Insight No. 7

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Getting to Grips with Groupware  
No. 7

What Is It?




Groupware is the name given in the mid 1990s to collaborative technologies (computer conferencing, bulletin boards, discussion groups, instant messaging etc.) that gives strategic benefits to those who implement it - right? Wrong! On two counts.

  1. Groupware is not new. It has existed in various guises since computers first enabled different users to share data files. One commonly used form of groupware, computer conferencing, has been used by innovative organisations for more than a decade. What is new, though, is the way that groupware is now available on networked PCs, with Windows interfaces, through products such as First Class and Lotus Notes. Groupware is therefore more accessible and easier to use by non-IT professionals.

  2. Its potential benefits are only fully achieved through effective management processes. You can't just install a product like Lotus Notes and hope it changes the way you work.


Groupware is sometimes seen as a contraction of group working software. Essentially it is networked computer software that lets different people coordinate their work activities. Originally applied almost exclusively to computer conferencing (where users add their own 'conversational' notes to topics of shared interest), the term has been extended to apply to other areas like workflow software and desk-top videoconferencing. In this page our main focus will be on its original focus, since that is where we believe the greatest benefits lie for professionals and managers who tasks are less procedural and require more interaction and creativity.


Groupware helps to bring experts together quickly so they can pool their knowledge and, with the right guidance, work effectively. These are some of the areas in which groupware has generated significant benefits:

  • Collaborative Research - brings teams from different organisations and locations closer together for innovative research
  • Faster development of new products and services - soliciting inputs from users
  • More innovative products and services - closer dialogue between different functions and experts
  • Better matching products and services - ongoing dialogue with customers as to their use and needs
  • Better market planning - closer interaction between the creators and users of marketing programmes
  • Market development - clearer identification of target markets through shared interest groups
  • Improved customer service - access to information about common and unusual problems

Other more general benefits are:

  • Efficient problem solving
  • Accessing world-class experts, wherever they are located
  • Savings on meeting costs - travel and subsistence, meeting rooms
  • On-the-job management development

Groupware is especially useful for less structured work that requires high knowledge and skill input. It allows knowledge workers to work collaboratively in teams, over a network, irrespective of work location or time. A groupware system improves communication, helps the structuring of thinking, stores and retains information as it evolves, and acts as a meetings substitute.

Guidelines for Success
1. A Clear Business Need
Many groupware projects are started by technology enthusiasts. While such people are useful to help users through the technical hurdles, a project without an underlying business need, is doomed to ultimate failure or stagnation, once the enthusiast leaves.

2. A Problem or Situation where Collaborative Work helps
Different classes of problem are best solved in different ways. Groupware is most useful for those problems which need the participation of people with different backgrounds, skills and experiences to help solve.

3. Work activities that have appropriate characteristics
If work can naturally take place through meetings, who needs groupware? Most organisations, since research shows that many, if not most conventional meeting are ineffective. If meetings are difficult to convene, then asynchronous groupware really comes into its own. We have checklists that assess the potential of different types of groupware for different business needs, problems and work characteristics.

4. Attention to Organisational 'Culture' and the 'Politics of Information'
Many information related projects fail because they are introduced in a fashion that is not 'culturally compatible' with the organisation. We have questionnaires that identify culture and information styles, so that appropriate implementation plans are adopted.

5. Understanding of Social and Human Factors
Using groupware is a social as much as a business activity. The effective use of groupware needs active participation from many different people. Moderators have a key role to play. We have guidelines for setting up and moderating effective computer conferences.

6. A Participative Approach to Project Implementation
As with most other IT projects, user involvement throughout will overcome many potential pitfalls. We have workshop processes that encourage such participation.

7. Effective processes for information and communications management
The very nature of groupware encourages free flow of thinking and ideas, and does not constrain inputs to structured data-bases. This can lead to information growing like topsy turvey with no apparent structure.

Once implemented a very important role to ensure effective knowledge development in computer conferencing systems is that of moderator. This role is described more fully in Chapter 6 of Knowledge Neworking: Creating the Collaborative Enterprise. The are also case studies e.g. of Thomas Miller & Co. in Creating the Knowledge-based Business.

© Copyright. David J. Skyrme. 1995,1999. This material may be copied or distributed subject to the terms of our copyright conditions (no commercial gain; complete page copying etc.)


Groupware in the 21st Century, ed. Peter Lloyd, Adamantine (1994). More Details.

Globalwork: Bridging, Distance, Culture & Time, Mary O'Hara-Devereaux and Robert Johansen, Jossey-Bass (1994). More Details.

Transforming Organizations through Groupware: Lotus Notes in Action, eds. Peter Lloyd and Roger Whitehead, Springer (1996). More Details.

Web-Weaving: Intranets, extranets and strategic alliances, Peter Lloyd and Paula Boyle, Butterworth-Heinemann (1998). More Details.

Web Links:

Related Insights on these pages include No. 5 The Impact of IT on Organisations, No. 6 The Hybrid Manager, No. 10 Knowledge Networking or see full list.

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Management Insights are publications of David Skyrme Associates, who offers strategic consulting, presentations and workshops on many of these topics.

Additional coverage of these topics can be found in our free monthly briefing I3 UPDATE/ENTOVATION International News, various articles, publications and presentations.

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