Will collaborative tools transform corporate productivity?

Written by David Tebbutt, MacUser 05/92 item 01 - scanned

Companies have been buying computers for years in the belief that they help business productivity. The huge personal computer boom was fuelled by this erroneous view. The end result, according to a number of recent reports, has been that corporate productivity has either fallen or risen very slightly. It certainly hasn't risen enough to justify the huge amounts of money spent on the exercise.

Individually, we have used computers to achieve higher-quality results. We churn out beautiful documents containing charts, tables, pictures and all the other things we couldn't do before. And here lies the problem. Computers have helped us at a personal level, but from the point of view of most companies, a report is still a report.

And it's going to get worse. Imagine the scope for honing and polishing when desktop video arrives. It'll turn us all into part-time actors, and it won't improve net corporate productivity one jot.

Still, that's all in the future. Right now, we're probably more concerned with moving from a world in which computers are principally used on their own or as participants in small networks. The 1990s are going to see a huge boom in networking as these computing islands are connected with each other and into the wider world of the company and the world at large. Suddenly, the potential will exist for true improvements in corporate as well as individual productivity.

The individual will gain from instant access to a world of information, whether from the company, from colleagues or from public data providers. We will, at a price, be able to lay our hands on information as we need it. We will even be able to brief electronic agents within our computers to go and find the information while we get on with something else.

More importantly, we will be able to work collaboratively with exactly the right colleagues for any given task - unlike physical work groups, where people need to come together for meetings or to share an office, computerised workgroups can form and dissolve according to the needs of the project. It really doesn't matter where they work it could be in an office, at home, in a different country, or in a different time zone.

Documents can be exchanged between individuals, authenticated and encrypted, if necessary. Electronic mail can flow around the groups and, by arrangement, people will be able to work on the same documents at the same time, each seeing the changes the others are making. None of this is very complicated technically. It is a question of having the right transmission mechanisms and a suitable set of data protocols, so that different hardware, applications and operating systems can be used in any combination. This is all happening now.

Such an approach to work could save companies a fortune, providing they go into it with their eyes open and realise that unlimited information sharing would be counterproductive. If you're the boss of a company and you've just made an unpopular decision, the last thing you want is 500 pieces of abusive electronic mail the next morning. This is where the agents will come in again. You can train an agent to filter your mail and file it under different classifications.

I've heard that a future Apple notebook will have a wireless communication capability. As soon as more than one is in the same room, they'll automatically form a network. This is all very well, but meetings need more than that. They'll need software which can take the inputs of individuals and make them available to the whole group.

One of the simplest approaches is that taken by Option Technologies, which leases a system comprising a number of simple handsets, a central computer and an overhead projection system. The meeting moderator prepares a series of questions which the group responds to by pressing a number on the keypad. When all the inputs have been received, they are displayed on an x-y grid so that the individuals in the group can see where their opinions lie.

Agreement and dissent is easily identified and dealt with. The good thing about this approach is that everyone gets an equal say, from the quietest to the most vociferous. Consensus is reached more rapidly and time spent in meetings is reduced dramatically. It is easy to see this activity taking place over networks when all the participants can get on-line at the same time.

For me, collaborative computing is one of the most exciting developments in computer technology. It is one which really does stand a chance of improving corporate productivity, while at the same time reducing individual frustration.