Chapter 23

A Global View of Groupware


Intranet hardware and underlying communications protocols by themselves are of no great use to anyone. The most powerful servers, fiber-optic cables, T-1 communication lines, ISDN modems, or streaming multimedia can't do anything by themselves. They're only important because they allow people to communicate, share information, and work better together.

While many intranet technologies allow people to work better together-including just about every intranet technology, including even the World Wide Web-the most important set of intranet software for allowing people to better communicate and cooperate is called workgroup software. Workgroup software lets people share files and information; work better together in teams; cooperate more easily on projects; and in general work together in ways never before possible.

You'll never find an exact definition of what workgroup software is. In general, it's something of a fuzzy term. It encompasses many different kinds of technologies, everything ranging from advanced videoconferencing to simple chat technology. To some people, Internet newsgroups are a form of groupware, while to other people, only more sophisticated technologies qualify under that definition.

However, in general, workgroup software is software that goes beyond simple messaging like newsgroups and allows people to work together as a group in more complicated ways. The key is that it allows people to go beyond simply communicating, and lets them work together on documents.

One thing to keep in mind about groupware is that groupware did not come into being with the intranet. There is nothing in the TCP/IP architecture underlying intranets that made groupware possible. In fact, groupware has been around for years. In corporations where there is a significant amount of sophisticated design, and a complicated manufacturing process-such as in companies that build airplanes, for example-workgroup software has long been used in concert with Computer Aided Design/Computer Aided Manufacturing (CAD/CAM) software. With groupware and CAD/CAM software, for example, different designers and engineers are able to work on different parts of an overall design at the same time-and they are able to see the results of other people's work, since what other people do will be reflected in what they see in their part of the design. CAD/CAM systems like this tended to be used not on personal computers, but instead on workstations.

The first major workgroup software for personal computers was Lotus Notes, which combines electronic mail, discussion software, workflow software and database technology. While Notes was designed for personal computers instead of workstations, it wasn't designed for intranets, and worked instead on Netware networks. However, in more recent times, intranet-based features have been added.

Intranet-based groupware does both what Notes and CAD/CAM can do, and more. While it's true that the TCP/IP protocols that underlay intranets by themselves didn't make groupware possible, it's also true that their widespread acceptance has helped spread the use of groupware. Once companies began to see how Internet technologies such as newsgroups allowed people to communicate better on the Internet, they began to look at their corporations and see how similar technologies could help companies work together as a whole.

One of the most basic pieces of workgroup software is messaging software-programs that allow people to publicly participate in group discussions. Group discussion software has its roots in newsgroups, and in discussion software that is found on online services such as CompuServe. One key to messaging software is that it be threaded. Threaded messaging means that people can read and respond to individual subject areas of a discussion. For example, in a message area devoted to corporate finances, there may be one thread concerning research-and-development finances, another concerning engineering finances, another about marketing finances, and so on. Good discussion software will allow people to easily follow each of those different threads.

Some messaging software goes beyond that, however. There's nothing about TCP/IP and intranet technology that in particular that enables people to use threaded messaging. However, what makes intranet messaging software especially useful is the way that it integrates with other Internet and intranet technologies. For example, some discussion software will allow the use of Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) embedded inside messages. This means that from within a discussion, someone could embed a link to a Web page or other intranet resource. When powerful programming tools like Java or ActiveX are added to this mix, even more interactive and multimedia possibilities are added, and the true power of mixing discussions with intranet technology can be seen.

An often overlooked workgroup technology is electronic mail. As with discussion software, it too can make use of other intranet technologies. Some intranet e-mail software can read HTML files, so links to Web pages and other intranet documents can be included in e-mail. And e-mail can be integrated with discussion software, so that in a discussion, people have the option of responding to notes either in public discussions or by private e-mail, depending on which link they click on.

Yet another means of communicating over intranets which has its roots in older Internet technology is desktop chat. On the Internet, this kind of chat is called Internet Relay Chat, or IRC. It allows someone from one computer to type messages on a keyboard, and have that message instantly appear on someone else's computer. Intranets can let people do the same thing. While this kind of communication isn't useful for complicated discussions, it can be very good for quick conversations.

A more sophisticated workgroup application is desktop videoconferencing. It requires that everyone involved have computer-linked video cameras (which have become quite inexpensive) and hardware and software that allows computers to send and receive voice and sound. While sitting at computers, people can see each other and speak to each other. Some videoconferencing software is server based, which means that it requires that people involved must log into a server in order to participate in a videoconference with others. Still other videoconferencing software lets people connect directly with other people on an intranet without having to go through a server - all they'll need to know is someone's IP address.

A related technology is called whiteboard software. Whiteboard software lets people see what is on someone else's computer on an intranet, while sitting at their own computer. Even more important than just letting people see what is on the computer is that whiteboard software allows people to use their mouse to highlight parts of the screen, write on the screen, and otherwise mark it up. That means that people on the same intranet-even if they're on opposite sides of the country from each other-can comment on each other's work easily.

Document management and workflow software is useful for intranets for comp`anies that have complicated work procedures, or where many people must cooperatively put together a single document. In intranet document management software, a document can be "locked" so that only one person at a time can use it, and so people can't overwrite each others' work. It can also give different people different kinds of rights to a particular document, so that some people may only be able to read documents, while others are able to actually work on them, edit them, and otherwise change them. And the most powerful document management software allows many different people to work on different parts of the same document simultaneously.

Similar to document management is workflow management software. This kind of groupware manages not just individual documents, but the entire workflow of an organization. For example, intranet workflow management software would allow procedures for filing expense reports to be easily computerized, so that the report could be sent automatically up the chain of people who had to approve it and act on it without having to resort to paper or mail.

It's important to note that no one intranet is likely to have all these kinds of workgroup applications. And no single piece of software will allow for all these kinds of cooperative computing. Rather, most intranets will take a mix-and-match kind of approach. In fact, in some companies, different subnets or departments on an intranet may have different kinds of workgroup applications. The point is that intranet administrators can choose whichever workgroup application best suits the company.

A Global View of Groupware

One of the most important reasons that companies put in an intranet is to better enable people to work together. The most powerful kind of software to let people work together falls under the broad heading of groupware. Groupware lets people videoconference, share documents, participate in discussions and work together in other ways. Pictured here are some examples of how groupware works together in an intranet.