventing groupware as Domino. However, this had the effect of obscuring Lotus' core competency in workflow while Internet standards-based technologies and products lacked this capability.