Intranets: More Than a Messenger

Intranets: More Than a Messenger

by / February 28, 1999
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 was spending most of my time photocopying documents."

Gravlin considered using CD-ROM to distribute the documents, but opted for the cheaper, more flexible intranet. It has few bells and whistles, but is effective in linking the board's agenda with the items they need to consider at each monthly meeting.

"The board members are excited about this," Gravlin commented. "They can see a point in the future when their meetings will be paperless."

In Winston-Salem, the city's Department of Information Services is looking for ways to extend its intranet beyond the document-publishing stage and into the field of interactivity and collaboration. According to Walt Pitcher, information systems programmer in charge of the city's intranet, it's not that easy.

"The challenge is getting people to think in a different mode, to move away from paper and start doing things online," Pitcher said. "People are a little wary of pushing a button and wondering whether the transaction actually occurred."

To move toward a more online-driven environment, the city is centralizing its data in an Oracle database for better access. Small interactive applications have been written in Perl, a Web-based programming language, to keep track of city hardware and software that is Y2K compliant. Other applications include the use of interactive forms, also written in Perl, for purchase requisitions and travel.

The department also purchased Common Ground Web Publisher from Hummingbird Communications to improve the handling of documents on the city's intranet and Internet sites. Common Ground allows workers to submit documents directly to the intranet by simply dropping the document into a directory, which is automatically converted into a universal document format that maintains the graphic integrity of the original and then publishes to the Web server.

Common Ground automatically updates the HTML navigation pages that link to the documents so directory information is always current. The Web publishing process is completely automated, so webmasters like Pitcher don't have to worry about document conversion, posting on the Web or updating tables of contents.

Leveraging Information

Intranet development software such as Common Ground and Intra.doc! has come in response to customer demands for tools that simplify the task of publishing documents on internal Web sites. Workers are looking not so much for more information, but for ways to make the information more useful.

As a result, corporations are finding that intranets have spawned collaboration among teams of workers distant geographically and hierarchically. Xerox discovered that with intranets, workers are creating applications that break through the company's traditional hierarchy and save money and time. Intranets let workers make travel arrangements and order business cards.

At a higher level, intranets allow an organization to reuse its collective knowledge without the impediments of geography, organizational hierarchy and the requisite approval process, which can slow the sharing of knowledge. To help workers tap into a company's expertise, some firms are building their intranets into corporate portal Web sites, similar to the commercial ones popping up on the Internet. These portals can streamline access to information, making it easier to convert terabytes of internal information into knowledge.

Intranet portals use the same concept developed by America Online, Microsoft, Excite, Netscape and other Web sites, displaying categories of information aimed at specific departments of the organization. Companies such as Boeing and Monsanto, with long, extensive intranet experience, have built portals that not only allow employees to quickly find the information they are searching for, but to also add information on their own. The result is increased productivity and lower costs, according to experts.

But building a portal isn't cheap. Software licenses for the special software needed to build a portal can run as high as $100,000 per server, not including integration, programming and maintenance costs. One option around these high costs is to lease a portal. Netscape's Custom Netcenter lets companies create custom portals that mix internal information with news from commercial services, such as the Dow Jones news service.

Even for less expansive intranets, development and maintenance costs can prove formidable. Analysts also point to other issues that can impede use of intranets:

* Data glut. Proliferating intranets can swamp workers with too much information and leave them without an effective means of finding what they want. Agencies should be prepared to spend money on well-designed search engines and time on teaching employees how to conduct an effective search.

* Overburdened webmasters. Many organizations are finding that the demands of running a Web site can far exceed the ability of the webmaster to run it.

* Security. Stories abound of companies (and government agencies) that have had their firewalls penetrated by crackers. Stringent security policies and procedures must be in place if an agency wants to avoid cleaning up a security breach in their intranet.

* Information ownership. Many corporations and governments have found that workers who control information are often reluctant to give it up for the common good of an intranet. There are no simple answers to persuading workers and managers to loosen their grip on information.

So how do you convince a city/county manager, department head or agency chief to support today's intranet because it will be tomorrow's foundation for worker knowledge?

"They aren't used to dealing with technology," Winston-Salem MIS Director Dennis Newman pointed out. "I have to explain it to them in terms of the overall solution."
Tod Newcombe Features Editor