Internet groupware can give you competitive advantage
Web Informant #178, 1 December 1999
[Ed. Note: The following is an excerpt from Jon Udell's new
book, Practical Internet Groupware, from O'Reilly
and Associates. Jon was BYTE Magazine's executive editor for new media and the architect of BYTE.com. He's now an independent Web/Internet consultant.]
We'll always remember Netscape's browser as the engine that propelled the World Wide Web to the forefront of public awareness, and became the first truly universal software client. But Netscape had a more ambitious agenda -- to assemble a suite of applications including a Web browser, e-mail reader, and newsreader together. In Communicator and its clones, the idea was to integrate a bunch of Internet protocols and applications into a common framework. Eventually the boundaries would blur, and the tools we'd use to produce and consume documents and applications would be
the same ones we'd use to communicate with individuals and groups.
Unfortunately, this marriage of the Web and messaging components, which was promised in the 4.x browsers, is still not yet consummated. But the browser suites do pack more of a groupware punch than most people realize, especially when it comes to their implementations of Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) conferencing. NNTP is a powerful and accessible way for groups to create, share, find, and discuss rich hypertextual documents. Given that NNTP clients are part of both Netscape and Microsoft browser suites these days, this means almost everyone has a way to:
- Compose and display HTML messages
- Automatically encode and decode binary attachments
- Communicate securely over secure Web connections
- Authenticate their communications using client certificates (digital IDs)
- Exploit powerful synergies between e-mail and newsgroups
These capabilities make NNTP conferencing a killer application for knowledge exchange on the intranet. Why don't more companies use it that way? One reason is that they fail to distinguish the Usenet, which is a worldwide network of replicating NNTP servers, from NNTP, which is the groupware technology that supports the Usenet but that can also be deployed on intranets in ways wholly unrelated to the Usenet.
Discussion is the essential groupware application, distinct from e-mail and complementary to it. If you haven't yet enabled this mode of communication in your company, I urge you to do so now. Do it in the fastest, cheapest, most expedient way. The right answer for you might prove to be a so-called proprietary solution, such as Notes, Exchange, or FirstClass. Or it might be an open Internet-style solution based on NNTP or Web conferencing. Either way, what ultimately matters is that you empower your people to collaborate this way, not what flavor of software supports the collaboration.
Conferencing matters because so much of what we collectively
know is recorded in the messages that we write, and because e-mail-only environments force group communication into unnecessarily narrow channels. We abuse e-mail when we try to make it into a conferencing tool. True conferencing restores e-mail to its realm of appropriate use and moves group
communication into more public spaces where it can best flourish. Use it to support and energize a Website, and enable your company to connect online with customers and partners. Use it on your intranet to help networked teams collaborate effectively.
When you ask industry analysts why groupware systems fail to
reach critical mass, they usually point out -- correctly -- that there's a kind of "tragedy of the commons" dilemma at work. Everybody benefits from the ability to tap into a store of pooled knowledge. But contributors aren't rewarded. "Free riders" who never contribute enjoy an equal benefit, so where's the incentive to add to the pool of knowledge?
To push intranet collaboration over its activation threshold,
realize that a conferencing system is just a central repository of semi-structured information. When that
repository delivers valuable services, such as anywhere, anytime navigation and search, it's simply a better file system, one that meets the requirements of individuals as well as of groups. If you know you'll have "anywhere, anytime" access to a document, you're more likely to take the trouble to put it someplace where other people can find it too. Appeals to enlightened self-interest work better than appeals to the common good.
There's no magic-bullet solution, though. Critical mass is very hard to achieve. Many companies and workgroups, frankly, won't get there. But your company or workgroup might, and if you succeed, you'll enjoy a huge competitive advantage.
Copyright © 1999, 2000 media.org.
Web Informant copyright 1999 by David Strom, Inc., reprinted by permission
Web Informant is ® registered trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
ISSN #1524-6353 registered with U.S. Library of Congress.