Tech Audit

The Notable Lotus Notes 7

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Since its inception, Lotus Notes has been the king of collaborative software.

Originally affordable only for large organizations, it is based on dynamic, customizable databases, including e-mail, that make information available anywhere in real time. Its Domino server can manage several people working on the same database at one time, either directly on the server or offline from locally replicated database copies that are later copied back to the server.

Much has happened between then and IBM Lotus Notes 7: the World Wide Web; instant messaging; universal Internet e-mail; and new collaboration software such as Microsoft Exchange, Groove (a Microsoft acquisition) and IBM Workplace. As competition ramped up, Notes became better–and cheaper.

Many of the improvements in Notes 7 are increases in server efficiency and speed, not something you’ll see. But there are interface improvements–some that relate to presence awareness and some that focus on ease of use.

When Notes was created, the concern was data awareness: the ability of everyone to easily contribute to a given data set and to easily have real-time access to that data. This involved little presence awareness, which is the ability to easily determine who is electronically available, combined with the ability to easily contact them.

Perhaps the oldest electronic presence awareness tool is the Unix command “who,” which tells who is currently logged in to the network. This is primitive compared to Notes 7’s latest offering: e-mail with icons shaped like people showing who is logged in to instant messaging; you can right-click on an icon to chat or to add that person’s info to your contact list. New also is the ability to easily save a transcript of an instant message session to a file.

Other Notes 7 interface improvements in mail include the ability to quickly flag any e-mail for follow-up, and the capability to sort e-mail by subject in the inbox and in folders virtually instantly.

Data Control

One of the most exciting improvements in notes 7 is the ability to use ordinary Notes databases for document management. Theoretically this has been possible for a long time, but now it is easy.

Here is how we do it: We already have a separate Notes database for each client. Among the contents of databases are scans of signed letters, editable versions of documents, attachments of editable documents (such as word processing files) and optical character recognition scans of received documents. Notes 7 easily lets us open an attached editable document within a database, edit it and save it back to the database.

We can also search across databases. If one properly categorizes databases, one can search only those databases that are for clients with, say, noncompetition agreement issues. (It’s easy to indicate the types of issues or matters within a given database, such as child support, procedural due process, noncompetition agreement and so on.)

Why would one want to home-cook Notes for document management?

  1. The database component is far stronger in Notes than what any document manager can provide.

  2. You can build it any way you want it.

  3. While Notes is secure, you don’t have to deal with more security than you want.

Perhaps presence awareness is the slogan of the moment. Just as important to a user may be some of the little enhancements. For instance, a button on the interface closes all active tabs (individual, open Notes records or documents). It is like instantly cleaning your desktop.

There is also what could be termed “embedded historical presence awareness” in Notes 7.

One hidden benefit of running a law office from a database such as Lotus Notes is that Notes remembers who did what. The database structure itself causes mistakes to float to the top. We found ourselves catching more mistakes than ever. But we are able to know even more: We can tell who made the mistake, and the date and time it was made. When an office is built as a collaborative team, the ability of any staff member to monopolize information is limited. With the right attitude, discovery of mistakes is a constructive process used to build better systems.

Instant Gratification

One of our staff members made this comment the other day: “I recently had to look for some information in an old file before we had Notes. I forget how time-consuming that is. I am used to locating information instantly.”

And a former staff member who has been working in a busy big-city law firm called to talk to some of our staffers and commented, “You do not realize how lucky you are to have your data electronically organized. Things here [in the big-city law firm] are a mess.”

So just how important is presence awareness? It is probably fine, and perhaps even important, as a tool facilitating work. And it will no doubt get better.

Lotus Notes may not yet be as strong with presence awareness as products built entirely around presence awareness, such as Groove and IBM Workplace.

But presence awareness without core data is like a library that knows where all its patrons are and what they are doing but that has few books and no shelves.

A fully blended product somewhere between IBM Lotus Notes and IBM Workplace may be the best of everything. It just takes time to blend old wine and new wine in a new bottle.

David Beckman and David Hirsch practice in the law firm of Beckman & Hirsch in Burlington, Iowa. Contact Beckman by e-mail at [email protected] or Hirsch at [email protected].

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