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Practical Internet Groupware by Jon Udell

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The Conferencing Dimension

Is there a middle ground between the flood of email and the drought of structured groupware systems? Yes. That middle ground is conferencing, a term that is unfortunately so overloaded that it’s crucial to explain, for the purposes of this book, what conferencing is and is not. Here are some examples of what I mean by conferencing:

  • A Usenet or private newsgroup, accessed by way of an Network News Transfer Protocol (NNTP) newsreader

  • A Lotus Notes discussion database, accessed directly using the Notes client or indirectly through a Domino server by way of a web browser

  • A Microsoft Exchange public folder, accessed using the Exchange client

  • An Internet Message Access Protocol (IMAP) public folder, accessed using an IMAP email client

  • A web-based discussion system, accessed using a web browser

These modes of conferencing share the following characteristics:

  • Documents accumulate in a central data store visible to all participants.

  • The primary medium of discussion is written text.

  • Discussion is typically threaded, exhibiting a treelike structure of statements and responses.

  • Text messages may be augmented with binary attachments—spreadsheets, programs, images.

  • Participation is asynchronous. I might post a message at noon today; you might read it at midnight; you might then reply at noon tomorrow.

  • The stored documents can be scanned along key dimensions: date, author, subject.

  • The entire transcript can, ideally, be searched.

Now here are some examples of what I do not mean by conferencing:

Chat

In this mode, participants exchange written messages in real time. It’s a popular social pastime. In business settings, it can provide a useful communications backchannel. The O’Reilly software support team, for example, keeps an internal chat line going so that support staffers can confer that way with one another without having to put telephone callers on hold. Chat can support file transfer and can produce a searchable transcript.

A telephone audioconference

The audioconference is an indispensable business tool. However, it doesn’t produce a written transcript, it doesn’t provide a medium for file transfer, and it doesn’t work asynchronously.

A videoconference

Most of us lack the facilities to use videoconferencing effectively. When we can, it typically does support file transfer and a very powerful mode called application sharing, in which participants can remotely view and even operate software applications. The business benefit of videoconferencing varies dramatically, depending on the quality of the system and of the network that supports it. Videoconferencing produces no written transcript and doesn’t work asynchronously.

Conferencing, as I define it, is email’s unknown or misunderstood cousin. Like email, it is a medium for the exchange of written texts with attachments; like email, it works asynchronously. Unlike email, conferencing creates and uses a central data store. What about email archives and IMAP public folders? It’s true that, in these cases, email can read and write a central data store. But then, I argue, it’s acting more like a conferencing system than like email.

It’s crucial to separate the two roles. Much of the email abuse that plagues us results from our desire to realize the benefits of conferencing. When we lack a true conferencing system—as most companies do—we seize upon the nearest thing at hand, namely email. So there are two compelling reasons to deploy and use conferencing. First, we require its intrinsic benefits. Second, we need to return email to its domain of competence.

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