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Saturday, March 29, 2014


Electronic communication systems help people work together by exchanging or sharing information in many different forms. New communication capabilities have changed the way many businesses operate by making it possible to do many things at a distance that previously required being present in a specific location. These tools are grouped into four general categories. Teleconferencing systems make it possible to hold same-time, different-place meetings. Messaging systems make it possible to transmit specific messages to specific individuals or groups of individuals. Groupware systems start with messaging but go further by facilitating access to documents and controlling team related workflow. Knowledge management systems facilitate the sharing of knowledge rather than just information. 


The use of electronic transmission to permit same-time, different-place meetings is called teleconferencing. We can think of a traditional telephone call as a minimal teleconference, but the term is normally applied to other options including audio conferencing, audio graphic conferencing, and video conferencing. 

The distinction between these approaches is related to the type of information that is shared. Audio conferencing is a single telephone call involving three or more people participating from at least two locations. If several people on the call are in the same office, they can all participate using a speakerphone, which includes a high-sensitivity microphone and a loudspeaker that can be heard by anyone in a room. Audio graphic conferencing is an extension of audio conferencing permitting dispersed participants to see pictures or graphical material at the same time. This is especially useful when the purpose of the meeting is to share information that is difficult to describe, organize, or visualize, such as a spreadsheet or model used to perform calculations under different assumptions. Video conferencing is an interactive meeting involving two or more groups of people who can see each other using television screens. The least expensive forms of video conferencing are tiny cameras and 4-inch screens add to telephones or separate video conferencing windows displayed on computer screens. In typical business video conferencing, remote participants appear on a television screen. 

Video conferencing simulates a face-to-face meeting without requiring unnecessary travel, which absorbs time and energy, not to speak of the cost of airplane and hotel bills. However, the effectiveness of videoconferences decreases if the participants lack a prior social bond. For example, doing sales calls via videoconference might seem tempting but might not foster the personal relationship needed to succeed in many sales situations. On the other hand, Citibank and other banks have begun to experiment with stripped-down branch offices that have no tellers but permit customers to open accounts by video conferencing with multilingual staffers in another state. 

Messaging Systems

Different-time, different-place communication has been used for centuries in the form of books and letters. Messaging system make it possible to transmit specific messages to specific individuals or groups of individuals. They use technologies such as electronic mail, voice mail, and fax to make different-time, different-place communication more effective. 

The use of computers to send and retrieve text messages or document addressed to individual people or locations is called electronic mail (e-mail). Each user is identified by is usually based on the person’s name and also serves as the person’s e-mail address. The sender uses a word processor to create a message and then addresses it to a distribution list. The distribution list might be an individual account name or a group of names, such as those for the sales department or everyone working on a particular project. The recipient can read the message immediately or can wait until it is convenient. The recipient e-mail message can save it, print it, erase it, or forward it to someone else. The recipient can also edit the message to extract parts to be saved, printed, or passed on. 

E-mail is effective in many situations, such as permitting you to leave a message without going through an additional person who might garble it. With e-mail you can send a message to a person traveling away from the office who can log onto a network using a laptop computer. If you are working on a memo or other document and want to get feedback from someone before you distribute it, you can use e-mail to send it to the person for a quick response. E-mail also allows you to send the same message to many individuals without having to contact them individually. For example, a product designer can responds with a good idea, the minimal effort of distributing the request is worth it. 

There have been many innovative uses of e-mail to improve communication. People in large organizations have used it to bypass bureaucratic structures. For example, top managers sometimes bypass intermediate management levels by obtaining specific information directly from people throughout the organization. Some organizations have replaced the majority of their formal memos with informal e-mail that gets to the point directly. As happened at IBM’s Europe headquarters in Paris, e-mail has also been used as a communication tool for people who are not fluent in the language in which business is conducted. E-mail removes accents and permits non-fluent speakers to read a message several times that otherwise might be misunderstood in a phone conversation. It also helps them express their ideas more effectively than they might by using a telephone. 


A relatively new and still somewhat unshaped category, groupware helps teams work together by sharing information and by controlling internal workflows. Coined in the late 1980s the term groupware has attained wide recognition due to the increasing need for groups to work together more effectively at a distance as a result of downsizing and rapid organizational change. Products viewed as groupware are still new enough that their long-term direction is unclear even though the competitive need to work effectively in dispersed teams is greater than ever. 

Groupware goes beyond messaging by facilitative access to documents and controlling team-related workflow. Many groupware products are related to specific group related tasks such as project management, scheduling meetings (“calendaring”), and retrieving data from shared databases. Lotus Notes, a prominent product in this category, is designed for sharing text and images and contains a data structure that is a cross between a table-oriented database and an outline. For example, a law firm in Seattle uses Lotus Notes to permit everyone working on a particular case to have access to the most current memos and other information about that case, even if they are traveling. Other companies use Lotus Notes to store and revise product information for salespeople selling industrial products, thereby replacing the massive three-ring binders they formerly lugged around.

Yet other groupware functions are performed through computer conferencing, the exchange of text messages typed into computers from various locations to discuss a particular issue. When done through the Internet this is sometimes called a newsgroup. A computer conference permits people in dispersed locations to combine their ideas in useful ways even though they cannot speak to each other face-to-face. Any conference participant may be able to add new ideas, attach comments to existing messages, or direct comments to specific individuals or groups. Proponents of computer conferencing recognize some disadvantages or working through computers but emphasize major advantages, such as preventing a single forceful individual from dominating a meeting. Also, because everything is done through a computer, a record of how ideas developed is automatically generated. 

A different type of groupware product focuses primarily on the flow of work in office settings. These products provide tools for structuring the process by which information for a particular multi-step task is managed, transferred, and routed. A typical example is the approval of travel expenditure. In this case, one person must propose the expenditure and someone else must approve it. The workflow application is set up to make the approval process simple and complete. In effect, groupware is being used as a small transaction processing system for multistep transaction. 

Intranets and Extranets

The widespread use of the World Wide Web has led many firms to apply the information sharing concepts of groupware on a much larger scale by creating an additional type of communication system, intranets and extranets. Intranets are private communication networks that use the type of interface popularized by the Web but are accessible only by authorized employees, contractors, and customers. They are typically used to communicate non-sensitive but broadly useful information such as recent corporate news, general product information, employee manuals, corporate policies, telephone directories, details of health insurance and other employee benefits, and calendars. In some cases employees can use intranets to access and change their personal choices regarding health insurance and other benefits. Once security issues are addressed adequately, intranets for accessing general-purpose corporate data may lead to widespread use of intranets as a front end to transaction processing systems and management information systems. 

Extranets are private networks that operate similarly to intranets but are directed at customers rather than at employees. Extranets provide information on customers’ need, such as detailed product descriptions, frequently asked questions about different products, maintenance information, warranties, and how to contact customer service and sales offices. Much of this information was formerly difficult for customers to access because paper versions of it at the customer site became scattered and outdated. By using extranets, companies are making this type of information increasingly available at a single interactive site that is easy to navigate. 

Knowledge Management

A final type of communication system is very different from systems that support real time communication or provide access to information. Today’s leading businesses are increasingly aware that their employees’ knowledge is one of their primary assets. In consulting companies and other organizations that rely heavily on unique competencies and methods, knowledge has more competitive significance than physical assets because the physical assets can be replaced or replenished more easily. 

Knowledge management systems are communication systems designed to facilitate the sharing of knowledge rather than just information. As with groupware, the idea of knowledge management is still in process of constant innovation and is applied in many different ways in different firms. The computer applications underlying knowledge management systems are often built on technologies such as intranets, electronic mail, groupware, databases, and search engines. Functions supported by these technologies include codifying knowledge (such as best practices), organizing it in repositories for later access, finding knowledge (using search engines and other schemes), and providing organized ways to find people who have needed knowledge.  

The human element is paramount in knowledge management. The companies with the best results to date stitch technologies together into a system that operates effectively and that is genuinely supported by the culture. For example, employee reviews in many consulting companies give significant weight to demonstrated contribution to internal knowledge management systems. This type of recognition is especially important if the firm’s culture otherwise encourages hoarding of knowledge for personal advancement. In many cases, the most effective use of knowledge requires involvement of the person who is the expert. When a British Petroleum drilling ship in the North Sea encountered an equipment failure, it put the equipment in front of a video camera and used a satellite link to contact a drilling expert in Scotland. His rapid diagnosis of the problem prevented delays and a possible shutdown.


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