Informal Publications


Groupware / CoTechnology - 1                            W. Hugh Chatfield I.S.P.

Lets look at one of the technologies which can support groups of people working in virtual offices. I wrote a paper in Nov 1989 which took a look at the state of the art at that time. It was interesting that most of the material for the paper was obtained via on-line research, primarily computer conferences on the subject.

A popular name for this emerging technology at that time was 'Groupware'. This term was coined by Robert Johansen in his book "Groupware: Computer Support for Business Teams."

A simple definition might be:

Groupware: generic term for specialized computer/communication based aids for the use of collaborative work groups such as business teams"

Products on the market at that time carried such names as: EIES2, Participate, COSY, ForComment, OfficeWorks, Coordinator, Quilt, OfficeVision, PROFS, New Wave, Lotus Notes, etc. Lotus Notes was not even out in beta at that time. Since that time it has become one of the most successful groupware products on the market. Microsoft is releasing groupware technology, packaged as part of their operating systems. They call theirs Information Exchange.

During my on-line research I ran across one Harry Stevens who was using the interactive computer conferencing on "The Source" ( now merged with Compuserve) to write a book called SuperNetworking. Stevens extended the above definition to:

Groupware: Mult-media hardware and software designed for use by groups such as for co-authoring documents; also softer-than-software shared protocols for guiding group processes such as Robert's Rules of Order, rules for brainstorming, protocols for using group dialogue systems to develop discussion trees or considering multiple-choice issue questions, and procedures for organizing conferences, whether on a face-to-face basis or via computer and/or telecommunications.

Stevens also coins a new term - "CoTechnology" - which I really like.

CoTechnology is COmputer and COmmunication technology supporting human activities such as COordination, COllaboration, COoperation, COmpetiveness, COnflict management, etc.

(i.e. supports all those human CO words). A slightly more detailed definition is:

CoTechnology is any technology used by people jointly, especially if used by many or in a group; any hardware, software, groupware, or techniques the purposes of which are beneficial results for all participants; networking technology to support coordination, cooperation, collaboration, and conflict management especially within competitive companies and pre-competitive consortia that do basic research, organizing of export markets and training of regional workforces; a wide range of solo-to-group, group-to-group, solo-to-many, group-to-many, and many-to-many technologies, usually involving computers and sometimes multi-media telecommunications of text, graphics, images, video, audio, models, simulations, smart document objects, etc.

Notice that groupware is in this definition as a specialized form of h/w-s/w, and that CoTechnology is focussed more on what happens with this technology, more than the internals of the technology.

Also note the idea of competing companies working together. When you extend this idea to microBusiness, this type of technology becomes crucial. In this definition is the germ of the idea that got me exploring the idea of virtual office. I just 'downsize' or 'restructure' the idea from 'only for big corporate structures that can afford it" to individuals. What if the technology could be available to the ordinary person. If a sufficiently large body of people were to be brought together electronically - in a virtual corporation - could they form these consortia, could basic research be done, form up bodies of people to get a job done, then disband???

When I first started looking at this emerging technology, I gave a few talks on the subject. On one of my slides, where I looked at the future, I put a vision statement which occurred to me. Basically I looked way out into the future as to where I thought this technology could lead us.

Access to all human knowledge
(giving access to the collected knowledge base of all humans)
Access to all existing humans
(giving access to all living humans)

These concepts now seem to implemented via the World Wide Web which allows publishing of information, worldwide, by virtually any individual who has access to this technology; and by cellular and now the personal communications devices. Will it be less than 10 years until a majority of individuals have a "personal" electronic ID which allows others to contact them.

Officing - Bringing Amenity an Intelligence to Knowledge Work is a book published privately by Matshushita, which deals with concepts developed by a U.S. consultant Duncan B Sutherland.

There are more than a few thoughts in here which relate to my theme of a virtual office ( even though most of the concepts are developed for larger corporations).

To achieve corporate missions in the coming global, post-industrial society, the key issue is maximizing the potential of knowledge workers.

The concept of Officing calls for the integration of People, technology, and facilities for bringing amenity and intelligence to knowledge work.

Today more than ever before, a companies competitive advantage depends on its ability to leverage its intellectual resources.

Productivity improvement strategies which work well on the shop floor in factories don't always work well on the office floor, and can even be counter productive.

Sutherland thinks that companies generally try to solve the wrong problem by focusing on the productivity of individual office workers, when they should be looking at the concept of the office itself.

The reason that information technology - and new facility concepts, as well - have failed to live up to their fullest potential is almost embarrassingly simple: Increased productivity in the office depends almost entirely on leveraging the process of human information processing, rather than leveraging ( or replacing) human physical effort with machines - which is what happened on the farm and in the factory. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, managers are not trained as cognitive psychologists. As a result, they do not understand how the human mind works - how people think. As far as most managers are concerned, people represent 'black boxes' in the office productivity equation."

This is born out by the evidence that most companies in North America are busily "downsizing" and "restructuring", mostly without much concern for the individuals and the information they carry out the door in their heads.

Sutherland describes information as the 'intellectual product of human information processing.' The memos, letters, telephone messages, etc. that are usually associated with offices - are simply by-products or artifacts of human information processing.

The office is not just a white collar factory, but should be an extension of the individual human mind. "An individual's ability to create information , which must precede action, is dependent on knowledge - captured experience [recall my previous note access to all human knowledge / access to all human beings] that allows us to interpret data or facts about the world in the hope of using this increased understanding to re-shape the world to our ultimate advantage."

It is knowledge rather than information which is critical to a competitive edge in business. The key point is that while the purpose of the office is indeed to produce information ( in this sense the intellectual experience that reduces uncertainty), it is the ACTIONS that result from the creation of new information that are really the critical output of the process.

The key to achieving a sustainable competitive advantage lies not only in the creation of a common base of experience - a tight corporate culture - but in the continual creation and APPLICATION of new organizational knowledge.

Sutherland argues that current approaches to office planning focus on manipulating the artifacts of human information processing ( the memos, letters, telephone messages, diaries, schedules, etc. ) rather than creating systems for developing organizational knowledge.

Hence the challenge is this... [getting back to my original thesis] ... suppose the multiple microBusiness of the future had some sort of technical infrastructure such that they could 'work' together in a 'virtual corporation' ..... what could be put in place to aid in this 'creation of a tight corporate culture', and the 'continual creation and APPLICATION of this new organizational knowledge.