E-mail on its own is important enough, but it's only the start when it comes to revolutionising communications within a company. Today's messaging servers – foremost among them Microsoft Exchange, Lotus Domino, and Novell Internet Messaging System – all offer a broad range of features that build on standard message transfer systems to dramatically change the way employees work.
In many cases, these features are accessed through the client installed on the employee computer. A simple example is calendaring, a feature that's been built into such clients for years but was extended some time ago to automate interaction between employees. Using specifically formed messages conforming to the now common iCal standard, you could schedule a meeting with six co-workers and have their calendar systems automatically reserve the time in their diaries.
Another key improvement to standard messaging has been the introduction of unified messaging (UM) systems, which give normal e-mail and groupware packages support for voice, fax, SMS and other types of messages. Typically, a UM system works in conjunction with an upgrade to a company PABX in order to automatically convert incoming messages into e-mail attachments; these attachments are then forwarded on to the recipient, who opens them on their computer like any other e-mail.
The real power of unified messaging doesn't stop there, however. By combining UM systems with telephony gateways, you can let your travelling employees call on the phone, for example, and have their e-mails read to them in a synthesised voice; they could then speak a voicemail reply that would be e-mailed back to the called. Similarly, a UM system could be instructed to forward received faxes to a hotel fax machine on the other side of the world.
UM also benefits companies with onerous documentation requirements, since it allows faxes, voicemails and other forms of communication to be archived right alongside normal e-mails. This creates a permanent audit trail that can be hard to replicate by chasing paper around the building.
UM's myriad possibilities give it lots of appeal, although its takeup has been less than stellar largely due to its close integration with expensive and rarely replaced PABXes. Yet a host of standalone applications – from companies like TopCall, Mitel, and Avaya -- will also do the trick. All-in-one solutions like Tennyson Technologies' SOX and Ericsson's OneBox also do the trick by combining messaging and standard PABX features for small businesses.
The expansion of simple messaging has headed in many other directions. Most notably, Microsoft, IBM and Novell have each built comprehensive 'groupware' – online collaboration systems – that use messaging as the basis for robust environments designed to facilitate communication between employees.
Instead of simply passing messages, groupware systems allow for the creation of customised data views and interactive database applications that combine input from many people. Because they're designed for many users, such systems make the digitisation of many business processes – for example, the processing of an annual leave form – relatively simple because it can be automatically passed between necessary signatories along a predefined route.
This makes groupware a sort of publish and subscribe model, where users subscribe to specific information streams and are given access to that information as it's published by other interested parties. Since everybody in a groupware system is accessing the same central information, they can work in groups around that information.
That's the biggest difference between groupware and standard messaging, a point-to-point model where the work is the information. But it's a powerful differentiator that makes groupware a real consideration if the employees in your company frequently work on projects in teams. Major groupware systems now also support instant messaging, allowing group members to seamlessly find each other and communicate no matter where they happen to be.
Messages are digitally signed to identify their sender's identity – meaning that all messages sent within the system can, with a high degree of certainty, be accepted to have come from the person from whom they're said to have come. If this type of authentication is important to your business, you'll definitely want to step up from messaging to one of the more sophisticated groupware packages.
Making the decision on a messaging server
There's no question you need e-mail. If your business is going to survive through the year, much less the decade, you've simply got to be able to communicate with an increasingly online global business community. Customer orders, communications with partners and so on are important enough now, but in the future many larger companies will simply refuse to deal with suppliers who aren't online.
There is a broad range of messaging platforms to choose from, particularly when you're just taking the first step.
To support long-term growth, however, you may well end up backing Exchange, Notes or Groupwise, the three dominant and certainly best-funded messaging server applications. All three have recently been, or will soon be, upgraded to new versions that integrate all forms of messaging with groupware features, support for new standards, and integration with new standards like extensible markup language (XML) and Web services, which you may ultimately need as you move your business online. If you're looking into more complex groupware platforms, talk to other users to see what they've done with the technology and whether they'd do it again.