A growing number of companies are discovering the benefits of intranets. Rounding up a company's PCs under one network makes communication easier, and saves time and paper.
We have all by now heard about the Internet - the technology that links millions of users on tens of thousands of networks worldwide. (For background see Technology columns in June, July, August and September 1996 issues of Mortgage Banking.) As it turns out, the technology that supports the Internet is increasingly being deployed within corporations - linking large numbers of employees in "intranets." And it's not just corporations; whole communities are going up on intranets. Disney's planned community outside Orlando - Celebration - is being wired to allow all residents access to a network that will support e-mail and electronic commerce.
An intranet uses the same technologies a company has already deployed to provide access to the Internet: browsers, hypertext servers and the TCP/IP protocol. This means intranets can be deployed for relatively little additional investment. However, intranets can achieve some significant savings, primarily by eliminating paper. We may still be a long way from the paperless office, but intranets are making great strides in doing away with forms, reports, memos and the much-dreaded three-ring binder. These are being replaced not just with electronic versions but with software that restructures the information in a highly user-friendly form.
Instead of laboring through a table of contents or guessing at the name of a form, the browser lets an employee send an inquiry anywhere in the firm. Search engine software then retrieves the information from one or multiple sources on servers located anywhere in the company. The server can even be the mainframe, because the protocol provides a bridge between previously incompatible hardware platforms (e.g., IBM and Apple PCs).
Intranet/Internet technology differs from traditional computing in several ways, primarily by replacing the text/graphics-based front end with multimedia, and by shifting the focus from canned, highly structured presentations of data to a more fluid, inquiry-based approach. As Jiri Neckleba, CEO of INTERLINQ Software Corporation in Kirkland, Washington, says, "Our current systems are focused on delivering data; intranets are focused on delivering answers."
Figure 1 shows numerous uses that various departments might have for an intranet. Typically, staff functions such as human resources, information technology (I/T) and finance have been the early users, because their information tends to cross organizational boundaries. As we shall see, line functions, such as engineering and sales, are coming to realize the value of this technology.
The three C's
Intranets evolve, moving up a hierarchy from enhancing communication (vertical and lateral) to assisting with coordination of activities and decision-making and potentially to supporting true collaboration among people addressing current issues or planning for the future.
Intranets can enhance communication by bringing company-wide e-mail. They can be used to automate forms, broadcast events, automate manuals and generally free departments from having to distribute paper. However, as Patricia Schnaidt, writing in the June 1, 1996 edition of Network Computing Online, observes, "That kind of intranet is about as exciting as yesterday's sports news." Enhancing the intranet to provide real-time access to production systems, online directories and catalogs of products, customer profiles and the like adds much more value. One manager at Hughes Electronics, finding that the departmental budget was posted on its home page on the intranet, thought the move toward openness had gone too far. Usually these things are deep dark secrets. And, yet filtered data can often be misleading data.
Coordination options include workgroup- or enterprise-level calendaring (time management) and scheduling (proiect management). A new product or system rollout schedule would be a great addition to the intranet. Having a list of corporate events, or even soliciting topics for regional, divisional or corporate meetings can easily be accommodated. Training classes (even incorporating audio and video) can be made available on the intranet, accessible to employees as their time permits. Also fitting into this category is the ability to distribute software updates, a real boon for information technology.
The final evolution of intranets supports real collaboration, which involves capitalizing on widespread knowledge-sharing in order to take action. This can be done by holding impromptu brainstorming/problem-solving sessions on a particular question or issue. Or it can come in the form of "virtual teams," where people are not formally displaced from their reporting hierarchies but are instead tapped to focus part of their time on a topic, typically some kind of product innovation or process improvement. Because the teams are virtual and are collaborating largely through electronic means, they can be geographically dispersed, can involve people at different levels in the organization and can meet "asynchronously" - that is, not all together at one time.
An example of collaboration comes from Allied-Signal Aerospace in Torrance, California. It has 4,000 users on small local intranets. By the end of 1997, the company plans to connect its 38,000 desktops to an intranet framework to be used for collaboration and dissemination of work instructions and company policies. Similarly, Hughes Electronics does not assign people to permanent organizational structures but instead creates product teams on a need-driven basis. The intranet becomes a vehicle for them to synchronize their work.
The mortgage entity of a bank might post on an intranet bulletin board the question: "How can we change our monthly statement to be more of a marketing tool?" A virtual team could be formed to recommend alternatives, with representatives from marketing, legal, customer service, I/T and other departments. The marketing department might then mock up a new statement on the intranet and ask employees at all levels for feedback. Based on that feedback, revised forms are displayed on PCs in branch offices, in the main headquarters lobby, perhaps in the company cafeteria and on the Web site for customer feedback. The form could be e-mailed to the printer for comments or price quotes. The final form then is designed and e-mailed for final approval.
By following this theoretical course, the process took weeks rather than months. It involved many more people than would normally be the case, was road tested before delivery and was done without a scrap of paper being created, mailed, filed or eventually discarded. It was done without the usually endless series of meetings or presentations, because people responded at a time and in a way that was convenient for them.
Who's using intranets?
In June 1996, Tonex Consulting organized the first executive conference on intranets, sponsored by Computerworld, a division of IDG in Framingham, Massachusetts. More than 100 chief information officers attended, and most were well along in intranet implementation, including firms such as Liberty Mutual Insurance, R.R. Donnelly & Sons, Johnson & Johnson, Chrysler Corporation, MCA/Universal, Hewlett-Packard, Hughes Electronics, IBM, MGM/UA, Pacific Bell and the World Bank. Although implementations varied, all needed to tie together often thousands of employees in various locations to share information.
In the financial services area, ScotiaBank in Toronto, Canada, has installed an intranet linking its 2,500-plus in-house analysts across Canada. In the past, stock evaluations were updated daily and only accessible to a few employees. There were no detailed graphics or color. Now the corporate intranet provides continuously updated data in full multimedia form.
Morgan Stanley Group, Inc., in New York City provides an example of a more advanced use of an intranet. The company wanted a means to get an update on the company's positions in a variety of bonds as well as the latest...