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Getting to Grips with Groupware

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The following article gives a general perspective on Groupware software.
At the very end of this article, Intellisoft gives its view on how ManageMore™ fits in this realm.


What is Groupware?
How is Groupware design different?
Why bother with Groupware?
Common Groupware applications used Today
Groupware - The ManageMore Way

What is Groupware?

Groupware is technology designed to facilitate the work of groups. This technology may be used to communicate, cooperate, coordinate, solve problems, compete, or negotiate. While traditional technologies like the telephone qualify as groupware, the term is ordinarily used to refer to a specific class of technologies relying on modern computer networks, such as email, newsgroups, videophones, or chat.

Groupware technologies are typically categorized along two primary dimensions:

  1. Whether users of the groupware are working together at the same time ("real-time" or "synchronous" groupware) or different times ("asynchronous" groupware), and
  2. Whether users are working together in the same place ("collocated" or "face-to-face") or in different places ("non-collocated" or "distance").

Several typical groupware applications are described below in more detail.


How is Groupware Design Different from Traditional User Interface Design?

Groupware design involves understanding groups and how people behave in groups. It also involves having a good understanding of networking technology and how aspects of that technology (for instance, delays in synchronizing views) affect a user's experience. All the issues related to traditional user interface design remain relevant, since the technology still involves people.

However, many aspects of groups require special consideration. For instance, not only do million-person groups behave differently from 5-person groups, but the performance parameters of the technologies to support different groups vary. Ease-of-use must be better for groupware than for single-user systems because the pace of use of an application is often driven by the pace of a conversation. System responsiveness and reliability become more significant issues.


Groupware Issues to overcome

Many groupware systems simply cannot be successful unless a critical mass of users chooses to use the system. Having a videophone is useless if you're the only one who has it. Two of the most common reasons for failing to achieve critical mass are lack of interoperability and the lack of appropriate individual benefit.

Even when everyone in the group may benefit, if the choice is made by individuals, the system may not succeed.  An example is with office calendar systems: if everyone enters all of their appointments, then everyone has the benefit of being able to safely schedule around other people's appointments. However, if it's not easy to enter your appointments, then it may be perceived by users as more beneficial to leave their own appointments off, while viewing other people's appointments.

Groupware is significantly more difficult to get right than traditional software. Typically, a groupware system can't succeed unless most or the entire target group is willing to adopt the system. In contrast, a single-user system can be successful even if only a fraction of the target market adopts it.

To solve this problem, some groups can apply social pressure to enforce groupware use (as in having the boss insist that it's used), but otherwise it's a problem for the groupware designer who must find a way to make sure the application is perceived as useful for individuals even outside the context of full group adoption.


Why Bother with Groupware?

Why is groupware design worth paying attention to in the first place?

Groupware offers significant advantages over single-user systems. These are some of the more common reasons people want to use groupware:

  • to facilitate communication: make it faster, clearer, more persuasive
  • to enable communication where it wouldn't otherwise be possible
  • to enable telecommuting
  • to cut down on travel costs
  • to bring together multiple perspectives and expertise
  • to save time and cost in coordinating group work

In the business world, Groupware applications can significantly improve the customer service experience, by allowing individuals within an organization to quickly notify other members (i.e., Managers, Supervisors, etc.) of customer problems without ever leaving their desk.  Groupware applications can also help service oriented businesses schedule jobs without overlapping appointments or overloading one employee with too many service calls.

Some other examples of Groupware applications at work could be the ability to assign tasks to employee (e.g., Call a customer, Finish a project,  Deliver documents, etc.) that must be accomplished within a specific period of time.  This facilitates a more accurate method of communication that cannot be questioned later when tasks are not completed properly.


Common Groupware Applications used Today

There are typically several types of common groupware applications with their own associated design options. Comparing those design options across applications yields interesting new perspectives on well-known applications. Also, in many cases, these systems can be used together, and in fact, are intended to be used in conjunction. For example, group calendars are used to schedule videoconferencing meetings, multi-player games use live video and chat to communicate, and newsgroup discussions spawn more highly-involved interactions among large groups of people.

Asynchronous Groupware

Email is by far the most common groupware application (besides of course, the traditional telephone). While the basic technology is designed to pass simple messages between 2 people, even relatively basic email systems today typically include interesting features for forwarding messages, filing messages, creating mailing groups, and attaching files with a message. Other features that have been explored include: automatic sorting and processing of messages, automatic routing, and structured communication (messages requiring certain information).

Newsgroups and mailing lists are similar in spirit to email systems except that they are intended for messages among large groups of people instead of 1-to-1 communication. In practice the main difference between newsgroups and mailing lists is that newsgroups only show messages to a user when they are explicitly requested (an "on-demand" service), while mailing lists deliver messages as they become available (an "interrupt-driven" interface).

Workflow systems allow documents to be routed through organizations through a relatively-fixed process. A simple example of a workflow application is an expense report in an organization: an employee enters an expense report and submits it, a copy is archived then routed to the employee's manager for approval, the manager receives the document, electronically approves it and sends it on and the expense is registered to the group's account and forwarded to the accounting department for payment. Workflow systems may provide features such as routing, development of forms, and support for differing roles and privileges.

Hypertext is a system for linking text documents to each other, with the Web being an obvious example. Whenever multiple people author and link documents, the system becomes group work, constantly evolving and responding to others' work. Some hypertext systems include capabilities for seeing who else has visited a certain page or link, or at least seeing how often a link has been followed, thus giving users a basic awareness of what other people are doing in the system -- page counters on the Web are a crude approximation of this function. Another common multi-user feature in hypertext (that is not found on the Web) is allowing any user to create links from any page, so that others can be informed when there are relevant links that the original author was unaware of.

Group calendars allow scheduling, project management, and coordination among many people, and may provide support for scheduling service calls as well. Typical features detect when schedules conflict or find meeting times that will work for everyone. Group calendars also help to locate people. Typical concerns are privacy (users may feel that certain activities are not public matters), completeness and accuracy (users may feel that the time it takes to enter schedule information is not justified by the benefits of the calendar).

Collaborative writing systems may provide both real time support and non-real time support. Word processors may provide asynchronous support by showing authorship and by allowing users to track changes and make annotations to documents. Authors collaborating on a document may also be given tools to help plan and coordinate the authoring process, such as methods for locking parts of the document or linking separately-authored documents. Synchronous support allows authors to see each other's changes as they make them, and usually needs to provide an additional communication channel to the authors as they work (via videophones or chat).

Synchronous or Real Time Groupware

Shared whiteboards allow two or more people to view and draw on a shared drawing surface even from different locations. This can be used, for instance, during a phone call, where each person can jot down notes (e.g., a name, phone number, or map) or to work collaboratively on a visual problem. Most shared whiteboards are designed for informal conversation, but they may also serve structured communications or more sophisticated drawing tasks, such as collaborative graphic design, publishing, or engineering applications. Shared whiteboards can indicate where each person is drawing or pointing by showing telepointers, which are color-coded or labeled to identify each person.

Video communications systems allow two-way or multi-way calling with live video, essentially a telephone system with an additional visual component. Cost and compatibility issues limited early use of video systems to scheduled videoconference meeting rooms. Video is advantageous when visual information is being discussed, but may not provide substantial benefit in most cases where conventional audio telephones are adequate. In addition to supporting conversations, video may also be used in less direct collaborative situations, such as by providing a view of activities at a remote location.

Chat systems permit many people to write messages in real time in a public space. As each person submits a message, it appears at the bottom of a scrolling screen. Chat groups are usually formed by having listing chat rooms by name, location, number of people, topic of discussion, etc.

Many systems allow for rooms with controlled access or with moderators to lead the discussions, but most of the topics of interest to researchers involve issues related to unmoderated real time communication including: anonymity, following the stream of conversation, scalability with number of users, and abusive users.

While chat-like systems are possible using non-text media, the text version of chat has the rather interesting aspect of having a direct transcript of the conversation, which not only has long-term value, but allows for backward reference during conversation making it easier for people to drop into a conversation and still pick up on the ongoing discussion.

Decision support systems are designed to facilitate groups in decision-making. They provide tools for brainstorming, critiquing ideas, putting weights and probabilities on events and alternatives, and voting. Such systems enable presumably more rational and even-handed decisions. Primarily designed to facilitate meetings, they encourage equal participation by, for instance, providing anonymity or enforcing turn-taking.


Groupware - The ManageMore Way

Communication within an organization is clearly an important factor for a growing business to succeed.  More often than not, a complete breakdown in employee responsibilities and company goals occur which lead to "finger pointing" at supervisors, managers, and others in charge when tasks are not accomplished or deadlines are not met. 

Also, as SME operations begin to branch out into new cities or expand departments, inter-departmental telephone communication sky-rockets within an organization, hindering the ability for all employees to be productive because of valuable loss of time, such as waiting "on hold" for another branch or department to answer a trivial question like product availability.

ManageMore can provide just the right amount of groupware capabilities for growing businesses that require fast, efficient and organized methods for communication between departments, store locations, warehouses, telecommuters, and customers. 

Products like our Email Pro™, Task Scheduler Pro™, and Job Scheduler™, can resolve many of today's communication problems within an organization.  Each of these tools can fully integrate into the ManageMore Suite, so there is no need to use external products to address common groupware issues.


ManageMore Groupware Features
Manage multiple internal/external email accounts
Browse through departmental or external messages quickly and easily
Create personalized folders for organizing and prioritizing your emails
Easily forward email or set rules to route email to another account when you are not available
Setup shared email accounts that an entire department can respond to (e.g. sales@mybusiness.com)
Quickly respond to email with user-defined templates and signatures
Allow sending/receiving of electronic file attachments like invoices, spreadsheets, documents, etc.
Powerful bulk email capabilities for quickly sending messages to  large groups of customers, vendors, employees, etc.
Address Book to store and retrieve email addresses for employees, customers, vendors, contacts, etc.
Schedule tasks (i.e. to do's, call backs, and appointments) for yourself or assign them to other employees or departments
Unique round-robin distribution of task assignments to individuals within a department
Company wide or department wide tasks can be created to notify employees of meetings, trainings, or social gatherings
Reporting features allows for quick review of unaccomplished tasks by department or company wide
Batch reporting capabilities allows for any report to be automatically generated at any interval (daily, weekly, monthly, etc.) and emailed to any number of recipients
Recurring tasks can be setup to remind employees of routine tasks that need accomplished each day, week, month.

By offering integrated groupware features into the ManageMore software suite, our goal is to help businesses succeed by allowing workers to collaborate competently from inside your organization first.  Consequently, personnel will be able to effectively do business with the outside world.

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