It can be very frustrating organising meetings. Precious time is often wasted as phone messages go back and forth, just trying to get a handful of people in the same room at the same time. Group scheduling software aims to cut out the waste by automating much of the process, and by using email rather than the phone as the underlying transport mechanism.
In practice, there are various complications, the most obvious being that there are no truly open group scheduling systems. This means that meetings can only be set up between people who are all using the same system.
However, this problem is largely being tackled by the increasing use of the Internet. The Net has the potential to connect remote users to their core office scheduling system, so they can ensure meetings are fixed at convenient times when they will be back in the office. Using the Internet could also widen the scope for group scheduling, allowing meetings to be set up between people in different organisations, for example.
Standards for Internet-based group scheduling are still being discussed. These are concentrating mainly on providing a standard data type and protocol for accessing scheduling and calendaring applications.
Progress will depend on co-operation between the main rivals in the market. These include: Lotus, with Organizer; Microsoft, with Outlook; Novell?s Groupwise package; ON Technology, which sells Meeting Maker; and Netscape, which has just launched Communicator Pro.
In the meantime, there are other issues to consider. Users of IBM?s long-established Profs system, which includes scheduling functions, may be wondering about IBM?s long-term strategy now that the company owns Lotus.
According to an IBM spokesperson, these users will have to hang on to Profs for now, because Lotus Notes 4.1 doesn?t have a diary function. However, on the release of Notes 4.5 ? complete with diary ? Profs users will be expected to move over to Notes.
Pam Mills, UK desktop product manager at Lotus, says the company has been putting a lot of work into the question of making Notes and Organizer interoperate with Profs.
Even so, the situation is not entirely straightforward: the first version of Organizer 97, which is part of Lotus Smartsuite 97, does not include group scheduling, although future versions will.
This raises another question of whether it is better to buy a specialised package, such as ON?s Meeting Maker, or an integrated office suite that contains scheduling features, such as Microsoft Office 97.
Most users are clear that it?s important to get the right functions in place. Charity organisation Traidcraft Exchange, for instance, says it would have chosen a different scheduling package had Office 97 not given it what it needed (see page 50).
It?s important to look at how a scheduling package will fit in with an organisation?s network. Companies such as Novell claim their approach marries scheduling much more closely to email than products such as Microsoft Outlook, and is therefore easier to roll out and manage across a corporate network.
Also, you need to consider the cultural aspects of group scheduling. It is vital that organisations think clearly about which staff will have access to each other?s diaries and who will be using the system. Will secretaries still handle their bosses? diaries, using email rather than the phone to fix meetings, or will managers now be expected to set up their own meetings?
Subject: Jeffrey Green Russell
Activities: law firm Installation: Novell Groupwise 4.10
Uses: scheduling legal meetings: personal calendaring
Clive Whitfield-Jones, a senior partner at London law firm Jeffrey Green Russell, says: ?As a busy lawyer, Groupwise has saved me on a number of occasions.?
Whitfield-Jones is talking about keeping tabs on his personal data ? remembering his mother?s birthday and when to renew his car tax. But he adds, more seriously, that the product has transformed business processes at the firm.
More than 120 people at Jeffrey Green Russell use Groupwise, alongside such applications as the Soft Solution document management system. ?The system is user-friendly and easy to maintain,? says Alison Sykes, IT manager at the firm. ?Everyone uses it, from lawyers to secretaries, and it is integrated with gateway technology for external email.?
The firm is now considering whether to upgrade to Groupwise 5, in which the scheduling functions are fully integrated with Soft Solution. Even without full integration, the two applications have provided a tool for business change, according to Whitfield-Jones.
?Lawyers have tended to use the same business process since 1945,? he says. ?They dictate a letter to their secretary, who transcribes it. Then they check it and the secretary sends it out. But this is a different model of work. Lawyers can gather all the necessary documents from the firm?s intranet, create their own work and deliver the product by email.? The result, he adds, is that each lawyer needs fewer support staff.
Groupwise has also helped speed up internal communications by replacing expensive paper-based memos with email. It is being extended to about 20 of the firm?s closest partners.
Jeffrey Green Russell particularly values package features which can set up users remotely. The proxy function is also useful because it allows a user to nominate specific people who are allowed access to their online diary.
Subject: Traidcraft Exchange Activities: encourages fair trade principles
Installation: Microsoft Office 97, which includes Outlook for scheduling
Uses: to help organise meetings between staff who spend a lot of time out of the office
Outlook combines Schedule+ and Microsoft Exchange into a single package within the Office 97 suite. It is used by Gateshead-based development charity Traidcraft Exchange, set up to encourage fair trade, particularly in Third World countries.
Andy Redfern, programme director at the charity, says: ?Like any other organisation, we have lots of meetings. Arranging them used to involve secretaries phoning round to see when people would be free. Now, all we have to do is choose Planner Meeting from the menu.?
Planner Meeting shows users their own calendar. They pick a time and draw up a list of the other people they want at the meeting. The software checks whether these people will be in the office at that time and if their online diaries show that they are free. The Make Meeting function then emails everyone so that they can confirm attendance.
More than a quarter of the charity?s 30 staff are out of the office for long periods, says Redfern. ?This software is important because it helps them keep in touch, so that when they do come in to the office they know what is going on and which meetings have been set up.?
One problem for Traidcraft has been training users. ?A lot of people have gone from Wordperfect for DOS to Office 97,? explains Redfern. ?They aren?t used to Windows, so they don?t understand the on-screen clues to what is underneath. Although the interface is slick, there is a usability curve for people getting to know the assumptions, and that can be very frustrating.?
Redfern would also like greater flexibility within Outlook?s diary access. ?It would be useful if we could see what a person is doing in the time blocked out as busy,? he says. ?As a manager you might want to set priorities and make decisions for your staff.?
Subject: Hermon School System
Activities: provides educational facilities for 5 to 18 year old children
Installation: ON Technology Meeting Maker, running under Windows NT
Uses: room bookings, personal schedules, organising meetings
The Hermon School System employs 300 staff to provide educational facilities for students from kindergarten age up to 18 years in its school department in Maine in the US.
For three months, the Hermon School System has been using ON Technology?s Meeting Maker to co-ordinate staff meetings, which are frequently held to discuss specific educational topics, as well as for the usual administrative reasons.
Jeff Wheeler, director of technology at Hermon School System, says: ?Before we used this product, it was difficult to co-ordinate meetings. We would always have to reschedule at least once, and this wasted a lot of time. Now, when someone suggests a meeting, adjustments to the proposal can be made on-the-fly to find the best time.?
Wheeler chose Meeting Maker because he had seen how it worked in his previous job at the University of Maine. Given that Hermon School System has 70 PCs and 430 Macs, one of the main attractions of the software is the fact that it?s cross-platform. ?At the University of Maine, we looked at a number of products, and this one had the most options in terms of the servers and clients on which it could run,? he says.
Wheeler likes Meeting Maker because it can be used across the Internet. This means staff can communicate with the system from home.
?It gives us spontaneity,? he says. ?If a member of staff remembers that they need to speak to someone, or change their own schedule, they can sort it out straight away, rather than jot it down on a bit of paper or hope they remember it in the morning.?
Dial-in access to the system is also important because staff at the school are regularly out on the road, using Apple Newtons and Powerbooks.
Wheeler likes the fact that this software allows you to schedule, not just people, but objects and rooms. ?For instance, we have a very large auditorium set up for presentations and it?s very popular. We treat that as an individual in Meeting Maker, so it can be scheduled as a separate entity,? he says.
Group Scheduling Software lessons:
1 Make sure staff can use the package. Although it sounds obvious, not all users are familiar with assumptions made by developers. All-singing, all-dancing packages may not be as useful as something that is quite basic which everyone can use straight away.
2 Check on the interoperability of your chosen group scheduling software with other packages and with emerging standards for use over the Internet.
3 Think laterally ? scheduling is usually linked to other business processes. How compatible is your scheduling package with other applications, such as document handling?
4 Consider the cultural aspects of scheduling. Who will have access to whose diary? Think about whether you want greater control over access or wider freedom for secretaries to arrange meetings, and check whether these functions are within the software?s capabilities.
5 Check on the options for allowing remote users and external partners to access the scheduling system.
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