Hard Questions about Lotus Notes
BY BILL ROBERTS
Imagine that one day your boss, the CIO, asks key IS staffers to attend
a meeting with him, the sales manager, and the sales manager's boss. Or
maybe you are the IS boss, and your boss, the COO, wants to talk to you
and the sales manager. There's a boldness in his voice that suggests this
Notes sometimes is touted as all things to all users. But it isn't, and
potential adopters ought to sort fluff from fact before going ahead.
They say they want your input on a decision that will have a wide impact.
They say two little words: "Lotus Notes." Yes, the hot-shot sales
manager has decided his sales force needs Notes, and you know this meeting
is pro forma. They've already made up their minds. They want Notes, and
they want you to install and manage it.
In the real world this often is how Notes adoption decisions get made--for
business reasons, not technical ones. Unless the IS staff already has a
strong partnering relationship with business-side clients, it won't have
much say in the process. Implemented properly, Notes can solve many business
problems (including some that IS faces) that haven't yielded to other technologies,
but no implementation can be successful without hearty IS support.
Managing a Notes enterprise with thousands of users demands the same level
of professionalism that a mainframe requires (though different skills, of
course). "Notes is one of the first pieces of PC software built to
large-scale systems and thinking," says Ken Norland, a partner at the
Westlake Village, CA, office of consultants Ernst & Young, who has assisted
hundreds of Notes adopters. "It needs to be managed that way."
Consultants, integrators, developers, and users provide ample evidence that
Notes can automate many business processes. But it can also create organizational
and technical problems. If the IS staff has any sway, make sure your enterprise
doesn't start down this path unless it asks tough questions about those
business processes, antes up the proper resources, and undertakes rigorous
technology planning. Then fasten your seat belts; you're in for a bumpy
but potentially rewarding ride.
What is Notes?
Notes defies easy definition, which is enough of a reason to be wary. It
sounds like the multipurpose cutlery advertised on late-night television,
only this combines e-mail, a database, a network, and a development platform.
Notes is all of those and none of them. It is a single groupware platform
in a client/server environment that works on multiple desktop and network
operating systems. It helps you to communicate with colleagues, collaborate
in teams (share ideas, documents, and discussions), and coordinate business
processes through customized applications. What sets it apart is that it
replicates any changes onto every other computer throughout the system,
no matter where it is.
A nonprofit health organization uses Notes to match donated organs with
people who need them. A food manufacturer collects, distributes, searches,
and maintains market research information with it, including weekly updates
on what customers are taking from grocery shelves. A human resources consulting
firm uses it as a sales and marketing information system and as an electronic
library of products and resources available to its consultants. An investment
fund management firm keeps track of potential and current investments with
it, including daily reports from 50 analysts in the field. In all, more
than 7,000 enterprises with more than 3 million users are putting Notes
to various uses.
It can benefit the IS staff, too. Help desks can be automated, as can project
tracking, documentation, and review processes. Developers in different locations
can use it to swap ideas, solutions, and bug fixes.
Yet it's also important to know what Notes is not good for: on-line transaction
processing with volume data, such as general accounting or airline reservations.
And it isn't a relational database; you can't simply assign a database programmer
to work on it.
Do You Need It?
This is the make-or-break question. Ken Wachs, manager of application development
at USConnect Philadelphia, a network integration, training, and consulting
firm, lists some needs that Notes can fill. "If you're talking about
text-rich documents, spreadsheets, and full-text searching, Notes is a good
candidate. If you need applications in which data has to be migrated long
distances over phone lines on a periodic basis and modified in both places,
it's a great choice. If your company is moving toward a decentralized data
model, Notes is appropriate because people everywhere get access to it,
modify it, and know that it will be replicated on all other servers."
Experts urge potential adopters to start their quest for answers with their
own business. "The most appropriate business problems for Lotus Notes
are the messy things that heretofore had no technology solutions,"
says Carol Anne Ogdin, founder of Deep Woods Technology in Santa Clara,
CA, which helps adopters adjust to the organizational changes Notes brings.
She cites three examples: harnessing the native intelligence of the entire
company; creating a community of people who are collaborating on a larger
goal than just their personal jobs; and dealing with all those post-it notes,
hard-copy memos, and e-mail and voice mail messages that are not being followed
One of the easiest Notes apps to build handles user complaints about too
much e-mail. It can turn many internal e-mails into a database where workers
can go to read when and if they need to. On the other hand, Ogdin cautions
that without proper user training, the much-touted Notes discussion database
can be abused. "There's a tendency to just put up a discussion database
and expect magic to happen. It doesn't," she says.
(Some organizations are considering the World-Wide Web as a groupware alternative.
For comparisons of Notes with the Web, see "Information Technology
Demystified" on page 48 and "Dealing with Client/Server"
on page 50.)
When Cultures Clash
Far from providing an instant solution to multiple problems, an effective
Notes implementation demands that users change how they work. This merely
hints at the most profound problem adopters must expect. "The biggest
frustration is the cultural change issue," says George Proudfoot, a
director at J. Frank Consulting in Palo Alto, CA, who has worked with Notes
Any groupware distributes information far and wide, potentially connecting
an entire work force. Departmental staff can communicate directly with executives
and vice versa. But that can threaten some people, especially middle managers
who function as human gateways between workers and executives.
For successful Notes implementation, a company must develop a collaborative
attitude and inculcate the groupware habit. But this is not the dominant
paradigm in corporate America. To some, the collaborative attitude seems
at odds with the concept of "individual contributor." To get the
most from Notes, workers must think and act in terms of working with others,
instead of by individual efforts. This change has enormous implications
for everything from hierarchical structure to pay, incentive programs, and
Because Notes could significantly change an organization in these ways,
it's imperative that a decision to use it be taken at the highest possible
levels, by divisional or even corporate leaders. For example, Norland of
Ernst & Young says that using executives as pilot project subjects is
an ideal way to win their commitment. "Somebody said that Lotus Notes
is more sociology than technology," says Proudfoot. "To use it
effectively, people have to change the way they work."
Beyond the personnel question, Notes raises technical challenges that will
test the mettle of IS. "It is difficult to install, difficult to manage,
and requires a big up-front investment," says Tim Dempsey, director
of marketing for Notes in Cambridge, MA. "It's hard to find good people
to work on it, and difficult to develop in it and integrate it with other
e-mail systems. Some people grow impatient with it before they realize the
real gains." He claims that the new version 4, scheduled to ship before
the end of 1995, addresses many of these problems.
Adopting Notes has ramifications for the IT infrastructure, including network
protocols, server and workstation configurations, memory requirements, and
processor speeds (as outlined in "Notes Technical Checklist").
The initial stumbling block is that Notes is different from other systems.
It's not a database, nor a network, nor an e-mail product. A combination
of all of these, it presents sophisticated challenges.
For instance, you'll need a Notes administrator to handle it, but that job
is easier to identify than fill. There aren't many trained experts, and
the ones who exist already have good jobs. So be prepared to search long
and pay dearly.
Notes' administrative overhead is daunting. Often it takes time to dig through
the maze and uncover a problem. Security is good but not always intuitive.
Granting proper access across the system can be time-consuming; even updating
the system because someone's name changes is tedious. As Notes spreads through
an enterprise, it will reside on multiple servers with hundreds of users.
Simply adding addresses and access is a lot of work.
The key is to build a core of solid administrators. Successful adopters
almost always rent or hire experts--usually expensive--to mentor the IS
staffers who are going to keep the system running. "If you just send
someone to class, it'll take a long time to get going," says Proudfoot.
"If you just hand it to an outside expert, you'll get it up quickly
but no one in-house will have the expertise. The middle road takes longer,
but it's worth it."
Developing for Notes is difficult. It lacks a real programming language
(it doesn't support loops, for example). Applications are built with a macro
language that Lotus carried over from 1-2-3. Simple apps aren't a problem,
but they seduce developers into thinking that more complicated ones will
be easy, which they aren't.
In version 4, Lotus is introducing a cross-platform, object-oriented language--LotusScript
3.0--based on Visual Basic. In fact, the next version promises many new
features and functions that should make managing Notes easier. Among them
are field-level replication so only the fields that have changed are replicated
across Notes servers and clients, not the entire document; intuitive administration
tools that provide centralized management across an enterprise, which should
reduce training costs and the number of administrators needed; and automated
user administration for renaming, deleting, and changing access for users,
which should reduce the time and frustration of keeping address books up
to date. "The objective was to lower the expertise bar so you don't
have to have days and days of training and a load of certification,"
A New Lease
Culture change, technical problems, untested promises in a new version--why
bother? Jack Weir, director of data systems for Pacific Telesis Group, says,
"Notes and tools like Notes make it possible for an individual or group
to change their processes."
The telecom holding company rolled out Notes earlier this year as part of
an infrastructure upgrade. PacTel headquarters in downtown San Francisco,
with a staff of 500, was rewired with an FDDI backbone. New features and
functions include a standard e-mail system (Lotus cc:Mail), remote access,
Internet access, desktop faxing, ISDN, and color printing on the network.
By the time the infrastructure was complete, 100 employees outside the building
had to be included, so the company is extending the WAN over an ISDN line.
Weir anticipates that the infrastructure and Notes eventually will be extended
to all PacTel business units and their 50,000 employees and to many clients
PacTel began planning changes in 1993, realized Notes as a possibility by
the summer of 1994, declared the infrastructure done in December 1994, and
started working seriously with Notes last spring. PacTel uses several Notes
apps, including an on-line employee database to replace often-outdated paper
directories. There's one that automates the press release approval process
and one for the finance department that automates the compilation and circulation
of monthly financial reviews for top executives and board members, including
remote users. In the past, distributing the paper-based package took several
hours by courier; now it's instantaneous.
Weir's shop worked with a Notes integrator but also identified three consulting
firms to call on for solutions. He urges adopters not to leave themselves
dependent on a single integrator. Weir says his software pros took to Notes
with relative ease. The IS help desk pilot-tested Notes, so many in-house
developers began using it early. Weir estimates that 60 to 70 percent of
complicated development is done or assisted by outside pros.
He identifies several challenges. Notes' look-and-feel is not identical
to that of Windows, so people need time to adjust. Licenses and training
are expensive. Notes has fed the demand for more groupware apps and for
an even more robust client/server infrastructure, which an organization's
budget may not be able to accommodate. PacTel lacked desktop or network
standards, which created headaches they are only now trying to remedy. Yet,
as regards culture change, Weir says, "Notes can facilitate that, and
it won't impede it."
A Notes Invasion
As much as Jerry Brown, manager of distributed computing at disk drive maker
Seagate Technology in Scotts Valley, CA, likes Notes, he wishes he could
have avoided it. He admits that Notes' innate complications were exacerbated
by the way his group rolled out its implementation. "You ideally would
not do it this way," he says.
Notes crept into Seagate through the back door four years ago. Engineers
in the company's Minneapolis design center were unhappy with mainframe e-mail
and liked Notes' workgroup features. Despite central IS's efforts to keep
Notes out of the enterprise, the engineers adopted it and supported it themselves.
The next couple of years were like guerrilla warfare, says Brown. Notes
spread to design engineer groups in three other cities, then to marketing
groups, then to quality reliability groups. The need to share ISO 9000 (quality
assurance standard) information was a driving force, Brown says, but "it
was organized anarchy. There was no emphasis on security or robust routing
or architecture." About a year ago, with Notes resident on 1,000 nodes,
IS assumed responsibility for it.
Problems were numerous. Integrating Notes and two existing e-mail platforms
(cc:Mail and DEC's All-in-One for the mainframe) has taken nearly a year
but is almost complete. Still, Brown says, "There are constantly annoying
low-grade problems from running three e-mail systems over three gateways."
Internal mail routing issues are complicated by Seagate's Notes users in
Asia. On the fiber link, things move smoothly, he says. But when it breaks,
as it recently did in Japan, the system shifts to satellite. "Even
though we have the same nominal bandwidth, it takes twice as long via satellite.
Most things are packet-based, and it also takes twice as long to get the
acknowledgment. Notes doesn't deal with that well when it has large amounts
of mail or mail with large attachments. It takes a lot of hand-feeding to
keep that mail flowing."
Other problems were the proliferation of more than a hundred Notes servers
and a range of expertise among administrators. "We're pretty shorthanded,"
says Brown. There's only a single enterprise-level Notes administrator.
He has budget authority to add someone but is having a tough time finding
the right person. There's a wide variation in skill at the workgroup level.
"It's really difficult to find top-notch people who know Notes well,"
Despite these troubles, there are 7,500 nodes on Notes, and 600 to 700 are
added each month. Seagate is beefing up resources, standardizing servers
(they still have many 486 clones and older PCs), formalizing procedures
across the enterprise (using Notes to manage Notes), and holding monthly
video conferences with administrators. Brown sees the rollout of the news
version, probably next year, as the opportunity to get everyone on the same
page. "That's a big step," he sighs.
Is There a Choice?
Notes clearly is not for the faint of heart. But then neither is business
these days. "One of the things management is discovering is that the
easy problems are all solved," says Ogdin of Deep Woods Technology.
"Now the problems get tougher. We need collaborative teams to work
on accounts together. One person can't launch a new product. So how do you
get people to work as teams?"
How indeed? Notes places heavy demands on infrastructure and forces IS staff
to stretch. It has technical limitations and might shake up your culture
in ways you never imaged. But at a time when more corporations and their
leaders recognize that survival demands flexibility and teamwork, Notes
currently is almost the only game in town for linking people, places, and
* Bill Roberts is a free-lance writer based in Los Altos,
CA. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.