Intranets Revamp Systems Development
MIS organizations soon may find themselves managing internal corporate networks
P> Executives from Oracle Corp., Compaq Computer Corp. and other companies recently ventured to Chicago as part of a road trip to introduce intranet products, such as Oracle's Web server, to federal customers in regional offices. Prospects from the Environmental Protection Agency, Justice Department and other agencies showed up to learn how the World Wide Web could play a role in their re-engineering efforts.
That these companies have allied in a systems integration pact and taken their Web spiel on the road is testament that the Web is finally maturing as a market: Companies such as Netscape and Spyglass can no longer simply ship browser software or tell customers to download it from a Web site.
They have to ally with database companies, such as Oracle, and systems integrators, such as Entex Information Services Inc., to get an array of products that make the Web work as a streamlining tool. "Customers need solutions, not just technology," said one senior federal marketing executive at Oracle.
Will the arrival of intranets finally allow government agencies and corporations to fire their entire MIS department? Probably not, but they are already radically restructuring the work performed by some MIS personnel and are heralding an era of "democratized" programming. MIS departments one day might be left with just one mission-critical task -- managing the corporate intranet infrastructure. Or, what's even better from a taxpayer's point of view, the entire function may be outsourced to a systems integrator.
At Wells Fargo Bank, San Francisco, an array of departments, from corporate communications to human resources, have been experimenting with intranets for the last few months, and already have some surprising results.
"We're doing some things that are pretty antithetical to traditional systems development," said Linda Baumhefner, vice president of corporate communications at Wells Fargo. "It takes just basic HTML (hypertext markup language) skills. It is not like the ordinary ways of programming from days soon to be long gone. It is democratizing the programming process."
Wells Fargo's human resources personnel -- folks without formal technical training in programming -- create intranet applications to publish the company's 401K plans and employee manuals on Web servers. These plans can be accessed by employees on-line, as can forms that employees fill out in cyberspace. But that department isn't having all the fun. Marketing communications is crafting graphics applets on intranets. And an array of product groups and finance groups are on-line, as well. Overall, some 40 internal departments at Wells Fargo are creating their own intranet applications on servers with software from Netscape, Oracle, Illustra, NCSA, the CERN and even Windows NT.
No one knows for sure just how many intranets there are at Wells Fargo. It is completely decentralized. Previously, the development of these applications would have been done by the MIS department.
But no more. The governing philosophy is that each department will build what is intuitive to its own needs. Accordingly, the "speed of development has gone up exponentially," said Baumhefner. "This is distributed computing, squared."
Avadis Tevenian Jr., vice president of engineering at Next Inc., Redwood City, Calif, agreed. "Those who develop applications will be able to do so in a much faster time frame."
At Hallmark Cards, the $4 billion greeting card maker in Kansas City, Mo., intranet experimentation began last year. Already there has been quite a change. According to Hallmark CIO Jim Miller, about half of the company's creative personnel work on high-end Macintosh computers, such as Power Macs. They draw cartoons for greeting cards and write the rhymes for the inside of the cards.
Previously, these departments did not communicate via the computer network. They would paste rough card concepts on the bulletin board in a conference room. There would be hundreds of such roughs on the wall whenever planning sessions were held. The images of successful card concepts from years past were buried deep within the company's database.
But now, with the aid of some new intranet technology from Novell Inc., the company has changed all that. Creatives dial into the intranet to view imagery of previous hit cards, share artwork and route it to production.
"What we're doing with the intranet is bolting those business processes together in a way that there literally is never a manual hand-off until it gets out to manufacturing, where someone has to create a plate for the printing press," said Miller.
According to Glenn Miller, vice president of Entex, Cincinnati, a leading provider of computer outsourcing services, intranets already are reducing training costs at his company, and he expects the pattern to persist at client companies.
"When there is a universal GUI (graphical user interface), the role of the MIS department in terms of providing training is reduced," he said.
"PC users in a corporate setting need to learn just one software program -- that is, how to operate a Web browser. All other applications will be used through that browser. So there won't be so many questions from users."
Intranets are also changing the role of help desks. Using technology, such as net. Thread from Cambridge, Mass.-based net.Genesis, Wells Fargo fields questions for its help desk via the intranet. The messages are posted in a threaded format similar to the chat rooms one sees on the Web. "So MIS no longer has to go meet with people to provide a solution. Everything is posted on the intranet. You can see the development of a solution, and everyone chips in," said Steve Bankston, systems architect at Wells Fargo. "We don't have to sit in boring meetings discussing these problems."
Bankston foresees a time when MIS will be left with nothing more than the mandate to monitor and maintain the corporate intranet infrastructure. For some companies, the move toward intranets will be the first time ever that they have a distributed computing environment. Michael Wolf, partner in the media and entertainment division of the consulting firm Booz-Allen & Hamilton, works with major Hollywood moguls such as Ted Turner and Edgar Bronfman, and he indicated that their movie studios will, for the first time, abandon their sneaker networks, furlough those personnel and go with intranets.
Long-touted as key players in digital convergence, these movie studios are actually technology laggards. Distributed computing is not the paradigm; those who have computers are isolated and cannot share information. MIS departments are relegated to fixing bugs in applications.
"Presently, all mission-critical information is hand-delivered by messenger or bicycle courier," said Wolf. "But the studios have active plans to employ intranets in the near future. Intranets will allow them to view dailies of movies under production.
They will also enable companies with an array of intranets -- movies, books, magazines -- to share content. This will lead to real repurposing. You can film a scene with a volcano for a movie, put it on the intranet, and use the imagery in a CD-ROM or a magazine."
The role of MIS is already being reshaped by intranets. "Intranets are what client-server was supposed to be," said Bob Frankenberg, CEO of Novell Inc. "It empowers the users to create their own computing solutions."
But there are other tools that systems integrators can sell to promote the Web, both for intranet and Internet uses. Thousands of U.S. companies have generated 100,000 hits at their World Wide Web sites during the last week. Many have a hot link with Hot Wired. And their company's Web page is repeatedly listed on the Cool Sites of the Day. So what?
They now have to take it to the next level. According to senior corporate strategists and analysts speaking at Spring Internet World, all of corporate America's on-line efforts mean absolutely nothing to their company's image and bottom line if they don't acquire information about those who surf to their site, and utilize it to serve them more effectively.
To succeed in the digital age, they must develop a database of users and prospects for products. In other words, the Web needs data warehousing to survive beyond the hype stage.
"You must develop relationship marketing skills," said moderator Andrew Jaffe, vice president and executive editor of Brandweek magazine. "You can talk to one person at a time. We have to hone all of those skills. You have to go to the client and say, 'Hold on. I can give you a Web site for $50,000 to $100,000.' But where is your server? Where is your database?"
Pure, on-line imagery is not enough. The Web page must become a repository of institutional memory of each meeting with a prospect or customer.
According to Bill Cleary, a founder and senior partner at CKS Partners, one of the leading digital marketing agencies in the San Francisco Bay area, databases provide customers with the information they need for a "considered purchase."
The Web is appropriate for publicizing a car or a house or a vacation destination, but probably not suitable for posting press releases about Cheetos or Fritos, for not much thought or deliberation is required to buy one of those consumer products.
Cleary indicated he recently bought a new BMW after visiting the company's Web site and using its database features to be linked to a local salesman. Another company that uses databases extensively on-line is the San Jose Mercury News, a daily newspaper that initially viewed its presence on America Online as a mere electronic replication of its publication.
But according to Jean Edwards, national on-line manager for Knight-Ridder Newspapers, the service now has a database of information on its customers who visit the site. They can send in e-mail and request that specific stories be sent to them every day, reducing the amount of time scanning the service on-line.
This has increased substantially the paper's name recognition and has even extended the paper's reach beyond the Silicon Valley area.
The rest of the Knight-Ridder chain is now emulating the success, and one paper in Kentucky is creating a Web service called "Kentucky Hoops," which will provide customized basketball stories. "Building a Web site is just the first step," said Edwards.
But, added Cleary, most companies and government agencies are not implementing Web programs with this level of sophistication.
"Agencies are laggards in the on-line world. We need to get this going as a complement to the other media.
"Right now, most Web efforts are like early TV. They're shovelware -- repurposed content from another medium. The big challenge is really managing the brand in the on-line world," Cleary said.