By Hawkins, Donald T.
Online , Vol. 19, No. 5
The world of online information retrieval continues to change. New software environments allow end-users to receive, analyze, store, and share information without venturing into the complex world of networks, arcane command-driven systems, or database structures. The Internet has burst on the scene and continues to grow at an explosive rate as new uses are found and more users get connected. Many think the Internet is the answer to their information retrieval needs, but it has significant difficulties--security may be lacking, navigation and finding information is difficult, and a knowledge of UNIX command structures may be required. Information retrieval, therefore, continues to be difficult for many end-users, and some may be doing without the information they need to make decisions and do their jobs.
End-users are not the only ones experiencing difficulties in the information industry. Information providers have long wished to sell their products and services directly to endusers. They have found it difficult to do so because of user-hostile interfaces, the need to be aware of and track a plethora of diverse databases, and lack of access to users' desktops.
A new genre of software, called groupware, shows considerable promise in solving the problems of information users and providers. Approximately four years ago, Lotus Development Corporation introduced its Notes software platform. Lotus Notes heralded the beginning of groupware, and since then, it has become the recognized market leader and a de facto groupware standard. Estimates indicate there are at least 500,000 Notes users today, and that Notes is responsible for more than 10 percent of Lotus' $981 million annual revenue stream (1). Notes usage is growing extremely rapidly. One indication of this growth is the increase in attendance from 3,000 at the 1994 Lotusphere conference, Lotus' annual event for Notes users, to 7,000 at the 1995 conference.
The primary use of groupware is collaboration--data and information sharing among communities of users. Using groupware, a community of geographically dispersed users can read, contribute to, or modify a database, and Notes keeps track of the changes through a process known as replication. If the user maintains a local copy of a database (on a laptop computer, for example), the local copy of the database can be updated by replicating changes made by that user or any other authorized user since the previous access. The entire database is not downloaded, thus saving the user a singnificant amount of time and possibly telecommunications costs. Not only does groupware cut costs but it significantly increases user productivity. Productivity increases of well over 100 percent have been reported by several research studies. (For an excellent nontechnical overview of how Notes works and how Notes applications are developed, see Lotus Notes at Work by DeJean and DeJean (2).)
Notes is used in a wide variety of business scenarios, such as tracking sales clients, delivering information to investment brokers, coordinating document reviews, improving work cycles, and shortening the sales process. The Boston Police Department even developed a Lotus Notes database of suspected gang members and used it to track their activities (3). Using their database, the Police Department was able to identify areas where increased police presence was necessary. They credited the use of Notes with helping to reduce violence on the city streets.
Groupware is also used in library and information centers to manage work flows, track user requests, and other tasks. Kristin Liberman and Jane Rich have described how Lotus uses Notes for these purposes in its own information center (4). Clearly, groupware, and Notes in particular, is used to enhance information sharing and meet very diverse business needs. Notes has achieved a remarkable penetration in the corporate marketplace, and leading companies in many industries have embraced it (some have bought licenses for tens of thousands of users! …