Hard Questions about Lotus Notes


[Sidebar]: Integration at a Glance
[Chart]: Groupware vs. operational systems

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.
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 isn't routine.

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 up.

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 adopters.

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 promotions.

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."

Technical Hurdles

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," Dempsey says.

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 and vendors.

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," he laments.

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 processes.

* Bill Roberts is a free-lance writer based in Los Altos, CA. He can be reached at wcrober@aol.com.