Although the benefits are clear, it's often difficult or even impossible to get people to share information freely. "People just won't do it," says Eric Brown, a senior analyst with Forrester Research Inc. in Cambridge, Mass. It's not just a problem with Internet-style groupware, either. Even Lotus Notes, the Cadillac of groupware systems, rarely produces the types of knowledge transfer that companies deploying it hope for, says Brown. Why? Lip service notwithstanding, corporate power structures tend to reward hoarding rather than sharing information.
There's no simple answer to this problem. One key strategy that can help is proper scoping of intranet newsgroups (see Figure 1). Members of a project team will feel awkward airing departmental business in company-wide forums, and much of that stuff would be inappropriate for the wider audience. So it's crucial to build discussion environments that match up with the org chart.
It's also important to respect everyone's technology preferences. Not everyone likes the "pull" aspect of newsgroups; some prefer the "push" of email. So Subbarao's team set up bidirectional gateways between mailing lists and newsgroups.
Another key strategy is based on the idea of enlightened self interest. Why should I bother to put a document into a central repository? If I develop this habit I'll make my company a bit more competitive in the long run, but this doesn't feel like a concrete benefit to me. More compelling, perhaps, is the fact that I can later find the document myself, using my road PC, my office PC, or my home PC. Intranet newsgroups can be effective repositories for the flurry of routine documents that otherwise end up scattered across multiple mailboxes and hard-disk directories.
Although newsgroup technology predates the Web, it hasn't penetrated intranets to nearly the degree Web technology has. Some people think emerging standards, notably WebDAV (Web distributed authoring and versioning), will supersede NNTP as the dominant mode of Internet-based document sharing. Maybe so. But at the moment there are few WebDAV tools available; meanwhile there's an NNTP client on every intranet desktop, and many free or inexpensive NNTP servers exist. Internet-style groupware is easy to implement on the intranet, and it can pay rich dividends. Of course, as is true of all things, you get out of it what you put into it. IJ
About the author:
Jon Udell was BYTE Magazine's executive editor for new media, the architect of www.byte.com, and author of BYTE's Web Project column. He is the author of Practical Internet Groupware, forthcoming from O'Reilly and Associates. His home page is http://udell.roninhouse.com/.
On the intranet, project teams can collaborate mostly in designated private forums. Issues raised there can when necessary float up to the company-wide level. Likewise, issues raised at the company-wide level sometimes need to move down into departmental forums. At the intranet/extranet boundary, project teams can confer with business partners or customers. An example of the former: a project team coordinates its work with outside consultants and contractors. An example of the latter: a project team conducts a virtual focus group with invited customers.
The same news/mail client used for these modes of collaboration also, of course, works for Internet-based collaborations. Members of a project team can join communities of developers at corporate sites such as netscape.com and microsoft.com, and also on the Usenet.