Its appeal is obvious. Workers are able to use PCs in much the same way they would interact in the non-cyber world. As easily as using the telephone, they can connect to whomever they choose and pass information—text files, images and sound bytes—to anyone else who's tied in. Group-ware also can automate certain tasks and provide valuable links to mountains of data. And it offers remarkable reporting capabilities. A manager quickly can determine where an electronic document is in the system, and then approach an employee to find out why the document is still sitting on his or her desk.
But groupware—at least in its current version—offers only a limited form of workflow technology. Nevertheless, Cambridge, Massachusetts-based Lotus Development Corp. has managed to build a system that shows the power and efficiency of groupware in the HR setting. Every form used by human resources now is electronic instead of paper. A clerk may initiate a transaction, send it to a supervisor for approval, who can then pull up a file using a document link. Those who are out of the office can use their notebook PC to access E-mail—in which a list of current requests might be stored. "A piece of paper that previously had to go through a series of signature loops and could get stalled for a week or two now is processed in minutes or hours," says Kay Meckes, director of HR at Lotus.
The software giant has used the technology to improve other processes as well. It used to be that Lotus had no idea how many callers were dialing into HR or in which topics they were most interested. However, after setting up a Notes module that could track calls—human resources representatives simply type in a name or category on their PC and the system queries the data base to automatically populate much of the remaining data—it now knows what its strengths and deficiencies are. "We can see that if 40% of the calls are from people confused about the benefits program, we need to design better procedures and training," Meckes explains.
Employees use the same technology to update their employment records. From their own PCs—or even from hotels across the country—they can pull up a change-of-address form via E-mail. They simply type their name, and the system automatically fills in other data, including employee number, social security number, department and date of birth. Once the changes are made, the E-mail messages are returned to the data bases, where they're updated.
According to Meckes, groupware has made HR faster and far more professional. Without adding a single employee to the human resources payroll, the department has handled the addition of 700 new employees in the last year. That's in addition to the 3,500 that already were working at Lotus. The company, meanwhile, is feverishly at work on a new version of Notes that will embrace sophisticated software agents (see "New Technologies Provide Agents for Change") and full-blown workflow automation. Says Meckes: "The future of HR is wide open. Groupware technology is going to drastically change the way work gets done and the roles people play."
Personnel Journal, July 1994, Vol.73, No.7, p. 32J.