Lotus Notes Invented in the 1970s

Foreword added in 1996

This paper was written in 1978 and published at the international conference Teleinformatics in Paris in 1979. The paper is also available in the book published based on this conference. The paper is of interest, because it describes (in chapter 3-4 below) a computer system very similar to Lotus Notes and to so-called work flow applications. The paper thus shows that the ideas in Lotus Notes existed already long before Lotus Notes was invented, many of the ideas go even further back to the Emisari system invented by Murray Turoff in 1969.

The text below is the original, unchanged text of the 1978 paper. The word teleconferencing, as used at that time in the paper below, corresponds to what today is usually called bulletin board, computer conferencing or non-simultaneous computer conferencing systems.

Stockholm in November 1996

Jacob Palme E-mail: jpalme@dsv.su.se.

Swedish National Defense Research Institute
5-104 50 Stockholm 80
   FOA Rapport
C 10123-M3(E5,H9)
March 1979

Teleconference-Based Management Information Systems

By Jacob Palme


Conventional computer application systems will often cause inflexibility and difficulty for the individuals and organizations using them to adjust to new needs and environmental situations. This paper proposes a way of designing computer application systems as an extension of the idea in teleconferencing systems. The concept "conference" is extended to the concept "activity" which can be a conference, a person, a computer program, an inquiry, a set of travel accounts, a set of records in a data base system etc. Each activity consists of messages or notices which can contain both ordinary text and information structured into fields with typed values. This way of designing computer systems may give more flexibility and may make it easier to adjust the system to new needs and environments.

Swedish Abstract:

Konventionella datorstöddda system medför ofta stelhet och försämrade möjligheter för enskilda och organisationer att anpassa sig till nya behov i nya situationer. Denna rapport föreslår en metod att utforma ett datorstött system som en utvidgning av principen hos telemötessystem. Begreppet "telemöte" utvidgas till begreppet "aktivitet" vilket kan vara ett telemöte, en person, ett datorprogram, en rundfråga, en samling reseräkningar, en samling poster i ett databassystem el.dyl. Varje aktivitet består av meddelanden eller notiser vilka både kan innehålla vanlig text och information strukturerad i typdefinierade fält. Detta sätt att konstruera ett datorsystem kan ge större flexibilitet och anpassningsbarhet till nya behov och miljöer.

Search Keys:

Computer, Teleconferencing, Data Base Handling, Message Handling, Mail Handling, Human, Sociology, Psychology.

Publication Reference:

This report was published in the proceedings of the international conference "TELEINFORMATICS" in Paris, June 1979. The proceedings from the conference will be published by North-Holland Publishing, Amsterdam. References to this report should refer to these conference proceedings.

1. Introduction

Large commercial and governmental organizations employ computers more and more. The employees spend more and more of their time putting information into computers, handling information stored in them and taking information out of them. This is a communication procedure, even if it is not always viewed as such.

As soon as more than one person handles the same information in the computer, then one person will sometimes receive information which has been input by someone else. Thus, the computer is used to communicate information from one person to another. Examples:

  1. One person tells the computer to make a payment to someone else.
  2. One person tries to book a seat in an airplane, but the computer replies that it is fully booked by other people.
A typical computer application uses a data base containing one or several types of records, each record containing certain types of fields. Typical field values are numbers (e.g. a price, a weight or a part number), selectors (e.g. male or female) or short character strings (e.g. names or addresses). Some people are allowed to input certain field values to certain records, some to output them. Certain programs in the computer are allowed to make modifications to certain fields in certain records or move information between different files (sets of records).

One important difference between this communication process and manual processes is that the computerized process is governed and limited by the rules built into the computer program. These can be rules governing the kind of information which can be stored or rules governing the handling of the information. Example:

  1. If the computer system has built-in rules about who may order a payment, it is usually much more difficult to circumvent these rules in emergency cases than it is in a manual system.
  2. If there are no fields in the computer data base in which to store priorities, and no algorithm to handle them, then it is much more difficult to give priority when this is necessary.
  3. If there are no fields in the computer data base in which to store explanations why certain data have exceptional values, then these exceptional values may give dangerously false impressions.
The people creating a computerized system put into the system their view about how the information is to be handled. The system will in most cases make it impossible or very difficult to handle the in-formation in any other way. Thus, the users are controlled by the system, forced into the "world view" of the people designing the system. This can be regarded as a communication process: The communication of rules about how the information is to be handled from the creators of the system to its users.

One can compare this with a famous chapter in the book "19814" by George Orwell. The book is about a future authoritarian state in which the government tries to control even the thoughts of its people. Orwell says that the thoughts of people are governed by the language they are using. If the government can create a new language, in which unwanted ideas cannot be stated, and can enforce this language on the people, then their thoughts can be controlled.

Computer systems can be seen as such a controlled language, the permitted record types and field types being the words in the language. Thus, the computer systems will control the concepts which can be communicated through them.

In most organizations, the ability to adjust to the special needs of special cases and the ability to evolve are important both for the organization as a whole and for the people within it. An organization which has difficulty in adjusting itself to new needs and environments may soon find itself in serious trouble. It is well known that a lack of facilities for a person to evolve and modify his/her environment ("helplessness") is a common cause of maladjustment and depression (see Seligman 1975).

Even when computer systems are designed by or in close cooperation with their actual users, they will still often cause these problems of difficulties to adjust to the needs of the organizations and people using them. This is because the basic principle of designing into the system rules about what kinds of records and fields to be stored and how they can be handled will in itself cause rigidity and difficulties to adjust (see further Palme 1976).

These difficulties with computer systems are especially pronounced with so-called "management information systems", that is computer systems designed to aid in the managing of organizations. One cause of this is that computer systems are typically designed for doing the same kind of information handling all the time. They are designed to output the same kind of data. But managers or managing groups will delegate routine information handling to other people or to automatic systems. It is the unusual and different problems which have to be handled by managers and management groups. Thus, computer systems are often not suited to the real needs of the managers.

Another reason why "management information systems" often do not work is that they are often structured in such a way that lower-echelon employees are given the task of inputting routine data which are collected and summarized in reports given to the managers. Because the lower-echelon employees do not themselves see the benefit of the data, they will often dislike this part of their work, which will lower the quality of the data. The quality of the data is higher when the people inputting data can also take out and benefit from the data stored in the computer.

2. Word Processing, Information Retrieval and Teleconferencing Systems

Ordinary spoken or written human language like English or French is the most general-purpose communication tool available to us. Any concept or idea can be formulated and communicated with them, even if special-purpose languages and pictures can be better in special cases. And computers can rather easily handle written natural language texts. Thus, a way of avoiding the problems of stiffness and inflexibility is to use ordinary human languages more for the data stored in computers

Word processing is the handling of texts, usually natural language texts, in computers. The handling involves the inputting, editing and distribution of textual information. Special computer systems are often used to communicate information partly stored as natural language texts. Examples of such systems are information retrieval systems and teleconferencing systems.

Information retrieval systems will aid a user in searching for information stored in natural language texts, employing keywords and other classification methods.

Teleconferencing systems aid the communication procedure by providing a structure well suited to human communication. This structure is a number of "conferences". Each conference has a number of humans as "members" and consists of a collection of "notices". Each conference is concerned with a special subject. Typical conferences are a group of people developing a new system or solving. a certain problem, or With a common need of exchanging information on a special subject, e.g. people solving similar problems in different parts of an organization.

Every time people connect to the computer, they can read those notices they have not yet read in the conferences in which they are members, and can then add their own notices, which are thus made available to the other members of the conference into which the notices are entered.

Teleconferencing systems are often combined with information retrieval systems to simplify the search for certain information among the notices stored in the teleconferencing system.

Teleconferencing systems can be used as management tools in many ways. A group of people working on a problem can communicate even if they are geographically dispersed. A manager can ask for suggestions on how to solve a problem in a teleconference. A large group of people can rapidly be reached with such an inquiry. Suggestions put forward can be discussed, facts and argument for and against different solutions can be discussed. Because more people can easily be Involved, the risk that some important aspect is forgotten when the decision is made is lessened.

An important difference between teleconferencing systems and rigid computer application systems is the ease with which they can adjust to new tasks. With a rigid system, the introduction of new tasks may require months of program development work. With teleconferencing systems, the opening of a new conference on a new subject will only take a minute.

Exceptions are easy to handle in teleconferencing systems, since the notices are written in natural language, where almost anything can be formulated, and since it is simple to communicate notices in special ways, e.g. send a notice as a letter to someone who is not a member of the conference in which the notice was put.

Teleconference systems provide all users with the ability both to input and output information. Thus, even lower-echelon people in the organization can see the value and benefit of the systems to them, which will give higher quality to the data.

3. Extending Teleconfefencing Systems: The Activity Concept

The question is now: can the idea of teleconferencing systems, the flexibility and ease of adjustment to special cases and new needs, be extended to further computer applications? Can the teleconference idea perhaps be used as a general basis for computer systems, which would then be easier to adjust to new needs than the typical systems of today where the basis is file handling and data base management systems.

Such an extension was made already in the EMISARI system, one of the first teleconferencing systems developed by Murray Turoff in the U.S. Office of Emergency Preparedness (See Renner 1973). In the EMISARI system, certain special facilities where added to the teleconferencing system. Thus, certain notices in certain conferences contained special kinds of texts, and the text of a notice could contain commands so that when someone requested a notice, it was created by combining texts from other notices. Thus the text stored for the notice "monthly y report" might be the same all the year, but the "monthly report." output to a user would be different since different text segments would be combined at different times.

Computers for management use in the future may have some kind of extension of teleconferencing, information retrieval and data base systems as their basis in the same way as file handling systems are the basis of today's computer. The basis of a teleconferencing system are the conferences or collections of notices. But many of the collections of notices in the extended system would not naturally fit under the heading "conference". Thus I suggest instead the more general purpose word "activity".

The basis of such a system would be a number of activities. Each activity would consist of a number of notices. Example of activities:

Note that both humans and computer programs can thus read and write notices in activities. Often, a notice is written by a program which inputs data In conversation with the human user.

4. Structure of a Teleconference-Based Management Information System

The system would thus contain a number of activities. Each activity would contain a number of notices. A notice may be a free text notice or may have certain fixed fields with fixed values. A notice may also be a computer program and may be connected with a new activity.

For example, each person in the system would be a notice in one or more activities "list of persons using the system". Each person would also be connected to a personal activity of letters to and from that person. Finally, a person would also have the right to read and/or write in other activities, sometimes only through the use of a special computer program in cases where some control is necessary.

Since a computer program can also write in certain activities, read in certain activities and receive messages, it could also both be regarded as a notice (in a conference of executable programs) and be connected to an activity (of messages to and from that program).

This structure is very suitable to systems based on computer networks, where messages can be sent, stored and answered. Thus, if the receiving computer is down, the message is stored in an appropriate activity until it can be transferred, and the answer is returned when the receiving computer is' up again.

Basic to the system would be the handling of activities, activity membership and the editing of text notices. Basic would also be ways of making notices into data base records by adding certain defined fields to them and allowing owing retrieval based on these fields. Basic programs for inputting data into such record-like notices would also be available, easily modifiable to special tasks.

The adjustment of such a system to a new task or a modification for special handling in a special case may in many cases be as simple as opening a new activity or using a text editor to enter or modify a notice in an activity.

The activity concept is easy to understand for the users of the system, and thus their participation in the development of new applications will be made easier - a common problem with user participation in system development is the difficulty of explaining to a user group how a system will work.

This way of designing a computer system may seem very different from the typical computer systems of today. But the advantage of flexibility and ease of adjustment to new tasks, and the natural way in which such systems would be similar to the shuffling of paper in a typical office, may mean that this is how many of the computer systems of tomorrow will look.

5. Acknowledgements

The analysis of how and why computer systems often cause inflexibility in organization is to a large extent based on what I have learnt from Arne Grip (see Grip 1974).

The idea of extending teleconference systems to general purpose data management systems comes of course from Murray Turoff, and many other ideas in this paper are also based on personal communication with him. Murray Turoff designed the first such system (see Renner 1973).

The idea of extending the conference concept to a more general purpose activity concept comes both from Murray Turoff and from Torgny Tholerus and from discussions with a number of people in a teleconference system used by my organization.

The idea of allowing notices to be executable programs also comes (probably independently) from both Murray Turoff and Torgny Tholerus.

5. References

Fjæstad, Björn 1977:
Hallå, Hallå! Rapport från ett symposium om telekommunikationernas samhällsroll. Riksbankens jubileumsfond, 1977:3.
Glimell, H.R. and Holmgren, M. 1975:
Cognitive style, problem solving preferences and attitudes to computer technology. Göteborg psychological reports, vol. 5, No. 21, 1975.
Grip, Arne 1974:
ADB-system och kommunikation, Hermods-Studentlitteratur, Lund, Sweden, 1974.
Hiltz, Starr Roxanne et al 1976:
Potential Impacts of Computer Conferencing Upon Managerial and Organizational Styles. (New Jersey Institute of Technology.)
Hoare, C. A. R. 1975:
Software design: a Parable. Into Software World, vol. 5, Numbers 9 & 10, 1975.
Johansen, Robert et al 1977:
The Camelia Report: A Study of Technical Alternatives and Social Choices in Teleconferencing, Institute for the Future, 2740, Sand Hill Road, Menlo Park, California 94025, U.S.A.
Ohlin, Tomas et al 1975:
Telekommunikation och regional utveckling. Styrelsen för teknisk utveckling, 1975.
Palme, Jacob 1976:
Interactive software for humans. In Management Informatics, Vol. 5 (1976) No. 4 pp. 139-154.
Palme, Jacob 1977:
A Human-Computer Interface Encouraging User Growth. FOA 1 Report C 10073, September 1977.
Palme, Jacob 1978:
Datorstödda telekonferenssystem. FOA rapport C 10090, May 1978.
Palme, Jacob 1978:
Teleconferencing and Mailing Systems. Paper presented at the DECUS Europe Conference in Copenhagen, September 1978.
Renner, Rod L 1973:
EMISARI - A Management Information System Designed to Aid and Involve People. In Proceedings of the Fourth International Symposium on Computers and Information Science, Miami Beach, Florida, December 1972.
Sandewall, Erik m.fl. 1976:
Förslag till forskningsprojekt inom området textbehandling. Linköpings Universitet, 1976,
Seligman, Martin E.P. 1975:
Tholerus, Torgny 1975:
Allmänhetens Informationssystem. Datalogilaboratoriet i Uppsala.
Turoff, Murray 1975B:
The future of computer conferencing. The Futurist, pp. 182-195.
Valee, Jacques 1976:
The FORUM project. Network conferencing and its future applications. Computer networks 1976, pp 39-52.