Groupware is a term that refers to technology designed to help people collaborate and includes a wide range of applications. Wikipedia defines three handy categories for groupware:
- Communication tools: Tools for sending messages and files, including email, webpublishing, wikis, filesharing, etc.
- Conferencing tools: e.g. video/audio conferencing, chat, forums, etc.
- Collaborative management tools: Tools for managing group activities, e.g. project management systems, workflow systems, information management systems, etc.
The best known groupware system is Lotus Notes.
If designed and implemented properly, groupware systems are very useful when it comes to supporting knowledge management (KM). They can greatly facilitate explicit knowledge sharing through publishing and communication tools. They can support the knowledge creation process with collaborative management tools - although this process is still very much about people interacting and experimenting. Finally, they have some limited benefit to tacit knowledge transfer by supporting socialization through tools like video conferencing and informal communication. Expert finders are also beneficial for facilitating the location of tacit sources of knowledge (i.e. the right expert).
Web 2.0, Enterprise 2.0, & KM 2.0
In recent years, the term web 2.0 has appeared to describe the increasingly popular tools that promote two way communication on the internet. These social tools include blogs, wikis, social bookmarking, commenting, shared workspaces, micro blogging and polling (Bebensee et al. 2010). They differ from traditional publishing in that they “put the knowledge sharing power in the hands of the users themselves” (Gurteen, 2012).
The web 2.0 tools that have been applied within organizations have been called enterprise 2.0 (Bebensee et al., 2010), and even more recently, the mapping of these principles to KM has been dubbed KM 2.0 (Gurteen, 2012).
It is fair to say that KM 2.0 is very much in its early stages. For this reason, I will discuss it separately from the very general groupware subsections below.
The value of KM 2.0: According to Cronk (2011, p. 84), web 2.0 tools “facilitate the development of social capital through knowledge sharing, which in turn increases the potential to create intellectual capital.” The author defines social capital as the total resources existing across social networks. Wright et al. (2010) find that the adoption of social media is not being championed by KM to the extent that one might expect, representing a missed opportunity.
Limitations of KM 2.0: Enterprise & KM 2.0 systems can suffer from the same failure factors as other KMS (more on this in the sections below). A failure example is presented by Garcia-Perez & Ayres (2009), who outlined the failure of an enterprise wiki. The study found that time needed to access & contribute to the wiki as well as the achievement of critical mass (i.e. having an adequate ratio of contributors) were failure factors. Furthermore, the authors warn that just because when asked employees claim that they will share knowledge, that does not actually mean they will do so when the system is implemented.
Considerations for Groupware Acquisition/Design
When acquiring or developing groupware it is important to establish the functions that best match the organization's needs (further considerations for IT implementation can be found in the knowledge management system subsection). Remember, these are not solutions, they are at most enablers of KM.
Determine the processes that take place in the organization as well as how knowledge is currently stored and distributed, and establish how certain functions would improve them. Focus on the informal - both in terms of communication as well as the organizational networks and communities - so as to enhance rather than stifle creativity and innovation, and to increase the probability of acceptance.
Cheah (2007) points to the fact that many off the shelf groupware solutions could be greatly improved. For instance, email clients are designed in such a way so as to focus on the current email, but generally have limited functions for drawing knowledge and information from past mails. Document management systems also can be limited in their ability to extract knowledge from old documents. In both cases he suggests improved utilization of user-input metadata (including keywords that are weighed by importance) and categorization mechanisms, which would allow for effective knowledge mining in the future.
The point I am making by including this is that all groupware is not equal, and one should consider the functions from the perspective of long-term knowledge reuse (when applicable). For this to be possible, the intermediary knowledge packaging/sanitizing/categorizing process must be done in light of future expectations and requirements.
Groupware Implementation Issues
Groupware implies that workers are willing and able to work together and to share their knowledge. Implementation of groupware systems have had numerous failures. These have been attributed to:
"lack of top executive support, the proliferation of incompatible collaborative tools, installation of inadequate tools, end-user confusion, and existing work practices that are designed around individual rather than collaborative work" (Jones 2005 in Janson et al 2008).
Janson et al (2008) highlight that the success of groupware implementation hinges on the success that the organization has had in developing a culture where collaboration and sharing are the norm. Without that, there is no incentive to use the systems to their full potential.
The issue of standardization should also be considered. Will the systems be used in the same way and with the same rules throughout the organization? This should not be enforced if it may lead to a lack of acceptance and/or if it is not practically feasible.
Selection of the groupware systems should be influenced by the users or in the very least be carried out by someone who is knowledgeable in both the functions of the system and the work practices of the users. Too often, this is not the case, and the decision is made at the top levels of the organization, by individuals who hardly ever operate the system (Grudin 2003 in Janson 2008).
Consider also how the chosen tools relate to one another, and if one should invest in an integrated solution. For instance, an integrated groupware system composed of many complementary modules may be easier on the user since it implies getting accustomed to one brand. The same systems manufactured by different companies could be far harder to learn. At the same time, they may not offer as many features individually, and this too must be carefully balanced against the firm's specific needs.