Groupware Has It Wrong

Do we need groupware? Perhaps the question is, “Why do we need groupware?”

The primary groupware business assumptions are that people need it and that they would be willing to integrate another piece of software into their individual workflows. Let’s look at an assumption along with a possible user persona and scenario:

Groupware assumes people will add software to their workflow.

CommunicationJoe Media has a killer to-do list app that he uses. It’s sort of like Evernote, but it integrates actionable, time-based items that trigger force feedback on his iPhone when he marks them as ‘Done,’ a sensation he now equates with the taste of the best raw oyster he ever had. Joe is not giving up that app. The app also sends e-mail reminders. Joe uses Outlook at work, albeit a bit reluctantly, since he’s no big fan of Microsoft, but he considers it a necessary evil in his workplace, particularly since his organization does business with other businesses who also tend to use Outlook. Scheduling meetings is just much easier that way with people trading meeting invites. They’re not ditching Outlook any time soon.

Joe’s early-adopter-to-a-fault I.T. buddy at work keeps pushing for some kind of group collaboration project management Kanban-style social media-integrated tool to assist their team with meeting deadlines. They tried Yammer for about three minutes once because his friend heard they were well funded, after a customer mentioned that it would be really cool if he could he could chat with other meeting attendees in advance to arrange things like hikes, bike rides, lunches. That was eight months ago. There was no traction.

Joe and the I.T guy constantly bemoan everyone else’s inability to stick to processes, many of which don’t exist in any documented fashion but should, in their eyes, be “Common Sense.” Their big pain point is in communicating deadlines.

People Already Have Collaboration Apps

We all have e-mail, though by default e-mail is far from ideal for project management. For instant communication, the telephone used to be ideal, but phone calls are time consuming and, thanks to the variety of tools available now, the telephone is all but history. Social media services are tribal in nature, thus there tend to be rabid followers for Facebook, Twitter and Google+ (which is decidedly NOT a ghost town, you naysayers), though rarely the twain shall meet. Regardless of the lack of intersection, the messaging infrastructure is already built many times over, but e-mail is the common thread.

Adjusting e-mail to accommodate project management methodologies has been discussed for years, with add-ons developed for Outlook catering to fans of GTD and the like. I’ve been using the free version of ActiveInbox for Gmail. There is a lot of potential there.

The idea is to migrate the important data out of individual e-mails into actionable items with visual cues, calendar integration, and customizable reminders.

E-Mail Is Intensely Personal

Content of e-mail can certainly be personal, not to mention incriminating, but e-mail itself has been woven into the fabric of our society, regardless of the rich ecosystems of apps that have been developed around mobile devices. E-mail is ubiquitous. E-mail is a noun and a verb. People use e-mail for project management whether or not they admit it. It may not be the primary tool for more evolved organizations, but it is highly integrated into processes nonetheless. It cannot be avoided, as everyone else uses it. The popularity of such systems as Getting Things Done is a testament to people’s need for something more, but perhaps a replacement for e-mail is not what we’re all asking for.

Successful collaboration software needs to integrate with existing e-mail along with other popular time management methodologies. It needs to be familiar, with a virtually nonexistent learning curve.

Groupware should not be just another app.


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