Intranets have quickly become popular in government, but primarily as distributors of documents. Corporate America is finding that intranets can do much more. Telecommunications giant MCI Worldcom has no ordinary intranet. With 550 intranet sites, workers can perform a wide range of activities online, but the most important use is online training. Unlike intranets that simply provide information about training opportunities, MCI workers can train themselves. For one business unit, intranet classes account for 40 percent of the unit's total training. Not surprisingly, training costs at the company have plummeted. Overall, MCI has saved more than $111 million in training, travel and printing costs since the intranet was launched in 1994.

MCI is not alone. Xerox's intranet has cut the cost of training for some computer classes from $105 per user to $2. Companies such as Boeing and Monsanto have reported increased productivity and reduced personnel costs as a result of their extensive intranets.

These and other companies are part of a new trend in intranet development that has expanded beyond the stage of publishing internal documents and calendars and sending e-mail to applications involving interactivity, collaboration and sharing of knowledge. It's a trend that hasn't gone unnoticed in state and local government. "Intranets are going to become the dominant method for internal information management," said Dennis Newman, MIS director of Winston-Salem, N.C.

Newman pointed out that intranet architecture hearkens back to the days of centralized information systems, but that the business model is decidedly modern, with decentralized, nonhierarchical sharing of information.

"For MIS, that means a lower cost of management and little overhead at the desktop," he added. For workers, it means more democratic access to information.

Intranets use the same computer languages, protocols, interfaces and software found on the Internet, but are only accessible to an organization's members, employees or others with authorization. Intranets look and act like any Web site, but have a software firewall blocking unauthorized access. The result is a highly flexible communications network much less expensive to build and manage than private networks based on proprietary protocols.

Grasping the Potential

State and local governments quickly grasped the communications potential and erected intranets in just about every area of government operations. Intranets have been used by police to provide neighboring enforcement agencies access to mug-shot databases. They have been used by a state finance agency to answer staff queries on corporate tax issues. Important environmental records stored as document images have been moved onto an intranet to allow more staff easy access to the information. A county's social service department has built an intranet so that caseworkers have access to up-to-date regulations on welfare and Medicare benefits. The list goes on.

In Tulare County, Calif., the Health and Human Services Agency is using the latest in Web-based tools for managing documents on an intranet. With 1,600 employees and 60,000 cases, managing documentation for manuals, policies and procedures is a logistical nightmare, according to Doug Littlejohn, the county's manager of user-support systems. The agency is installing Intra.doc!, a Web-based document-management system from Intranet Solutions Inc.

The software will allow the agency to manage its intranet documents on an enterprise scale, provide better security to its document repository and give users robust search capabilities. The agency will also be able to publish documents in various formats, and retrieve, archive and replicate documents to other sites.

On a smaller scale, Oklahoma City has deployed an intranet so that the city's Prequalification Board members have better access to the massive documentation needed to qualify a firm to bid on large-scale construction projects. Using Microsoft's off-the-shelf FrontPage Editor, Steve Gravlin, the Public Works Department's prequalification administrator, was able to build a simple intranet application for the board in one week.

"I've got 35 contractors to prequalify every month," Gravlin said. "With five board members, I

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor