Sunday, January 21, 2007

Intranet 101 Article

Just Another Buzzword? Webster's Dictionary defines "buzzword" as " an important-sounding technical word or phrase often of little meaning used chiefly to impress layman." Is intranet just another buzzword? The answer is "No". Major corporations and companies as small as 15 employees are reaping the benefits of developing intranets. Companies have discovered a new way to deliver coordination and collaboration to their employees.

What is an intranet? An intranet is a private computer network based on the communication standards of the Internet. It is smaller version of the Internet that only the members of an organization can see. These internal Webs are growing from an explosion in the use and understanding of Internet technology.

The past few years have seen exponential growth in companies connecting to the Internet. In July 1996 there were 12,000,000 servers and desktops connected. Companies began the use of Internet technology by setting up e-mail gateways to the Internet. They then moved to setting up Web servers to publish basic corporate Web sites. The biggest trend now is to use those same tools that publish information to the world to publish information internally across a private network, the intranet.

Why set up an intranet? Companies are looking for an open-architecture, cost-effective solution for distributing information throughout their organization. Employees want better information faster. The intranet offers this solution.

As on the Internet the Web browser is the universal interface for the intranet. Never before has a company had the ability to set up a network where all the operations run from one interface that can run on disparate platforms. Now the UNIX user can communicate with the MAC user who can then communicate with the Windows user.

This universal interface will decrease the learning curve of new applications, decreases the need for costly proprietary software upgrades at the desktop and provide a common look and feel to all applications.

An intranet is surprisingly inexpensive to implement. Browsers such as Netscape Navigator and the Microsoft Internet Explorer are almost free. A simple Web server can be set up for a few thousand dollars and someone can even download free server software from the Internet. Many companies can maintain an intranet with only one person. With the advent of many HTML authoring tools the publishing of content for the intranet grows ever easier.

The intranet provides a way for employees to gain better access to more time-sensitive information. The intranet can end the paper trail of many office applications. Now that information is published on the intranet instead of printed in a company paper newsletter the employee can make faster more informed decisions. In summary, the benefits on an intranet include:

  1. Easy to set up and administer
  2. Open Architecture
  3. Universal interface
  4. Inexpensive
  5. Connects all operating system platforms
  6. Cost effective
  7. Faster access to information
  8. Better Decision making
  9. Build and share knowledge

What are the obstacles to implementing an intranet? With every introduction of new technology obstacles must be overcome. There is no exception with the introducing Internet technology to the workplace. I examine them below.

  • Bandwidth and the excitement surrounding the technology - An intranet can publish text, audio, and video. This has never been capable before across one internal network. Employees can get very excited about the technology and will scream for more and more applications. The administrators of the system must be very careful monitor use of the system to control bandwidth flow.
  • Employee Fears - Many managers may resist the intranet because it provides information so quickly to the lowest level of employee. Information equals power in most organizations and managers must be convinced that empowering users with knowledge will not endanger their job.
  • Reward for Collaborative Behavior - Intranets build cooperation and the sharing of ideas. Many organizations reward competitive behavior among employees. Rewards must be set up for the sharing of information and knowledge across departmental boundaries for the intranet to be successful.

Who can use an intranet? Virtually any department that needs information in a timely fashion can benefit from an intranet. I have listed some examples below.

    Human Resources
  • On-line job postings
  • Career Development and training
  • On-line employment directories
  • Web-based forms for collection of payroll and insurance information
  • Search engines to gather market research
  • Sales tracking and reporting
  • On-line catalogs
    Corporate Office
  • On-line newsletters
  • Corporate events calendar
  • Links to company resources and tools

What does it take to build an intranet? Every intranet contains some basic components. Companies choose to supply some or all of these internally while others go to outside consultants. I have listed the basic components of an intranet below.

  • A company must generally have TCP/IP as the protocol of the network to run an intranet. The network must have enough bandwidth. An intranet can handle all types of multimedia.

  • Security
  • Firewalls must be installed to keep hackers on the Internet from accessing company information. If users are to be allowed access to the intranet from a remote location security rights must be set up through the firewall. Note that the intranet does not have to be hooked up to the Internet.

  • Hardware and Software
  • The intranet runs off a Web HTTP server. The server can be running various operating systems from UNIX, MAC or Windows NT. The server software that delivers the HTML files to the browsers is offered from many vendors. Some are even giving it away with an operating system such as Microsoft's Internet Information Server. The employee will need a Web browser at the desktop level. Content publishers will want authoring tools and web development tools such as Java and Microsoft Active Server Pages. Users will want search engines such as the Google Search Engine or the AltaVista Search Tool to find information quickly.

Are Corporations in Atlanta developing intranets? Major corporations are not usually the first to embrace new technology but I offer a case study of one Atlanta corporation doing just that. he following case study will focus on the BellSouth corporate headquarters intranet, serving employees at the Campanile building in midtown Atlanta. This intranet serves roughly 700 of the 80,000 BellSouth employees. It should be noted that BellSouth has many intranets and this case study focuses on only the intranet at corporate headquarters.

BellSouth began creating this intranet about eight months ago. As with many companies they were phasing out a VAX system and were looking for a new internal network solution. The persons that control the technology at BellSouth were aware of Internet technology and that it may offer a cost-effective solution. BellSouth made sure to cost-justify every phase of intranet development. The intranet was developed with the user in mind. BellSouth emphasizes that "the employees are our customers."

The intranet is used for data retrieval and active applications. The corporate intranet is used to publish a corporate directory on all employees. Users can use the on-line "Employee Locator" to find information on any employee at corporate headquarters or any subsidiary. The employees receive real-time stock quotes over the intranet. BellSouth corporate employees can put in ticket requests for immediate technical service or schedule projects and conferences via the intranet. Intranet applications are linked into e-mail and paging services to help facilitate communication on all requests.

BellSouth faced few obstacles in implementing the intranet. Employees were very excited about the new technology. BellSouth used auditorium learning sessions along with a help desk to train users on the new system. Individual departments are responsible for publishing their own content and one administrator maintains the system. New applications are developed in a modular fashion with the concepts developed in house and determinations made to see if outside help is needed for development.

What has been the impact? According to BellSouth officials, the corporate headquarters intranet has brought cost-savings and increased employee effectiveness in the following areas:

  1. Employees have access to more time-sensitive information faster enhancing the decision-making process.
  2. The intranet has been very inexpensive to administer.
  3. As new applications are created BellSouth has not had to update the user interface.
  4. The intranet has created an atmosphere of excitement. Employees are very curious about the technology and are suggesting new uses.
  5. BellSouth has seen great savings in cutting back on the use of paper to publish information.
  6. The ability to securely access the intranet from a remote site was very useful during the Olympics when BellSouth instituted a telecommuting policy.

What is BellSouth working on now? With the great excitement over this technology BellSouth has put together an Intranet Team. This team, made up of content publishers from various departments, will be responsible for mapping out the strategic direction of where they take intranet development. BellSouth plans to continue to move the intranet away from being a data repository to a foundation for interactive applications and electronic commerce.

Can Other Southern Companies use an intranet? The intranet has made its way from Silicon Valley to the South. Many southern companies are following the lead of major corporations and using intranet technology to solve business problems. I submit a regional banking firm as a test case. This company wished to have its name concealed, as having an intranet is often perceived as competitive advantage. Many companies do not wish to let their competitors know how they are delivering better service to their employees and customers. I will call this company SmartCorp.

Why intranet? The SmartCorp. began their intranet development as an experiment. They were looking for a way to better disseminate information to employees and better automate customer service processes. Rather than using proprietary software to deliver this end they decided to use this project as a testing ground for the creation of an intranet. The SmartCorp. had heard of Internet technology being used internally by other companies and felt it could offer them a cost-effective solution.

The intranet was developed internally. SmartCorp. set up a web server behind their firewall to host the intranet. This web server runs Windows NT, OReilly's Web Site server software, and the Cold Fusion database development tool. One person was responsible for publishing content, administering the server and educating users. The lack of knowledge of HTML, CGI and web browsers was an early obstacle to development.

What did SmartCorp. develop? SmartCorp. has an internal corporate web site that is a click away from resources dedicated to better automate Customer Service processes. A good example of this is the "Online Ticksheets". Each time a Customer Service Associate completes a certain job or task they used to make a tick mark on preformatted paper so that at the end of the day, a manager could see how many calls were taken and what actions were completed for each call. Now this is all done online via the intranet. Now that the process is now on the intranet it is easier for managers to obtain statistical reporting. Employees use the intranet for online project submissions, informational searches on people and banks in the industry and various web forms.

Has it been a success? SmartCorp. notes three areas of intranet success:

  1. The intranet has significantly cut down on paper flow of information. The intranet has become the source of information on basic issues for the Customer Service Associate. Employees can get to this information at any time or place if they have a web browser and the right security clearance.
  2. Web technology and the browser have provided a common platform that does not have to be updated at the client's personal computer.
  3. New applications can be developed faster and deployed to a greater audience using the intranet.

What is SmartCorp. working on now? SmartCorp. is moving their intranet from a source of published information and online forms to a system that runs business processes. SmartCorp. is currently developing an Employee Expense Reporting system. This system brings employee credit card statements off a mainframe into a SQL server database that resides on the intranet web server. Each employee visits this site and fills out online forms that associate each transaction with an expense. Supervisors visit the site and approve or disapprove these expense reports. Controllers then visit the site to approve payment. Once this payment is approved, the system issues a debit or credit to the employee account. This system will end the paper trail of expense reporting and give SmartCorp. a competitive advantage in the area of electronic commerce. Many times a company uses the knowledge gained in developing its intranet and delivers it to its customers as a product. SmartCorp. is working to expand its intranet to other departments and is setting up guidelines where each department will be responsible for publishing its own content.

Can this case be applied to other firms? The answer is yes. Companies as small as 15 employees are benefiting from the implementation of an intranet. If a company is struggling to distribute time valuable information to its employees then it can benefit from an intranet. If a company has many hardware and software platforms that restrict information flow then it can benefit from the universal interface of the Web browser. Any company that has remote employees that need information in a quick and inexpensive fashion can benefit from an intranet. Southern companies should not feel that only large California high-tech firms have gain to be reached from this technology. Competitive advantage and increased profits have no geographical preference. I would like to thank the groups at BellSouth corporate headquarters and SmartCorp. for allowing me to use their company information in presenting intranet case studies.