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Groupware Requires A Group Effort



In an era of increasing specialization and complexity, groupware is becoming the essential work tool for Corporate America. At its best, Lotus Notes and other forms of groupware can encourage creative collaboration among dozens, if not thousands, of people, anywhere, anytime. But used poorly, groupware can simply become the latest indulgence in techno-narcissism--an expensive high-tech fix that doesn't deliver the real goods in the marketplace.

It all depends on implementation (page 92). IBM just paid $3.5 billion for Lotus Development Corp. because it believes that the Notes software is the strategic building block of the computer industry's next leap forward--into networking information systems. It is the perfect software for the global era. By allowing companies' workforces in the U.S., Asia, and Europe to work together in real time, groupware could revolutionize management. In a global economy, groupware eliminates the physical constraints of time, distance, and space.

Technology, however, is simply a tool. Groupware is one of the most powerful collaborative technologies ever developed. But its potential is unleashed only if an organization is structured to take advantage of group work. Drop Notes into a company with a culture of individual competition and it's a waste of time and money. "Me-now" hotshots and "take charge" bosses are anathema to its success. If groupware is inserted into a flat, horizontal organization, it can boost productivity sharply. To make this new technology work, organization and culture are as important as PCs and software.

Take incentives. Preaching collaboration is not enough. It is as important for companies to create incentives for people to share as it is for them to buy the latest groupware. Building cross-functional teams can work wonders in developing new products, but only if people are rewarded as members of the team. Right now, most individuals are still evaluated by their functional manager. That's one major reason why most teams fail to produce.

In the end, groupware is a technology for managing relationships, not just information. In the book No More Teams!--Mastering the Dynamics of Creative Collaboration, Michael Schrage suggests that successful collaborations in the past, among such people as James D. Watson and Francis H. Crick, involved at least five components: equal competence among members; shared goals; mutual respect; shared space (blackboard, piano keyboard, or, now, groupware); and continual, not continuous, communication.

Companies must design collaborative organizations for the tools of collaboration. Once they do, the power of groupware manifests itself. If Dorothy Leonard-Barton, of the Harvard business school, is right in saying that innovation comes at the joining of two planes of thought, then groupware is poised to generate the greatest burst of productivity in modern history. In fact, U.S. productivity growth for the first quarter was just revised up to 2.7% from 0.7%. Manufacturing productivity is now higher in the U.S. than in Japan or Germany. Groupware may already be working.

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