The 3 C’s of Groupware: Communication, Collaboration and Coordination

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In my last post I talked about Lotus Notes—how Notes was the first commercially available software application that positively improved the ways teams of people worked together. This new breed of business application was labeled “groupware.” Groupware emerged as computers and networks became universally available across organizations. Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Sales Automation (SFA) were the first front office applications made possible by groupware.

In business, people work in teams. Teams are designed to address mission critical processes like finance, production, or development. In the so-called “front office” (customer facing) the three core teams are marketing, sales, and service. CRM uses technology to create information across the core teams and to provide an infrastructure for using and sharing it. There’s no doubt that storing and sharing customer information is the central tenet of CRM— if the information is bad, or incomplete, the CRM initiative will fail.

Groupware has three technology pillars that support goals of CRM—these are the three Cs, communication, collaboration, and coordination. Specifically the technologies behind the Cs are (in order), messaging (e-mail), shared databases, and workflow automation. For the technically inclined, a really good discussion of all of this is here. Communication, collaboration, and coordination are intertwined, they depend on each other, and Lotus Notes incorporated the technology for all three straight out of the box. That’s why Notes was quickly adopted by big business (initially, the only ones who could afford it.)

E-mail is the messaging technology that enhances communication. No one would challenge that. It has become so pervasive in business that the proliferation of degraded or rubbish information has become a real challenge to manage. Because of this, e-mail alone is not effective for collecting, storing and utilizing information, but it works well as a carrier for information when augmented with other technologies. E-mail also is immune to differences in geography and time—vital for organizations that span countries, continents or the globe.

Collaboration in teams means working together to a plan to boost efficiencies and productivity. Like communication, collaboration should not be constrained by geography and time. Effective collaboration involves sharing information. The team has to know that data for getting the job done is available, current and updated, to everyone. The technology here is shared databases. Good examples of this are on-line forums or bulletin boards. In CRM, the principle-shared database is one of all the company’s interactions with the customer. Individual team members will perhaps only need parts of the database, or may wish to analytically slice and dice the information to get the knowledge they require. Usually many databases are needed spanning all aspects of the organization. Shared databases are for “pulling” information. E-mail “pushes” information.

Coordination, the third C, is about workflow, and workflow is about process. Process is a prescribed way of doing things and results from previous experience in getting things right (or getting things wrong.) In workflow a project is divided into chunks, which are divided across the team. As work is gradually completed it moves through the team step by step. Technology can be used as a “transporter” for the work to be done, and the “decider” that something has finished and must be moved to the next step. An example in sales would be the processing of a customer’s order from acknowledgment to fulfillment.

Communication, collaboration and coordination make up the essence of the CRM process. Note that the sales department is at the heart of this—I like to use the term sales-centric CRM, not only because my history is in sales, but I think sales is the front line interface to the customer.

The real fascination with Lotus Notes is that it has the three Cs baked in—an excellent e-mail system, a native database tailored to text based information, and an application builder to add workflow in and around the databases. The application builder in Lotus Notes is so simple that prototyping can be done on the fly.

The concepts of the three Cs are not peculiar to Notes. I think an understanding of communication, collaboration, and coordination are essential for designing business process in the front office. As they say, adopting a CRM system based on 3Cs thinking could involve extensive “change management” within an organization. Best to understand this, and be ready for it.

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