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Email is killer groupware app

A groupware usage study finds that scheduling, data analysis, and sharing tools can indeed produce more efficient decision making and reduce turnaround time, but the findings are irrelevant to the majority of users who prefer sticking with plain, old email.

    A groupware usage study published this week found that public scheduling, data analysis. and sharing tools can indeed produce more efficient, informed decision making and reduce turnaround time for them from months to weeks. The findings are also irrelevant to the majority of users who prefer sticking with plain, old email.

    While electronic messaging has become commonplace around the nation and on various continents, office workers are only just discovering sophisticated collaborative applications that accompany popular groupware tools like Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Notes, and Novell's GroupWise, according to industry observers, analysts, and academics.

    Of the 1,500 Lotus Notes users surveyed for the University of California Los Angeles-Arthur Andersen study, four-fifths said they use email an average of 23 times a week. This comes in stark contrast to the slightly more than half of the respondents who access Notes database discussions only an average of eight times a week. Workflow applications, which the study found to offer powerful improvements on decision making, were used by only 14 percent of respondents three times a week, on average.

    Assistant professor at UCLA's Anderson Graduate School of Management Eric Darr, who supervised the study, said the tools are usually neglected because groupware is merely synonymous with email at most firms. He found more than two-thirds of the Notes users viewed the package exclusively as a communication engine, while only 11 percent thought of it in broader terms as a knowledge-management tool.

    "They need to accept the other capabilities" in order to achieve the productivity gains espoused by software makers, Darr said.

    Yet the collaborative software business is still selling. Worldwide revenues exceeded $2 billion last year, and the installed base grew by 33 percent to nearly 54 million people, according to International Data Corporation's market review and forecast, published earlier this summer. IDC expects groupware to continue to post some of the high technology industry's fastest revenue growth rates, about 27 percent a year, through the end of the decade.

    Executives at the three market leaders--Lotus, Novell, and Microsoft--are bullish even as Internet and Web-based technology and corporate intranets proliferate, offering applications that complement and may eventually compete against their groupware tools.

    But these software executives say they are not surprised that email remains the standout groupware application. Reliable and secure messaging is a top priority among the rapidly expanding base of corporate customers, they said.

    Eldon Greenwood, director of product management for Novell, said the usage study's findings "ring a lot of bells." He expects other groupware tools to become as widely used in a few years as collaborative computing becomes the technological "common ground" at many companies. "There are a lot of synergies between the Internet and groupware," he said.

    Alex Nihaus, a senior marketing manager at Lotus, called Darr's findings "good news" that heralds email's arrival in the corporate world. Notes, like GroupWise and Exchange, has its knowledge sharing, database management and scheduling applications built around a messaging engine, which may tend to blur distinctions between the different functions. Nihaus said some Notes users may confuse email with the "in-box experience."

    "It may look like email but it's really more," he said, pointing to workflow or scheduling tasks that move the users in and out of the in-box, yet call on diverse network resources and Notes applications.

    The big three are busy breaking down long-standing technological barriers to offer upgrade opportunities to legacy email systems. Notes 4.5, GroupWise 5, and Microsoft Exchange Server 4.5 can be accessed via standard Web browsers, are Java-friendly, and offer support for key Internet protocols like HTTP, HTML, NNTP, and LDAP. All three companies have also written the applications to support a variety of operating systems and hardware platforms and include gateways to let uses electronically correspond with colleagues using competing email systems as well as the open Internet.

    Even though market predictions are robust, analysts say groupware developers have a lot of work ahead to make the tools more immediate and easier to use: in other words, more like email.

    "End users are willing to use functions that are clearly visible and integrate well with their needs. They are not likely to tinker and explore," said Joyce Graff, research director for electronic workplace technologies at the Gartner Group.

    Graff said people are more inclined to fill out a company survey, for example, if the hypertext address is emailed directly to them, and all they have to do is click on it. "If they have to find their way to the URL, they are less likely to do it," she said.

    While far less utilized than email, public scheduling tools that allow employees to post their daily appointments on company intranets are the second most popular components of groupware, according to data from the UCLA study and IDC. Graff said they offer an example of how groupware tools can catch on first with a few users, and then with entire departments. Eventually, usage reaches a "critical mass" that tends to nudge even the most reluctant employees into using the applications.

    "People usually end up using the scheduling tool because other people in their office are using it," Graff explained. "They say, 'I don't want to end up scheduled for a meeting when I have another commitment.'"

    Such "integration and natural work flow is what is going to lead people" to make groupware part of their day, Graff added.

    Ian Campbell, director of collaborative technology at IDC, agrees. "Not only does it have to naturally flow, it must fit the structure of how you do work. The human factor is really big," he said.

    Campbell added that accounting for business culture, office cultures, and even individual work patterns and habits in groupware are essential, and he predicts that companies are likely to adopt different groupware tools for different country operations and department as tools mature to meet specific user needs. Such a potpourri will also make application flexibility and interoperability crucial in keeping company-wide communication channels open.

    "The real challenge is to provide tools that are flexible," Campbell said, "but not so feature-rich that nobody figures out how any of them work."