A Manager's Guide to Computer Supported Collaborative Work (also known as Groupware)

John H. Saunders, Ph.D.

Table of Contents
Critical Success Factors 
The Technologies 
Electronic Mail 
Collaborative Database Systems 
The Intranet 
Group Decision Support Systems 
     The Controlled Atmosphere
     The Defined Process
     The Bag of Tools  
Living Worlds
The Future of Groupware
Internet Pointers on CSCW


Groupware may be defined as hardware, software and processes designed to aid in group related tasks such as basic communication, information sharing, decision making, scheduling/control, and analysis/design. The terms' group and process are the critical elements in the groupware equation. Also important in the discussion of groupware are the concepts of time and place. Largely a buzzword in the late 1980s and early 1990s, groupware has moved into the mainstream of the knowledge worker's environment. Annual application growth rates in this arena now typically exceed 100%. Groupware is a term that encompasses many different technologies and business process areas. Specific technologies in this arena include electronic mail, digital voice mail systems, text conferencing, videoteleconferencing, collaborative databases, workflow, group decision support systems, and living worlds. This paper will focus upon the capabilities and applications of "traditional" groupware, and also upon exciting new technologies that redefine the concept of working together.

Critical Success Factors

Three major points should be considered as the individual technologies are discussed. First, the greatest power from groupware is exhibited when the various technologies can be combined with each other, and be integrated within the business processes of the organization. Imagine two doctors using the Internet to consult between Walter Reed Army Hospital in Maryland and a movable hospital unit in Bosnia. They are communicating through a video link while also sharing a collaborative database of x-ray photographs. This is not fiction, but already in use by the Army. This type of process provides an exponential benefit to a patient who would otherwise be without a second opinion or a specialist in a critical area. Second, organizational success in implementing groupware requires a critical application and a critical mass. Groupware requires group work -- the work of all the group, within an application in which they all participate. And third, the major challenges in the groupware discipline are not technical or economic, but social. It is a very different mode of work, to which we are not accustomed. To insure its success in an organization, management must monitor the use of the technology and take corrective action before the group is "turned off" to its usage. There is more discussion of this later in this text.


It would be difficult to trace back a single event as the genesis of computer supported collaborative (CSCW) work, another name for groupware. But likely it would be the introduction of e-mail in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's network, ARPANET in the early 1960s. Growth of CSCW beyond this network was largely stagnant during the 1970s. But in the early to mid 1980s the growth of local and wide area networks enabled the growth of group sharing & communication. In the mid eighties Byte Magazine created an on-line forum about computing called BIX, accessed through dial up modems. BIX spawned the later similar efforts including CompuServe and America Online. Then during the late 80s three significant commercial groupware products appeared. They were Co-ordinator, GroupSystems, and Lotus Notes. Co-ordinator was the first product to formalize decision processes for groups using the computer. GroupSystems extended this idea considerably to include all phases of the decision cycle to include information gathering, filtering and prioritizing. Lotus Notes stormed the groupware arena by being the first to add capability to share, segment, and protect all forms of digital data on a massive scale. In the mid 1990's the onset of the windows browser and the base communications technology of the world wide web opened up collaboration on a worldwide basis. During the same period, desktop level videoteleconferencing was catapulted onto the Internet through the shareware release of CUSeeMe, a product developed at Cornell University. Now groupware products such as Lotus Notes, originally designed to operate on private networks, are being adapted to utilize the Internet infrastructure. Other Internet technologies such as "living worlds" are new outgrowths specifically oriented toward socialization and collaboration.

The Technologies

The following sub-sections provide an overview of the groupware technologies electronic mail, videoteleconferencing, collaborative databases, workflow, group decision support systems, and living worlds. Each of the sections provides a description of the base technology, lists some of the popular commercial products, and furnishes some interesting applications of the technology.

Electronic Mail

During the early 1990's electronic mail (e-mail) moved from being unusual to being universal. In the last two years e-mail has moved outside the organization to a worldwide base using Internet servers as post offices. Annual costs per user for e-mail on a local area network (LAN) are estimated to be $400. Virtually all e-mail systems now supply the user with the capability to sort incoming messages. The more sophisticated packages also provide the user with a capability to apply rules to incoming messages, and to be alerted when new messages arrive. Also on the increase are standards such as Standard Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP) and Multipurpose Internet Mail Extensions (MIME). These standards ease the transfer of messages and extend the capability to allow users to attach different types of digital products (e.g. graphics or sound files) to the message. Once a mail user is tied to the Internet, he may then join LISTSERV groups. These groups are forums for discussing issues of similar interest through the e-mail system. A more recent trend has been to extend e-mail systems to include calendaring and scheduling, discussion groups and note taking. These capabilities are available in the more popular e-mail packages such as Lotus's CC-mail, Novell's Groupwise, and Microsoft's MS-Mail. Eudora is the most commonly used e-mail system for individual users on the Internet.

Collaborative Database Systems / Intranets

When the term groupware is spoken, the image conjured by most professionals is that of the shared, collaborative database. The contents of the database could vary widely dependent upon the application. It may be scanned legal documents to be accessed by members of a legal team, categorized technical information for a team of consultants, customer data for the sales team, or operational data for a production line team. But what differentiates a collaborative database from a conventional database management system? Some of the characteristics unique to a collaborative database include: tight integration with e-mail, replication of data worldwide, control of access to data through distributed database managers, built-in discussion threads, group database templates, a common collective user interface, and also meta information about group activity. An amortized estimate for the installation and maintenance of a full scale collaborative database environment such as Lotus Notes is about $1200 annually.

The considerable amount of capability included in a collaborative database has limited the products on the market in this arena. Lotus Notes has dominated this arena as long as it has existed -- for about 10 years now. It has a 60% market share and is doubling in number of seats each year. Major competitors include Novell's Groupwise, and Microsoft Exchange. Comparing these products however is difficult because of the different product approaches. To draw an analogy to stereo components, Lotus Notes provides a complete turn-key stereo system (Notes includes CC-Mail). Microsoft Exchange is best likened to a backboard for a component stereo. Even with Exchange you must then purchase all the components separately from Microsoft. And Groupwise provides the amplifier, but does not sell a CD player, radio receiver or speakers. You need to buy those components from another vendor. Lotus Notes is often contrasted (incorrectly) to the concept of the Intranet.

The Intranet

An intranet is a privately owned information network that utilizes the protocols, tools, and languages of the internet. Primary protocols include TCP/IP, DNS, HTTP, FTP, CGI, SMTP, Usenet, and IRC. The principal tools utilized in an Intranet environment are servers (with utilities), browsers, and web page organization tools. Languages include HTML, VRML, JAVA and Javascript. The server is central to an Intranet because it must be able to store and deliver the data through the variety of protocols.

The current principal function of an intranet is to allow network users to view organizational information through their internet browser. In their current stages intranets are "hacked" networks, that is, they are hand coded and are largely disorganized. Many hackers are touting intranets as being cost effective ways to distribute a company's knowledge. Business managers should be aware, however, that intranet development is in a similar stage to where data processing systems were in the early 1960's. Without properly controlled growth at this stage, costs to maintain these networks in out years will be astronomical. Some vendors are beginning to come out with products to help organize and control this material. These include Lotus, Novell, and Netscape. The Lotus entry in this market, termed Domino, allows previous Notes applications to be migrated directly to the Internet protocols, yet maintain all the groupware functionality resident in Notes.

There are thousands of applications that have been built using collaborative database structures. Typically however an organization will utilize an environment such as Lotus Notes to operate their entire information system infrastructure. McKinsey and Company, likely the worlds premiere consulting firm, uses Notes for communicating and sharing work on projects worldwide. The U.S. Department of Defense Dependent Schools, which has hundreds of elementary and high schools located in Europe and the Far East, provides the Notes capability to teachers and students to enable curriculum sharing. The African nation of Gabon uses Notes to control imports and exports arriving and leaving its ports.


Workflow technology is a provision for computer based aids to enhance the flow of the essential business information and process in an organization. Bringing workflow technology into an organization involves two major phases. The first phase is an examination of current data and information flows. The second phase is the programming of a "cooperating" database and e-mail system to streamline those flows. Packaged tools exist for both these phases. Some vendors specialize in this arena and offer complete solutions.

In the first phase, an analyst would document activity such as the current data collection and routing processes, volumes, what individuals act upon what data, decision points, what decisions are made, and how the decisions affect the flow. Often an examination such as this would reveal duplication of effort and work for which no justification can be found. All the personnel involved in the original work would be intimately involved in this group process and examination. Tools for performing this type of analysis are based upon discrete event or continuous simulation. Specific vendors include ProcessModel, SIMPROCESS, PowerSim, and iThink.

Based upon the first phase examination, a system would be cooperatively re-designed to reflect a streamlined flow. Then based upon the new design, a programmer would utilize a tool such as Lotus Notes to build multiple forms with rules and ties to current data stores. The routing (via an e-mail engine) would then automatically update, validate and verify the data as it is passed through appropriate channels. Some of the major tools in this arena include Action Technologies Action Workflow, and JetForm's JetForm.

A large advantage to workflow systems is the ability to gather meta-data about the operation of a system. Bottlenecks or other areas of challenge can be discovered and rectified through the application of greater resources or by changing the rules or flow structures in a system.

Examples of success in the workflow area are numerous. Internet users can go to Action Technologies to experiment with some workflow applications that operate over the internet.


Videoteleconferencing (VTC) could be defined as the exchange of video signals between two or more points. An important quality of VTC is the ability to see and hear others over long distances. Most VTC systems today also have associated "blackboard" sharing capability. These blackboards allow participants to view and modify common images, and share, through multiple screen cursors, common applications such as spreadsheets. There are a wide range of options for implementing VTC. A particularly interesting new approach toward VTC is the use of video servers on the Internet to allow groups of eight or ten individuals, where each individual is at a different physical location, to meet.

There are many issues in implementing VTC systems: Connectivity, Bandwidth, Transport Medium, Cost, Image Quality, Availability, Reliability, and Setup. The following table outlines three possible scenarios.

Type of   Cost *        Transport      Quality** Size       Setup            Vendor       
Solution                Medium                                                            

High End  initial:      3 parallel     good,     full       difficult,       PictureTel   
(room)    $6,000+       ISDN lines     30 fps    screen     telecommunicatio              
          continuing:   (384 kilobyte                       ns                            
          $200/hour     thruput)                            professionals                 

Mid-Range initial:      local area     moderate,  screen    moderate to      Intel        
          $3,000+       network         15 fps              difficult, help  Proshare     
(desktop) continuing:                                       from local                    
          $15/hour                                          computer                      

Low End   initial:      Internet       poor,     thumbnail  moderate, help   Connectix +  
(desktop) $350+         service        2-3 fps   image      from vendor      CUSeeMe      
          continuing:   provider or                         likely                        
          $2/hour       dial-up                             necessary                     

* would include units at both ends, ** expressed in frames per second

Applications are very wide spread. The University of Maryland uses desktop VTC in their jobs placement center to supply companies interested in interviewing their students with quick and easy access to them. The U.S. Army Total Dental Access Group is a program currently in pilot phase for the practice of Teledentistry. Its purpose is to have dental staff on call via video for consultations and examinations in remote areas. Currently consultations are taking place between Ft Gordon, Georgia and Heidelberg Germany. The Brooklyn District Attorney's office uses VTC for interviewing both victims and defendants. The system is set up between the DA's headquarters and the several jails in the city.

Group Decision Support Systems

The Nobel Laureate Herbert Simon separated "good" decision making into three separate stages - intelligence, design and choice - IDC. But if we were to examine the group decision process that most organizations follow we would likely find that it could be defined as BOGGSAT - a Bunch of Guys & Gals Sitting Around Talking. Think of the some common characteristics of decision meetings we have all attended;

- most of the meeting was spent pursuing irrelevant tangents,

- one or two people dominated the meeting,

- there were times when everyone was speaking at the same time,

- minutes were taken from a singular point of view, leaving out important comments or issues,

- people with bright ideas feared speaking up in a politically charged atmosphere,

- the actual decision was reached hurriedly in the last 5 minutes of the meeting,

- many of the right people didn't attend,

- more new issues were surfaced than those that were resolved,

- there was no way to organize the issues at hand, and

- in the end nobody really knew whether there was a final consensus on the decision or not.

These are frightening factors when you think about the potential consequences of decisions made by groups. Is there any way that we can reducing or eliminate these problems? Yes, there is. New methods and tools for controlling most of these challenges are available. They are called group decision support systems (GDSSs). GDSSs utilize a controlled atmosphere, a defined process, and a bag of tools for supporting groups making major decisions.

The Controlled Atmosphere

Common sense dictates that a meeting where participants seek to accomplish a reasonable set of objectives should be held in a controlled atmosphere. This is a neutral environment where the meeting may proceed without interruption, where critical data is readily available, and where participants can effectively see, hear and respond to the each other. For generations the traditional conference room has fulfilled this need. The introduction of information technology to add speed, corporate memory and networking capability to the organizational meeting has promulgated the growth of a new atmosphere termed "Decision Rooms." These are rooms where tables with embedded computer screens and keyboards are arranged in a U shape. In the same room, multiple projection devices allow interface with simultaneous information sources such as a video teleconference, a database of opinions, and web pages. Visit the Ventana Corporation web pages to get a look at examples of these centers around the world.

The Defined Process

One of the principal problems with traditional meetings is that frequently the meetings are entirely ad-hoc. There are no defined objectives, no specified times for moving among topics, no methods for assuring that all that needs to be said, is said, nor even a way to assure that the correct parties are participating. In a GDSS environment the meeting process is much more well defined. There is time for diverging, time for converging, time for deciding how to decide. In addition to the "right" participants, the defined process requires three key players: the process owner, a facilitator, and a technographer. The process owner is the person or persons who must go forth with the decisions made in the decision room session. They must have the power to enact the recommendations. The process owner collaborates with the facilitator to establish a timetable and an agenda well in advance of the actual meeting. The facilitator is responsible for keeping the meeting moving, staying on the agenda, assuring equal time for participants, and encouraging discussion. The facilitator must be a neutral, impartial party. The technographer is an individual trained in the technical workings of the software. It is their job to move the data around as unobtrusively as possible during the actual meeting. In this manner the participants can focus upon the session content.

The Bag of Tools

GDSS's, also frequently referred to as Electronic Meeting Systems (EMSs) are characterized by tool sets that provide capability for the group to set an agenda, and then to do brainstorming, filtering, classifying, and prioritizing of the issues at hand. These tool sets overcome most of the challenges discussed in the first section above. They provide anonymity, complete record keeping, parallel data entry from all individuals, a smooth sequence for the meeting, forced focus upon the issues surfaced, fast issue organization, and multiple methods for establishing priorities. A rather fascinating phenomenon happens in these environments - the focus of the discussion moves away from attaching the worth of an idea to its originator, to judging the idea based upon its own merit. The table below provides a list of product vendors in this arena.

Product         Vendor               Cost              Capability               

GroupSystems    Ventana              Approx $1,000 /   brainstorming            
                5201 Leesburg Pike   wkstn             list building &          
                Falls Church, VA                       evaluation               
                22041                                  group drawing            
                (703) 998-5107                         outlining                
                                                       voting includ. matrix    

NetMeeting      Microsoft            Currently, no                              

Meeting Room    Eden Systems         $895 / 10 pak     basic tools              
                9302 N. Meridian                       brainstorm               
                Indianapolis, IN                       organize                 
                46260 (317)                            vote                     

TeamEC          Expert Choice        Approx $9,000     brainstorm               
                5001 Baum Blvd                         hierarchies              
                Pittsburgh, PA                         evaluation               

QuestMap        Corporate Memory     $795 / 10 pak     thinking diagrams        
                8920 Business Park                                              
                Austin, TX 78759                                                

TCBWorks        Terry College of     research          basic idea collection &  
                Business                               evaluation using the     
                University of                          www                      

As with the other dimensions of groupware, there are thousands of examples where groups have benefited from the use of GDSSs. The U.S. Army's Information Systems Command was able to gain a consensus on which of the thousands of IS's worldwide should be combined or eliminated. Millions of dollars were saved as a result. At the National Defense University previous college rivalries for end of year funding were alleviated when a GDSS was put into place. The GDSS process provided for a higher level of understanding of project funding priorities by providing the decision makers a structured process for discussing all the issues surrounding the line items. And the anonymous prioritization of projects allowed individuals to vote for the good of the university without fear of reprisal from colleagues within their own or sister colleges. At the US Marine Corps training base in Camp Pendleton, California the system was used successfully to gather honest information from Marines about the quality of the field training they were receiving.

Living Worlds

Living Worlds (LW) is a moniker for a technology that combines virtual reality environments with live voice and avatars on the Internet. Avatars are physical likenesses (or un-likeness as you prefer) of ourselves that can move among and be seen within all the thousands of virtual reality worlds out on the Internet. A specific Internet site called Onlive now has living worlds where you can go visit and talk with others in a virtual reality sports bar or gambling casino. Living Worlds describe a new extension to current standards for Virtual Reality on the Internet. Living Worlds are sometimes referred to as VRML 3.0. VRML 1.0 was the standard that created a common format for physical, static worlds such as buildings that you could explore. VRML 2.0 added standards for Moving Worlds - the ability to see & interact with moving objects such as cars. Now 3.0 will add standards for universal avatars - avatars that can move among all the virtual reality worlds, similar to the ability to pass e-mail among all the different commercial e-mail products. The National Defense University is now setting up an Internet based virtual reality University. Students will hear lectures and hold discussions in a three dimensional likeness of Marshall Hall, home of the Information Resources Management College.


The introduction of groupware into an organization can be a very risky proposition. The thrust of the American culture is on rugged individualism, individual rewards, and intense competition. This does not bode well for systems where the central theme is sharing and cooperation. High technology organizations are particularly subject to resistance from staff during the introduction of group technology. In an environment where individuals are rewarded for "rolling their own" technical solutions, it is often difficult to gain acceptance for a product like Lotus Notes, which is largely a pre-packaged system solution. Early in the cycle of groupware implementation, firms like Price Waterhouse, a "Big Six" consulting firm, found that the field of dreams approach - "Build it and they will come" simply did not work. Over time organizations learned that groupware must have a firm business purpose where all could share and where incentives were provided to contribute to and borrow from the collective group knowledge. Additional important factors that support the introduction and use of groupware include top level support and thorough training.

The Future

Two trends are likely for groupware. The first is that the use of groupware will continue to grow, at an even faster pace, with the platform of choice being the Internet. The second is that the previous distinctions of time and place will disappear.

As more groupware solutions are installed and become better know, corporate managers will further recognize that data and knowledge are a group asset versus an individual one. This style of work is already customary in Japan, where the growth of groupware has been much faster than in the United States. To stay competitive an organization must capitalize upon all its knowledge assets, and retain this knowledge even when a person leaves. At the same time partnering between organizations is becoming an increasing necessity. Tools for aiding this process will be more important than ever.

In an early work on computer aided collaboration , Dr. Bob Johansen of the Institute for the Future divided the approaches and computer aiding tools in the groupware arena into four categories including same-time same-place, same-time different-place, different-time same-place, and different-time, different-place. Due to the spread of the Internet, and the variety of available groupware solutions, the importance of time and place will disappear. Organizations will be able to fit any of a number of solution approaches to their own needs. In cases where schedule conflicts exist, intelligent agents will attend meetings and make decisions about the importance of matters, reporting these back to owners. Individuals will be able to attend meetings worldwide in three dimensional environments with full sensory feedback. And combined with other decision technology such as genetic algorithms and neural networks, systems will perform data mining in collaborative databases to provide the very best in the right information at the right time.

Internet References

Action Technologies                  http://www.actiontech.com/            

CC:Mail from Lotus                   http://www.ccmail.com/index.htm       

Connectix                            http://www.connectix.com/cgi-bin/conn 

Cool Decision Rooms from Ventana     http://www.ventana.com/html/cool_room 

CUSeeMe                              http://www.cuseeme.com/cu-seeme.html  

Domino from Lotus                    http://www2.lotus.com/domino.nsf?Open 

Eudora                               http://www.eudora.com/                

Exchange Server from Microsoft       http://www.microsoft.com/exchange/    

GroupSystems                         http://www.ventana.com                

Groupwise from Novell                http://www.novell.com/groupwise/      

Intranetware from Novell             http://www.novell.com/intranetware/   

iThink from High Performing Systems  http://www.hps-inc.com/               

Jetform Corp                         http://www.jetform.com/               

Livingworlds Standard                http://www.livingworlds.com           

McKinsey & Company Consulting        http://www.mckinsey.com/global/global 

Microsoft Mail                       http://www.microsoft.com/mail/        

Netmeeting from Microsoft            http://www.microsoft.com/netmeeting/  

Notes from Lotus                     http://www2.lotus.com/notes.nsf       

Onlive Corp                          http://www.onlive.com                 

PictureTel Corp                      http://www.picturetel.com/            

Powersim from Powersim Corp          http://www.powersim.com/              

ProcessModel from ProModel Corp      http://www.processmodel.com/          

ProShare from Intel                  http://www.intel.com/comm-net/proshar

QuestMap                             http://www.gdss.com                   

SimProcess from CACI                 http://www.caciasl.com/simprocess.htm 

TCBWorks from University of Georgia  http://www.uga.edu                    

Team Expert Choice                   http://www. ahp.net                   

Workflow Applications from Action    http://www.actiontech.com/metro/apps/ 

(c) April 1997 John H. Saunders, Ph. D. Permission granted for use in academic environments