Alacrity Ventures Logo  
HOMEPAGE - Alacrity Defined
About Alacrity Ventures
About Christopher Allen
About Gifford Pinchot
About Harold Shattuck
Contact Information for Alacrity Ventures
by Christopher Allen

From the Fall 1990 issue of Applied Groupware © 1995 Consensus Development -- All Rights Reserved.

It seems that whenever a group of people sit down together to talk about groupware there is an argument as to exactly what "groupware" means.

It has gotten to the point where some people believe that we should drop the term groupware and find a new term to more accurately describe it. I am not sure this is possible -- groupware seems to be one of those words that is powerful because it just "feels" right.

The computer press and marketeers have been defining groupware rather loosely. Any application that is networked and allows individuals to share data may fall into the category of "groupware". Yet even the press seems reluctant to label multiuser databases or electronic mail groupware.

In his book Groupware -- Computer Support for Business Teams, (1) Robert Johansen defines groupware as "specialized computer aids that are designed for the use of collaborative work groups." This definition is better than the "shared data" definition because it helps eliminate multiuser databases from the groupware category. Yet electronic mail fits this definition, as well as some other software sharing tools that experts are still debating.

A more useful definition also appears to be one of the oldest. Peter and Trudy Johnson-Lenz (2) are credited by many as coining the term groupware in 1978. They defined it as "intentional group processes plus software to support them." I like this definition for two reasons -- first, the word intentional implies conscious design, and the important distinction that group processes come before the software. This definition properly excludes multi-user databases and electronic mail that are not designed particularly to enhance the group process.

(As an interesting side note: The Coordinator, (3) an electronic mail package that uses conversational structuring falls into the groupware category using this definition, and other mail software does not.)

Yet twelve years later Peter and Trudy are still wrestling with the definition. In one of their latest research reports "Rhythms, Boundaries, and Containers" they are still clarifying their initial vision (see article in this issue.)

So why is there a disagreement? One part of the issue is due to "group" vs. "ware." Many regard "ware" as the base of their mental model of groupware, thus they emphasize the technological part. Others base their model in the "group" of groupware, thus placing emphasis on the group process.

Another problem is that different people perceive the term "group" with different shades of emotion. Many people find working in a group comforting, giving social pleasure as well as fulfilling the old expression "two heads are better than one." Others find working in a group to be a trial, full of competition, a source of struggle and limitations. Thus these two types of personalities have different goals regarding groupware -- one group wishes groupware to augment a social process, the other to insulate the individual from the problems created by working in groups.

Yet another conflict lies in the definition of "ware." Many strictly define this as meaning software, but as even Johansen said "the 'ware' needed is not simply hardware or even software; group process techniques are also very important." Is it possible to have groupware that is not software? Many people say yes.

There is also discussion about whether groupware is a noun or an adjective. Those that define it as a noun tend to believe that groupware is a category of software with differences from other types of software. Those who use it as an adjective classify groupware as one particular feature that any software could add, and thus draw a fuzzier line between what software is groupware and what is not.

So what is the answer? My answer is that groupware is all of the above, and a blend of the most useful aspects of these definitions.

Groupware is both software and group process. It can both enhance a group, and productively insulate members from the group. Group is as important as ware, and groupware is both a noun and an adjective.

I also have a second answer -- the precise definition of groupware is not important! What is important is that if you find yourself getting into an argument on the definition of groupware, try to find out where other party stands on group vs. ware, the group as a positive role vs. a negative role, noun vs. adjective, process vs. software. Then agree to disagree and get beyond the definition and go forward to the more important task -- creating groupware.

(1) Published in 1988 by The Free Press, A Division of MacMillan, Inc., $27.95. Robert Johansen is Director, New Technologies Program at The Institute from the Future, 2740 Sand Hill Road,Menlo Park, CA 94025-7079, (415) 854-6322

(2) Peter and Trudy are partners in Awakening Technologies, 695 Fifth Street, Lake Oswego, OR 97034, (503) 635-2615. A complete set of four of their "Research Reports" is available for $25.

(3) The Coordinator is published by Action Technologies, Inc. 1145 Atlantic Ave., Alameda, CA 94501, (415) 521-6190.



Copyright © 1999-2003, Alacrity Ventures. All rights reserved.