David Allen Comments on the Power of Lotus Notes for Ad Hoc Databases

Earlier this week, David Allen (GTD) and Eric Mack (eProductivity) were interviewed by Bruce Elgort and Tom Duff on Episode 92 of the Taking Notes podcast. There are a few themes discussed in the 50 minute conversation, including an introduction to GTD, a discussion about David’s use of Lotus Notes, why has the world not understood the power of Lotus Notes, Eric and David’s upcoming session at Lotusphere 2009, and David’s new book.

Others have commented about various segments of the podcast (such as Eric on the Notes sucks — huh? segment), but the piece that stood out most to me was David’s advocacy of the power of ad hoc databases for local teams and groups.

Here’s a (slightly edited) transcript of David’s comments, starting at 18m50s:

Can we just create some collaborative place where we can park the relevant and appropriate data when we are focusing on some particular topic. From our perspective … the biggest and most valuable leverage use of Lotus Notes, has been the ability to be able to create ad hoc databases that are relevant to topics and big projects, so we can all park appropriate data in there, and current data, and current topics about that, and then refer people to that, as opposed to loading up email in linear, sequential fashion, where you have to run the dialogue to death with 65 interations of CC:, BCC:, CC:, BCC:, about stuff. That’s just part of the database. And then link people to that if they need to, but that’s where the conversation will be managed.

So, interestingly, and this is still something that I don’t quite understand yet, is why that very, very, very powerful feature of Lotus Notes, has not still not been tapped to the degree it could. But our own personal or at least local iteration of that, is that it is a place to capture data. So that at any place, no one has any excuses. The latest PowerPoint, the latest spreadsheet about …, the latest list of the people who are going to be in my next public seminar. It’s all in one place, and we can all access that from our virtualized places. And I don’t think anybody else on the planet has come close to anything that can really do that in such a more visually user-friendly way.” (ends at 20m32s)

A couple of thoughts:
– If people are permitted to create databases to support their personal or local collaborative work, the attraction of the system becomes much higher. David was talking about Lotus Notes, but that principle applies equally to SharePoint, Central Desktop, Socialtext, Atlassian Confluence, and all the others.
– The proliferation of local or small group databases / spaces / team sites / wikis can become a content management nightmare over time. There has to be some guidelines and governance processes in place to ensure a spagetti-like mess doesn’t result. And actually, there’s a whole chapter in Seamless Teamwork that talks about how to approach this in a SharePoint world.
– There are many other tools that will support what David is doing in Lotus Notes (although offline access and replication are vitally important to David’s workstyle, and most other tools are weak on that front), but he’s blind to them because he has adopted and embraced Lotus Notes so well. And even if he was to switch to Microsoft SharePoint, or Central Desktop, or Atlassian Confluence, or Jive Clearspace (or any of the others) for the collaborative workspaces capability, it would involve a tremendous rewiring of the practices and embedded group habits at The David Allen Company for … what benefit? A repeat of what he has now, minus seamless offline access? (although with SharePoint, he would embrace Colligo Contributor to give him that). Would there be an order-of-magnitude improvement by switching to another platform?

What do you think?

0 thoughts on “David Allen Comments on the Power of Lotus Notes for Ad Hoc Databases

  1. Michael, I’m partly to blame for The David Allen Company’s success with Lotus Notes. You see, I focused on the end user – in this case, David Allen – and gave him what he needed to get his job done. I made it easy for him to have whatever databases he needed. I still policed the databases so they did not get out of hand, but I encouraged collaboration and sharing, even in groups as small as 2 or 3 people. As a result, they created databases as they might create word documents. Freely and as needed. The technology did not get in the way. In fact, quite the opposite. the technology supported the way they work so well that they barely think about it. Good analysis of David’s comments and yes, I do not think any other product could work as well at this time, given the distributed and on-line/off-line nature of their work. I look forward to hearing you interview David; perhaps you can discuss these and other topics in greater detail… (hint)

  2. “The proliferation of local or small group databases / spaces / team sites / wikis can become a content management nightmare over time. There has to be some guidelines and governance processes in place to ensure a spaghetti-like mess doesn’t result.”
    In my experience projects have natural end points or deliverables and you can archive both the related material and the final documents and do fine, and much better than creating a single large repository.
    We use Central Desktop in all of our client work and have about 100 wikis active at the moment. We recently transferred a project wiki to a client because they wanted to set up their own subprojects (it had more than 800 wiki pages and about 150 attached documents). At least with Central Desktop–and I would assume this is true in many other systems–you can search wherever you have access to find things.
    I am not familiar with Notes or the particular capabilities that David Allen is referring to, but I think you are a little harsh in your assessment. It’s OK for project to complete and get archived, or die from lack of progress and get archived. Perhaps the challenge is to set an explicit time frame on evaluating whether the workspace should continue, collapsed into a larger wiki, or be archived.
    As long as the content is searchable and can be found again I see a lot of value in having different spaces for different teams that are collaborating around distinct sets of deliverables.

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