Financial-services holding company and PC Week Corporate Lab Partner Society Corp. has adopted Lotus Development Corp.’s Notes as a collaborative network platform. The firm, which has grown rapidly through a series of acquisitions (most recently that of Ameritrust Corp.), sought a way to pull together all the disparate elements of daily operations.
Early in the adoption process, executives at the Cleveland-based Society recognized that buying into Lotus Notes meant more than just adopting a network-based E-mail or scheduling product. “It’s not just an application; it’s looking at the way the organization does its job,” said Mark Margevicius, office-technology research analyst in the connectivity laboratory of the Society Technology Group.
When he made that remark, Margevicius was in the middle of a five-day course in Notes-based development and administration. Developers need at least that much training on Notes, he said. “We’re getting an accelerated version,” he added.
The firm’s adoption of Notes has proceeded apace since then, and reactions have been extremely positive from both users and developers — if accompanied by some warnings confirming Margevicius’ assessment that groupware has a pervasive influence on many parts of an organization.
Ray Gleske, another Society Technology Group office-technology research analyst, described one highly successful pilot project: converting the Technology Group’s monthly major-project status report to Notes. “Once a month,” Gleske said, “we used to pull all the major-project status reports into a book — up to 2 inches thick — that went around to all the managers but wasn’t easily reviewed for any one project. But now we’ve put all that [project information] into Notes,” he said. “We create the documents in a word processor, just as we did before, but Notes provides a front end. And now, we find that people are actually looking at these things.”
The on-line form of the report provides several benefits, Gleske said. For example, electronic access allows readers to search documents easily for keywords and phrases.
In addition, individual reports can now be flagged with status indicators such as “on hold,” “late” or “questionable,” which allows managers to focus their attention on projects in need of corrective action.
The identification of a project’s special status is currently a manual step; users have to fill in an on-screen field when entering the report into Notes. It’s only a matter of time, however, before Society applies additional on-line processing to compare key project parameters automatically against original automatic warnings: a full-blown, management-by-exception information system growing naturally out of the firm’s present document-preparation process.
This is a textbook example of the convenient, incremental refinement that can occur as a result of using a modern, network-based tool rather than the monolithic development model of older application-development environments.
Another Society project, however, demonstrated the hazards of “paving over the cow paths” — that is, automating an existing process without re-engineering the system to reflect the new relationships between the parts of the task that now go much faster and the parts that become the new bottlenecks.
“We used Notes to automate the problem-tracking process during systems conversion following the Society/AmeriTrust merger,” said Al McClurg, vice president of office-technology research at Society. “We put a system in place that was very well-received by the people involved, but the application was eventually abandoned.”
Not different enough
The problem, concluded McClurg and his team, was that the Notes application worked too much like the old way of performing problem-tracking. “We built it around current practices, using a single coordinator. Automating the manual process preserved the existing bottlenecks,” he said. “So we had to step away from day-to-day entry and find other ways to keep on top of what was important.”
This experience confirmed the fundamental principles of information-system engineering, according to McClurg. “If we had stepped back and taken a re-engineering view, we would have pushed the data capture back to the point of origin,” he said. “That’s a well-understood principle of systems design.”
The message for adopters of groupware platforms is clear. Collaboration begins at the edges and works, not just inward, but in all directions, rather than beginning at a central point that can quickly become the eye of an information hurricane.
And there’s much more to Notes at Society than major, companywide applications. “Ad hoc databases are becoming commonplace,” said Tom Preston, information technology officer. “Sure, there will be many Notes databases that go through [quality assurance; i.e., formal project management] and get replicated throughout the corporation, but there will also be many others at the level of the local server. We give people a brief overview, and right away they start thinking of applications — when they’ve only had the product in front of them for five minutes.”
Preston was also candid about the new approach that’s required to use a tool like Notes effectively. “One of the things we’ve learned,” he said, “is that, historically, when there’s been a strategic effort, you look at the whole enterprise, but when you look at the office, the focus has been personal productivity. Only recently have there been products that make it natural to look at the office process — the ways that people communicate with each other — and bring in the re-engineering people to do that. ”
When a work-group product spans the full range, from quick-and-dirty problem-solving to long-range creation of competitive advantage, the engineering and management challenge is intensified.
Still to be determined is the impact of collaborative, network-based tools on styles of peer-to-peer communication and management.
As early as 1966, sociologists were predicting increased centralization of power and decision-making in organizations that adopted computer-based methods of handling information.
When information becomes more readily available to top management, will they be able to resist the temptation to intervene in decisions that used to be the domain of unit managers? Do work-group tools improve management styles, or do they merely intensify both effective and ineffective modes of operation?
“It’s too soon to tell,” said McClurg, although he added that “work-group tools are an improvement when the management style is already participative.”