Groupware: Improving Group Communication and Information Dissemination
DR. THOMAS SAKA, Information Specialist Hawaii Department of Education and CLYDE SHIIGI, Vice President DataHouse, Inc. Honolulu, Hawaii Like many school systems across the country, the Hawaii Department of Education (D'E) is faced with increased public expectations and demands while concurrently battling budget reductions. Current conditions require efficient and effective utilization of financial and personnel resources in order to be successful in developing literate students. In early 1996, the newly appointed Superintendent of Education in Hawaii set a vision for education focusing on literacy through a program called The Success Compact. The program emphasizes a consistent instructional process, within a school community, that leads to reading, writing and relating across content areas. While a focus on literacy is not new, the process is unique in its emphasis on two critical components: teaming and leveraging the internal intellectual assets of D'E staff. These two parts of the process require constant collaboration and information dissemination among education personnel. Groupware technology was identified as the mechanism that could efficiently and effectively support statewide collaboration and information dissemination. Hawaii D'E's administrative offices identified Lotus Notes as the de facto standard for communication, collaboration and information dissemination. There are approximately 4,200 users in 231 of our 243 schools and administrative offices with Lotus Notes licenses. The Lotus Total Campus Option Plan was purchased, allowing the Hawaii D'E to install server and client software, on a variety of platforms, anywhere in its public school system. What Is Groupware? Groupware can be summarized as software that makes the process of people working together more effective. This compares with previous desktop computing innovations -- word processing, spreadsheets and the like -- that made individual users more productive. Organizations have progressed beyond enhancing individual performance and are now applying tools to promote group or team effectiveness. Team structures are present in almost every organization today. However, teams are merely organizational structures to rally people to meet common goals. To improve team performance, a facility is needed to help them effectively interact beyond traditional communication channels. Groupware is the fabric over which people communicate, share and track information, access external resources, and interact with each other electronically, unencumbered by barriers of time and distance. The Lotus Notes groupware package was utilized in Hawaii because it closely fit the team and knowledge-sharing requirements envisioned by our D'E model. It is also identified as the dominant groupware product on the market, has advanced server replication functionality and, most importantly, cross-platform client availability. Server replication is an issue because of the large-scale nature of any technological deployment in Hawaii, with the 240 schools falling under the single SEA/LEA structure. Cross-platform client portability is critical to many K-12 systems because of their mix of Windows and Macintosh workstations. While there are many categories of groupware, an oversimplified list of functions best describes groupware as an integrated messaging, bulletin board, document-management and application- development environment. Obstacles Faced Prior to Groupware While students throughout Hawaii were being educated and the D'E operated before groupware implementation, it was clear that tasks were not occurring as efficiently as they could have been and processes such as collaboration were not engaged in as often as they should have been. Being an island-state, the obstacles to increased collaboration and information sharing are obvious. Improved efficiency and effectiveness are often not identified as necessary enhancements when an organization has been operating in a static mode for a number of years. On the more technical side, potential obstacles related to system scalability and enhancement could become serious challenges in the future utilization of technology to effectively support instruction if there is a lack of integration between application functionality. For example, electronic mail utilizing Microsoft Mail was being implemented at a number of sites and people were excited about engaging in electronic communication. People did not realize that e-mail had limitations for group collaboration and information dissemination. Two issues were identified as limitations in using e-mail for collaboration. First, brainstorming was inefficient because of the number of messages that needed to be routed between participating individuals. And the problem increased proportionate to the number of participants. Second, manually organizing ideas and comments linked to issues received through e-mail is time consuming and frustrating. Indeed, the obstacles became readily apparent when investigating possibilities for document distribution and forms routing in a large organization. One state initiative is interconnection of all Hawaiian schools via a high-speed WAN.
While the WAN's costs are borne by the state, schools are responsible for securing funding and implementing their own LANs. Schools find it exceedingly difficult to justify the cost of a LAN just for e-mail. The ability to provide groupware functionality such as bulletin boards, application development and document management in addition to e-mail adds value to network computing and, thus, makes the costs for implementing a LAN more justifiable. Examples of Workgroup Technology Administrative functions were the initial focus of Lotus Notes implementation in the Hawaii D'E. More recently, the focus has shifted to supporting instruction. During the 1994-95 school year, Dole Intermediate School on the island of Oahu completed a successful year-long study investigating the functionality of groupware in a school setting. Workgroup functionality utilized by state administrative offices and Dole Intermediate for supporting instruction is described below. Collaboration One of the most obvious benefits of the Lotus Notes implementation was an increase in the amount of collaboration that occurred among users. This increase was tracked back to groupware's ability to provide greater efficiency in the collaboration process. A number of discussion databases were created by staff at Dole Intermediate School throughout the year. One that stands out involved updating the school's technology plan. Faculty were able raise technological issues they viewed as important. People throughout the school were able to add to the issues or make comments about them. The discussion also allowed comments to be made about other people's comments. Active participation in the electronic discussion was attributed to it being very convenient for individuals to add their input instead of only being able to do so at set times. One discussion databases created by staff at Dole Intermediate School involved updating the school's technology plan. The remote-client capabilities of Lotus Notes allowed many teachers to work from home in the evening. The threaded organization of issues and comments allowed individuals to jump into the discussion at any time and enabled them to view how ideas and directions were previously developed. While the discussion could have taken place in face-to-face meetings, fewer individuals would have participated because teachers have limited time for meetings, usually one hour at the end of certain school days. There were other benefits to the electronic discussion versus face-to-face meetings. One was eliminating the time often wasted in explaining where the discussion is at and how it got there, as individuals join after its start. Discussion topics were focused and organized, due in large part to individuals having to write things out. Investigation of the electronic contributions also showed much more focused and thought-out content than is normally the case at face-to-face meetings. Participants indicated that they have time to digest, think through and develop ideas before entering comments. In face-to-face meetings, people normally say whatever comes to mind. Another area of increased collaboration involved project management and maintenance. The cross-platform client functionality of Lotus Notes was critical in Hawaii because of the mix of Macintosh and Windows workstations. For many projects, this meant that individuals at various work sites could collaborate electronically, which has proven much more efficient than physical meetings. This was made apparent in the planning of Lotus Notes implementation at Dole Intermediate, which involved individuals from the school, Hawaii D'E, DataHouse, Inc. (the local Lotus business partner) and Lotus Development Corp.'s office in Seattle. A database was developed and replicated among various sites working on the Dole project; it contained implementation issues, application specifications, timelines and task status. The quality of participation from DataHouse, Inc. and Lotus Development Corp. was greater than could be otherwise expected, especially in volunteer situations, because of the efficient use of time and the overcoming of geographical distances that Lotus Notes provides. Individuals from organizations who joined the planning effort after the project's initial inception were able to electronically obtain information on goals and rationales for various decisions. These people were able to become contributing members in a shorter period of time, and with less effort, than would have been possible before groupware implementation. A count of comments in the database at the end of the planning session indicated that approximately 180 individual messages would have been received by each participant if the planning had been done through e-mail or a listserv. The Internet was not robust enough to address the information-management requirements of the Hawaii D'E. While the Internet in its current state is effective in presenting information, it lacks security features, workflow options and tight integration of messaging with an application-development environment. Peak usage associated with K-12 organizations (teachers use the system heavily in the hour after school is finished) and the evolving nature of wide-scale Web server replication made using just the Internet alone a less-than-desirable alternative. Instead, Lotus Notes and the Internet are applied in areas that leverage their respective strengths. Electronic-Document Management Information dissemination, storage and retrieval comprise an area that has been a priority in the Hawaii D'E. This area was costly to implement before obtaining Lotus Notes. The timeliness and cost concerns related to information dissemination in the Hawaii school system relate to the size and geographic dispersion of schools throughout the island-state. The benefits of groupware were readily apparent to teachers through the simple application of its powers to the school's daily bulletin. One of the first applications implemented at Dole Intermediate involved the school's daily bulletin. The benefits of groupware were readily apparent to teachers through this simple application. Teachers were able to electronically compose and route announcements to be included in the bulletin, eliminating the need to walk to the office. Electronic distribution of the bulletins eliminated the physical labor of typing, copying and distributing them into teacher boxes. And not having to copy 70 sheets of paper per day resulted in minor cost savings. Related benefits included the ability to easily locate information from past bulletins (it is housed on the school's server and full-text searching allows one to find specific phrases or events within bulletins). Perhaps the most important benefit was timeliness of information; the deadline for including something in the bulletin was moved from 3:00 p.m. the previous day to 7:00 am of the day of the bulletin. Curriculum guides maintained by the state curriculum office and school policy/procedure handbooks were other document-management applications utilized at Dole Intermediate. Previously, the cost factor allowed updates of curriculum guides on a three-year cycle. But an update function in Lotus Notes flags sections of text that have been modified or changed since a user last read the section. Previously, updates to policy guides involved reprinting individual pages that were then distributed to individuals to be inserted into a bound handbook. Knowledge Basing The combination of electronic discussion and document management functions of Lotus Notes has made the concept of knowledge basing possible. Knowledge basing involves storing relatively objective information that is linked with additional context or more subjective interpretations. An example is the Success Compact Literacy program spearheaded by the state superintendent of education. The program defines learning models applicable across content areas. Teachers involved in the program provide contextual information about each model, describing situations in which the models were successful and which implementation adjustments were utilized to achieve success. As teachers provide input, a knowledge bank is created and referencing the information allows teachers to build upon the knowledge of others. Knowledge basing shares a deeper level of information about the lessons learned in experimenting with instructional processes, in addition to just final outcomes. Another knowledge base application involved describing World Wide Web sites. Teachers were encouraged to provide information on sites they felt would be of value to other educators. An application was developed to capture the Web address (URL), grade-level suitability, content-area relevancy and a short description about information on the site. Full-text searching of Lotus Notes allowed teachers to retrieve information about various Web sites by keywords instead of having to actually go online to access them. Application-Development Environment An important component of groupware computing involves the integration of an application-development environment with functions like e-mail and document management. Lotus Notes provides a full set of application-development tools that suit non-transaction processing applications. There are a number of forms-based applications common in education, ranging from periodic repair requests to monthly time sheets. The ability to quickly create prototypes, move the prototype to the production environment plus cross-platform portability reduced the complexity usually associated with large-scale and distributed application deployment. The scheduled-replication functionality of the Lotus Notes server environment allows information from distributed sites (schools) to be moved to a central repository in the evenings when network traffic is low. The text handling and GUI characteristics of the Lotus Notes client suits a wide variety of other application environments. For example, groupware applications are used to maintain front-end applications for the Hawaii D'E's data warehouse. Ad hoc query applications are developed in Power Builder and linked to Lotus Notes documents as a means of providing a standard interface for casual users. While the structured information in the data warehouse is managed by an Oracle 7 database, the unstructured information is maintained by Lotus Notes. Providing context to structured data has evolved as a critical component of the Hawaii D'E's decision-support systems. Groupware is also supporting the re-deployment of state- and district-level curriculum resources. Groupware is also supporting the re-deployment of state- and district-level curriculum resources.
About 75 state and district curriculum staff have been directed by legislative mandate to spend 80% of their time providing direct services to schools. Lotus Notes will handle communication and information dissemination as well as provide a mechanism for remote collaborative consultation. This would allow a single individual to coordinate a school's service needs in a variety of curriculum areas. The remote collaborative consultation model being utilized is structured after those found in consulting firms such as Price Waterhouse. Extending the D'E Via the Internet The practice of information dissemination and collaboration extends beyond the D'E to higher education institutions, K-12 schools on the mainland, and the private sector. The Internet is the conduit for connecting Notes servers and client workstations across the country to support collaboration with other schools and private companies. Mail gateways to the Internet allow all users to send and receive Internet e-mail directly from Lotus Notes. Public documents maintained and tracked in Lotus Notes are published regularly on the Web using the Lotus Notes' InterNotes Publisher. A ubiquitous connection and information medium such as the Internet integrated with Lotus Notes groupware tuned for team performance makes a powerful combination. Benefits of an Expanded Communications Architecture Initial experiences with groupware computing have exposed a vast arena within education that has been untouched by technology. School systems throughout the country are hearing the public's sentiment of needing to restructure education, yet face cuts in both their budgets and personnel. Operations need to be streamlined and administrative paperwork needs to be made efficient in order to allow educators to focus upon instruction. Groupware applications that have been implemented within the Hawaii D'E have shown great potential in streamlining and increasing efficiency in a range of tasks. More importantly, Notes' information-management and collaboration functions have allowed technology to be applied to processes that are central to schools -- educating students. Too often, technology in school systems has been applied only to operations, not instruction. There are a number of excellent educators within our school systems and it is naive to think that each school is so unique that the lessons learned there would not be applicable elsewhere. Groupware provides the mechanism for leveraging the intellectual knowledge of our teachers; it enables information to be easily captured, stored and disseminated. Cultural/Organizational Issues The deployment of Lotus Notes was not without resistance. Hesitation focused on the idea of change and humans' characteristic resistance. One form of resistance involved the relatively recent implementation of Microsoft Mail in the Hawaii D'E. The individuals involved with the roll out of the mail system were not involved with the Lotus Notes implementation and so misinformation about its functionality resulted. Non- technical persons were unable to grasp the integrated workgroup functionality of Lotus Notes, seeing the groupware package as just glorified e-mail. Resistance should always be expected when people are forced into switching products, especially when it means a change of vendors. This phenomena is described by Orlikowski, wherein individuals facing new technology have difficulty changing their current framework for understanding it and thus have difficulty interacting effectively with the new applications. In most instances, individuals were not able to see the potential benefits of workgroup computing. Recent exposure to e-mail and the Internet provided a sense of increased access to information and communication. These types of uses were often the first exposure that individuals had with technology and the experience created such great euphoria that people could not believe that more advanced tools could possibly exist. A quote from Lester Wanninger truly applies to groupware computing: "Although trade literature and product specifications provide comprehensive information about a technology's capabilities, it's not until we begin to use it personally that we fully understand the technology's potential and all the ways in which we may use it."  New potential uses for groupware are identified every day. Getting users to switch from legacy mail systems requires c'ercion and specific migration dates. There is a need to utilize groupware for mission-critical applications, so that people are forced to use the software. Although people will initially complain and resist, the benefits and increased productivity are well worth the painful movement through the sharp learning curve. All of the respondents in the year-end evaluation of the Lotus Notes project at Dole Intermediate School stated that groupware was a definite improvement over plain e-mail. Interestingly the responses to an item asking for tips for training future users on groupware can be summarized in a simple statement: "Just do it, they will thank you later." Thomas Saka is an information specialist who works in the Information Resource Management dept. of the Hawaii Department of Education. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org Clyde Shiigi is vice president at DataHouse, Inc., which is a Lotus Business Partner and helped with the initial implementation of Lotus Notes at Dole Intermediate School. E-mail: email@example.com References: 1.Kirkpatrick, D. (1993), "Groupware G'es Boom," Fortune, December, pp. 99-106. 2.Orlikowski, W. (1992), Learning from Notes: Organizational Issues in Groupware Implementation, Sloan School of Management, MIT: Cambridge, MA. 3.Wanninger, L. (1993), "Minnesota Imaging Project: I-Mail as Passport to a Paperless Society," T.H.E. Journal, 21(4), pp. 123-125. Products mentioned in this article: Lotus Notes and InterNotes Publisher; Lotus Development Corp., Cambridge, Mass., (800) 343-5414, www.lotus.com Microsoft Mail; Microsoft Corp., Redmond, Wash. (800) 426-9400, www.microsoft.com Oracle 7; Oracle Corp., Redwood Shores, Calif., (800) 633-0596, www.oracle.com Power Builder for Lotus Notes; Powersoft Corp., Concord, Mass., (800) 395-3525, www.powersoft.com
This article originally appeared in the 11/01/1996 issue of THE Journal.