The definition of groupware, while still evolving, is software that helps groups share information and ideas. In theory, this would seem a worthwhile pursuit, but according to users and experts, this type of work environment is not so easy to achieve.
“Ever since we were in kindergarten we have been told to work alone and not to look at anyone else’s paper,” said Lee Sproull, a management professor at Boston University and the author of several books on group relationships. Here in the United States, Sproull said, “we are accustomed to being rewarded as individuals for individual work and ideas.”
Users report that high doses of training and management are necessary for groupware to overcome such cultural hurdles. In its favor, the technology is in its infancy; there is room for improvement in its implementation, Sproull said.
“People are already working together; the key is to learn how they are working together and help them to do a better job,” Sproull said.
For Brian Connelly, a knowledge engineer at Newark, N.J., utility Public Service Electric and Gas Co. (PSE&G), a PC Week Corporate Lab Partner, getting employees to share information was critical. Lotus Development Corp.’s Notes seemed to be the perfect answer.
“The main driver behind moving toward [groupware] was that many of our senior-level engineers have been here for over 30 years,” said Connelly. “We don’t want all the knowledge they have walking out the door when they retire.”
PSE&G needed an easy way to capture and document the knowledge of its employees while still keeping the staff productive.
Before groupware, Connelly said, the solution would have been to meet and have employees discuss topics one at a time — a slow and not always productive procedure.
“Now we still have everyone in the same room but they are all working off the same screen,” said Connelly. “We have parallel conversations going on so everyone is working together at the same time.”
In the future, PSE&G would like to see this type of interaction happen without requiring everyone to be in the same room, Connelly said. For now, however, the human contact is important.
“At this point, [the users] still need to be able to talk and ask questions verbally,” he said, “but the more this type of on-line communication takes place, the more comfortable they will feel about working this way.”
Oakie Williams, a corporate information systems director for Hobart Bros. Co., a manufacturer of power-conversion equipment in Troy, Ohio, agreed that the move to groupware requires more than just installing applications.
“We found that training was a real issue for us,” said Williams. “We just plugged it in and expected the users to just take it from there. We were wrong.”
Hobart Bros. connected approximately 100 nodes to Futurus Corp.’s Futurus Team in the spring of 1991 and quickly learned that giving employees these new tools did not guarantee that they would use them.
“We found that the average user did not understand what was available, and they really didn’t see how it was going to help them do their job any better,” Williams said. “We had to show them the advantages.”
Once the employees learned about some of the features such as the group scheduler, chat box and the routing capabilities, they could easily see the advantages, according to Williams. “I can’t imagine what would happen to me now if I said I was taking it away. I would not be very popular,” he said.
Although Hobart had to backpedal in terms of training, the experience turned out to be a positive one, Williams said. “We got some really good feedback and comments from our users on what they wanted and how they work,” he said.
This sort of feedback, combined with exploring how groups work, is essential to implementing groupware successfully.
“The most important thing to recognize as a consumer is that if you want a groupware system, you must first prove to yourself that you have people whose behavior is amenable to the use of groupware,” said David Stone, vice president of software engineering for Digital Equipment Corp., maker of the TeamLinks groupware program.
“You need to focus on organizational change — maybe even organizational design change — on personal motivation for using the system,” Stone said. “In order to make it useful, you have to have people-behavior aspects under control. Barring that, you will not get the advantage [of groupware].”
Goran Eriksson, president of Colorshop Inc., a marketing and distribution company that deals with both U.S. and European markets, reports that U.S. companies are just starting to get a handle on this type of working environment.
“Groupware fits well into the European management style,” said Eriksson, “because they are much more team-oriented and they are used to sharing information at all levels of the organization.”
Williams strongly agrees that people working together is the way of the future, even if that means changing the way people work.
“It’s natural for people to want praise for what they have done,” said Williams. “But in a highly competitive environment like the one we are in now, we can’t have superheroes who do not want to work as part of a team.”
One added benefit that users are reporting is that people who never felt comfortable enough to contribute at meetings are finding their electronic voices.
“People behave much more informally when they are communicating in an electronic environment,” said Boston University’s Sproull. “Someone in a lower-level position might be less intimidated sending a message to someone to whom they might normally never speak.”
This proved true for PSE&G’s Connelly. “This was a surprise to us,” he said. “People definitely take a lot more risks when they are on-line.”
Users agree that if groupware is going to take a hold in American businesses, it will take time and a willingness from people to change.
“We are aware that this is a different way for people to work,” Williams said. “That is why we are easing into this slowly. We are not looking for a cultural shock, just a change.”