Collaborative computing.by Raatz, Stan
Networking is in and the hierarchy is out. Computer technology is now available to assist teams in performing their tasks. The authors provide the background and explain how to get started.
It's hard to find a business magazine or book today that doesn't mention the revolution in thinking going on in executive suites and business schools. Terms such as "team-based," "workgroups," "task-oriented," and "networked" are freely used to describe the way companies are reorganizing to be less hierarchical and more responsive to clients. This move to "flattening" the organization and "empowering" the individual means more people will work together in more ways than ever before. The principles of organization based on networks of teams performing specific tasks has become a powerful business driver that is changing the structure and culture of modern corporations.
Collaborative computing is the central technology that is facilitating and enabling this new reorganization. It's a computing technology that permits geographically dispersed teams to develop, edit, and use common databases, or "repositories" of information. These repositories can contain financial data, text, memos, documents, financial information, and even digital images. It is no exaggeration to say that collaborative computing fundamentally facilitates cooperation and coordination between team members by allowing common information to be easily stored, shared, and communicated.
This phenomenon of the central role of collaborative computing is not likely to be limited to large enterprises, which are currently reported to be investing heavily in the technology. Small firms can also benefit from collaborative work methods, and may adapt more readily since cultural change can more easily be affected. There are currently a range of products (and prices) in the market that can serve the large, multi- office, networked business as well as the single office business where the physical proximity of computers may permit physical linking of stand-alone computers without a server. As with any technology, assessing your business needs must precede concluding on whether the technology will help you. Choosing the right product for a business can only be done after a thorough needs assessment is made. Suppose your organization or a client is contemplating adopting this technology. Understanding the basics of this technology may be essential to assessing any new risks and issues that opening the organization to collaborative computing may pose.
Why Collaborative Computing
Not so long ago, brute force could be counted on to solve many business communication problems. You could gather all the parties in the conference room, hash out the issues and then return to their offices to address less urgent matters. Unfortunately, the world has become more complex and demanding of our time. Also, it's not so easy any more to gather all the players and resources in one place to focus on the issues. Fortunately, technology has brought refinements and finesse to the communication process, allowing us to better schedule our most valuable resource--time.
The traditional communication vehicles, such as paper mail, E-Mail, phone-mail, faxes, phones, and face-to-face conferencing have different attributes and characteristics. When rated on speed, accuracy, privacy, ease of access, ability to handle large volumes of data, cost, and support for collaboration, each scores differently. While face-to-face conferencing can achieve most communication objectives, it is just not practical, as practices grow and geography separates people and businesses.
Getting more faxes lately? Was that fax-of-a-fax last week printed in hieroglyphics? Were the critical marginal notations in any way understandable? Do you really want some of that information being passed around before it reaches you?
E-Mail is a simple example of two-way communication of information. The software resides on networked microcomputers, which also handle other computer tasks such as word processing, spreadsheets, and audit applications. But does your E-mail easily handle the sharing of large volumes of data that are only temporarily needed?
One of the new kids on the technology block is collaborative computing, sometimes also referred to as workgroup computing or groupware. Simply expressed, collaborative computing lets a group of people share and communicate information in ways that facilitate group review and interaction in accomplishing tasks and achieving consensus. The technology by which this is often accomplished is not new--networks. Networks permit the replication of messages, data, and information bases, and allow the transmission to others connected to the network. In one common set-up used by many enterprises, local area networks (LANs) are connected, creating one large network. For example, Philadelphia can be networked with Los Angeles and London because the PC servers are linked together. An illustration of a typical computer environment is shown in Exhibit 1.
Within a few years, many companies and audit firms will be implementing such systems as profit-enhancing competitive tools. While not replacing mail, E-Mail, faxes and other communication tools, collaborative computing will take its place among them and those who are able to harness its advantages will be the early beneficiaries.
Are There Three "C's" in Communication?
Of course not, but there are three "Cs" to understanding and designing the right communication environment. They are communication, cooperation, and collaboration. Everyone works in an environment where one or more of these models are sufficient to meet the demands of a particular relationship. Most of us have different needs for different tasks.
An example of different communication needs for an audit practice is shown in Exhibit 2.
The key to effective information distribution is to choose the most cost-effective vehicle for the purpose and to carefully flag high- priority situations. Paper mail won't work well for collaborative situations that involve quick response times and valuable human resources, but it works well for newsletters. E-Mail can effectively handle cooperative communication situations as well as announcements, but often lacks the horsepower of collaborative computing for those situations where database and interactive features are key. Collaborative computing can handle it all, but without a carefully designed priority code, it can get overwhelming and enslaving (Help me I'm under attack by my own bits and bytes).
Electronic Data Interchange (EDI) has taught corporations the value of standardizing production communications. We are now witnessing these same entities mandating their key business relationships, including with their auditors, be "communication" connected, using collaborative computing tools.
The concept of collaboration between the public accountant's environment and the client's environment can be unsettling; after all, "collaborative" and "independent" don't sound as if they go well together. As in all other things, the auditor will need to be mindful to maintain independence in attitude. If presented access to a lot of information by an excellent communication tool, a questioning mind must still challenge: "Am I still seeing what I need to see?" "What am I not seeing?" "Is there still an element of surprise during some of the inventory audit visits?"
Ask any three information systems professionals what the term "collaborative computing" means and you'll get three different definitions. Even the name collaborative computing is sometimes used interchangeably with the names workgroup computing, groupware, and workflow computing. It's a very new discipline that's still evolving. However, a consensus is developing that a complete collaborative computing environment includes at a minimum the following five classes of functions:
1. Facilities to create, organize, distribute, and route documents and nontransaction-oriented databases, that is, databases containing information that people access rather than data bases of high- speed/volume data, such as a credit card database.
2. Electronic mail.
3. Support for information sharing through communication and discussion, such as real-time bulletin boards and virtual meetings by discussion templates.
4. Facilities for mail-enabled and transparently interconnected office automation software, such as spreadsheets, scheduling programs, and word-processing software, along with graphics packages and telecommunication software. Mail-enabled and transparently interconnected software allows any part of any document constructed in any software package to be mailed with its information content and formatting intact.
5. An application development interface to create applications and to combine and incorporate other computing functions.
These five functions are the basis of the "three C's" of collaborative computing, namely, one-way communication, two-way cooperation, and the complex group work-flow of collaboration. Some well-known collaborative computing products are Lotus Notes by Lotus Development, TeamLinks by DEC, Cooperation by NCR, and Windows for Workgroups by Microsoft.
All enterprise-level collaborative products are based on the networked client/server model of computing. In this model some central computers serve other client computers at people's desks by providing LAN functions, such as routing E-Mail, holding central data bases, and maintaining security. LAN servers are then connected via a firm's wide- area network (WAN). Each collaborative product has different hardware and network requirements. As an example, Lotus Notes can interconnect tens of thousands of users. A recommended configuration for a LAN server is a fast 486 PC with at least 9 megabytes (MB) of RAM, 200 MB of disk space and running OS/2 on a network. Such a server can serve 50 to 150 client 386 PCs with at least 2-4 MB RAM and 60 MB disk space and running Windows. With LAN servers connected via a firm's WAN, some organizations now have up to 60,000 users interconnected on Lotus Notes.
Collaborative Computing in Action
For example: suppose a government regulatory agency contacted each of its recipients of funds and their audit teams to gather information about the extent of audit procedures being performed to ensure the accuracy of transaction coding meets regulatory guidelines. Further suppose the agency also asked your firm to explain its audit and testing philosophy in advance of a meeting the agency is planning with each recipient to discuss their specific circumstances. Although this theoretical situation involves a regulatory agency and a large CPA firm, it could have just as likely portrayed a commercial company responding to a customer's request or a local CPA firm seeking to solve a practice problem or develop an operating strategy.
A quick response team is assembled, spearheaded by your firm's industry specialist. Consultants and engagement team representatives agree during a teleconference call to assemble a common database to address the issues and formulate a consistent response. A collaborative computing application is quickly set up using forms and templates, and a common database or repository for transmitting and accumulating data from each audit team is established. Each member begins transmitting data later that day to this central repository. As the repository builds, it is monitored by the respondents and industry leader to ensure consistency. Memos or comments are appended to the repository as individuals identify issues for the group to consider. Private messages can be sent by the related E-Mail system. Only authorized collaborators, defined as members of this team, can share in this process, unlike on a simple bulletin board. Security and confidentiality can be strictly controlled and enforced. There are no unreadable or misrouted faxes. Delivery is nearly immediate, and information is available for comments. Travel is minimized.
At a follow-up teleconference call between engagement teams and technical specialist it is decided two additional industry and management partners need to join the discussion. While only one is able to be contacted and patched in to the call, he is given timely access to the repository and can join productively in the discussions. The other partner will also have access to the repository, meeting minutes, and issues to be resolved when he is available and accesses the collaborative computing mailbox on his portable PC. His input can then be shared with the group.
As a presentation is drafted, edited and revised, comments of the team members, who monitor progress through the repository entries, can be considered. A face-to-face meeting with regulators can now be scheduled. The following is an example of how this process might work.
Selecting a template that seemed to fit the application needs, John, industry specialist, posted a spreadsheet-like matrix to capture quantitative results from all engagement teams and posted historical text documentation and key letters in the special application file. Martin in New York posted his data first and Ann from Boston quickly attached a comment to the System Testing Sample Size data field for general review:
"Martin seems to have posted the results from our tests only. Should we also consider posting the testing done by the client? It may lead to more consistent total results." - ANN
John reads the note and attaches his comment for everyone:
"Please, everyone, post both our tests and client internal auditor or systems auditor tests." - JOHN
Martin by E-Mail to John:
TABULAR DATA OMITTED
"John, I have revised as suggested, good idea."
Ann's comment is dropped from the application data, and John's note remains to alert others now posting to the schedule.
As the matrix is completed, all parties review quantitative and qualitative data and make any necessary comments to minimize revision time. Questions can be handled person-to-person or though a group "sticky note."
After the issue is resolved, John files the final version of the application repository comprised of spreadsheets, memoranda, and notes. Others copy only relevant documents for their records. Paper waste is minimized--no unreadable faxes, no wasted security risks, and no unnecessary files.
Benefits and Costs
Both large and small businesses can take advantage of collaborative computing, the need for which grows out of the desire to bring together diverse resources into a team. As with any technology-related decisions, the first step is to assess needs. How do we expect people will need to work together? Who needs to be connected? What security needs to be in place? What are the expected benefits of implementing this technology-- savings, quality, and/or workplace satisfaction?
These issues should be addressed before being exposed to the "white lights" of the software sales staff. Next, a proper matching of the characteristics of the various vendor's software offerings to application needs can be made. The offerings of major vendors differ in ways that require this up-front assessment of the needs and environment of the workplace in order to choose the products that fit. For example, the present design of Windows for Workgroups may be particularly well suited to work environments involving a small group, where stand-alone computers can be directly interconnected. Notes, TeamLinks, and Cooperation are capable for use as enterprise-level collaborative products.
After a candidate system is selected, pricing of all components of the installation (e.g., software, servers (if required), cables, training and on-going support and maintenance) can then lead to a business decision. Limousines can be used to pick up the groceries at the store, but are more than necessary to do the job. A firm may not need the same system as one down the street; maybe the price for the application just can't be justified. The technology is an extension of existing systems, an enhancement, and a facilitator for a collaborative work environment, not a panacea for all business problems.
Implementing Collaborative Computing in Your Organization
One approach to implementation is to find some units that seem to need to collaborate. Senior management could be one unit, technical consulting resources or an industry team could be a unit, and so on. The tool must be integrated within the group to achieve its maximum potential. Introduction of applications that use the services of skilled technical resources may be the best first step. In the process, the organization will learn how to teach users to develop their own applications. Templates for different types of problem solving can be developed from these experiences. In this way the organization could focus on a longer-term strategy and in the short term work toward it: that is, build success and then roll it out. While the toe-in-the-water strategy may be less exciting, it can help to define how the tool can better help the organization and where it fits in the array of tools and products available to aid business communication.
Some adventurous souls prefer to toss the tools directly to the users and let them define the applications. Out of chaos often come some creative applications, but such an approach to implementation can be slow, expensive, and rife with learning false starts.
According to its advocates, collaborative computing is a dynamic technology that will revolutionize the way we work. Recent reports of its use at major corporations and at least three Big 6 firms appear to substantiate this claim. Jim Manzi, the CEO of Lotus Development Corp., one of the major vendors, has called it a "transformational technology," because of its potential to transform the culture of organizations. Even if that lofty goal is more for the longer term, the technology can be used today to better utilize scare expert resources, increase communication and collaboration, and help dig out from the mounds of unnecessary "dead-tree products" that we transmit and then copy and store in our desks, credenzas, and files.
Lynford E. Graham, PhD, CPA, is a partner in the National Business Assurance Directorate of Coopers & Lybrand in New York. He was previously a member of the AICPA's Information Technology Executive Committee. Stan Raatz, PhD, is a director in the Technology and Business Process Core Competency of Coopers & Lybrand in New York. He was previously director of Artificial Intelligence Services at that firm and prior to that was a faculty member in the Computer Science department of Rutgers University.
The CPA Journal is broadly recognized as an outstanding, technical-refereed publication aimed at public practitioners, management, educators, and other accounting professionals. It is edited by CPAs for CPAs. Our goal is to provide CPAs and other accounting professionals with the information and news to enable them to be successful accountants, managers, and executives in today's practice environments.
©2009 The New York State Society of CPAs. Legal Notices
Visit the new cpajournal.com.