Intranets, which feed our need for manipulating even more information, have become pervasive in our corporate culture
By John Makulowich
Chalk up the spectacular growth of intranets in corporations and federal government agencies to the ongoing democratization of computing. That's the way Mike Muth, a senior consultant with Delphi Consulting Group Inc. in Boston, sees it. It's a part of the ongoing process of developers motivated to fit the tool to the hand, says Muth.
"The critical issue is access to information. The importance of the intranet is its platform independence," he says. "The computing wars have gone by the by. Now you can get to any information you need, whether electronic commerce or extranets."
The recently released Delphi Intranet Report finds that the corporate intranet is already firmly entrenched as an information platform and has moved beyond the "newsstand" model of the public Internet into hosting business applications and improving collaboration.
Delphi's survey, reflecting the views of more than 600 technically sophisticated business professionals, shows that intranet use, almost nonexistent in 1994, is now pervasive. Thirty-seven percent of the organizations surveyed have more than 75 percent of their desktops connected to an intranet. Three years from now, more than 82 percent expect this level of fully connected internal network.
International Data Corp., Framingham, Mass., cautions companies against overlooking the intranet's distinct markets, founded on function and target audience.
In a recent issue of its popular Gray Sheet, the IT marketing research and consulting firm identified three such markets: a new electronic document infrastructure; the foundation for a new generation of client/server-based transaction and decision-support applications; and a TCP/IP-based enterprise network infrastructure.
In a back-of-the-hand swipe at Microsoft, the study quotes one of its own executives, Hadley Reynolds, director of research, as saying, "Perhaps most significantly, normal people find the intranet easy to use - maybe not quite as easy as the telephone used to be, but easy enough to make Windows 95 seem like heavy lifting."
The most intriguing finding, from a business point of view, was voiced by Delphi's president, Thomas M. Koulopoulos. He noted, "These survey results show a new model of computing componentry emerging." Desktop control was not to become the domain of either the Netscape or Microsoft browser. Instead, he expressed the belief that "vendors will provide application shells and sets of plug-in objects for construction of highly specialized desktops. The emphasis shifts from technology to core competencies."
Department of Health and Human Services Travel Intranet
One federal worker who is focusing on intranet applications and who predates the browser battles and even the popularity of the Internet is Bill Boyle, a financial systems analyst in the Program Support Center of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Formed about a year ago, this division offers the full range of accounting services for the Health Resources and Services Administration and the Food and Drug Administration, as well as DHHS regional components.
Way back in 1989, led by the vision of an electronic, paperless future shared by Dennis Fischer, now the chief financial officer with the General Services Administration, Boyle developed a self-contained travel system on a mainframe that required users to master the strokes of a 3270 emulation to use the program. Unique even now, he was well-suited to the task as an accountant with a programming background and knowledge of government travel regulations. In 1993-1994, he ported the program to a Hewlett-Packard server.
"You can imagine what it was like in 1989 getting so many people up on a mainframe with 2400 baud modems," jokes Boyle. "When we first started, we were told that all staff had PCs on their desks and knew what they were doing. When we went to see them, we quickly realized that we needed to train them how to turn the machines on. That's all changed. Now we service 15,000 registered users throughout the department. Our data show that we get about 75 to 100 users simultaneously every day; the limit is about 150."
The program, which manages the department's travel, allows users to sign on and prepare travel documents, including orders and vouchers, and then to get them approved. A turnkey process, the program even sends the reimbursement electronically to the user's bank account and performs an audit.
"Fischer had a vision of how travel would operate. While some agencies are paper-based and see the future in those terms, his vision was to go electronic. We don't send any paper to finance anymore," says Boyle.
While he lacks hard data, Boyle estimates that millions of dollars have been saved by the travel intranet. He explained that when the HP servers were bought, the estimate was made that the program could save 10 FTEs, or full time equivalents, including voucher examiners. Other factors that affect savings included tying all the regions into one system and reducing the number of staff and the time required to review travel documents.
"We had literally hundreds of people with blanket travel advances, such as auditors and inspectors who were always on the road," explains Boyle. "We had to do that because it took so long to pay them. When we brought the travel system online, we canceled the advances and initiated a 48-hour guaranteed payment. That is, once the payment is approved, you get your money in 48 hours. The key is the approval in the system," says Boyle.
Asked for lessons learned that could be passed to other agencies who desire to explore the benefits of intranets, Boyle quickly replies, "First, nothing works the first time. Second, don't believe anything anyone says. If I started all over, I would have to design a system geared to the lowest common denominator user, with no margin to make a decision, but only point and click. I would develop another one for experts."
General Services Administration
Now the chief financial officer at GSA, often thought of as Uncle Sam's business manager, Dennis Fischer recalls the work on the DHHS travel system and admits he could not have pictured all the technology development that's occurred over the last eight years.
"That specific system tried to put on the desktop - in front of the individual - access to information about travel. We wanted to set up an interactive system where the travel and the approver and the accounting organization were linked together. Back then it was a mainframe and 3270 technology. Our short-term thinking was to get out of the paper-based process. We asked ourselves, 'Why aren't there all those things jumping off the desk to help us do our job?'" says Fischer.
From where he stands now, what does the technology future hold for the federal worker?
"I believe that the federal government worker will be plugged in wherever we are and tied back to some net that brings us all together. In a way, we will be back to where the worker was when there was no telephone in the company. We'll always be in contact, for instance, with mobile voice or mobile data," says Fischer.
For the Internet and intranet in the financial arena, he says, the key question for employees and vendors alike will remain: Where is my money? Already the GSA has put its payment files online for its employees, accessible via the intranet. Soon, vendors will come in by an extranet (through a firewall) to review the status of their invoices. Fischer knows it will amount to fewer phone calls.
The webmaster on the day-to-day GSA intranet hot seats, or InSites, is Mark Kaprow, a computer specialist who manages a number of Sun Microsystems servers. On the GSA pages, employees find a range of information and services, including Human Resources, Administrative Services, Agency Phone Book, Document Library, Travel, Personal Safety, Idea Exchange and GSA Library Services. He sums up his attitude in administering the sites as "Let a thousand flowers bloom."
"We don't want to limit our users. There's tremendous potential here and we don't want to put a limit on the intranet. We decentralize everything as far down as possible. If there is a group that owns content, we give them the ability to put up a [World Wide] Web site, maintain it and upgrade it," says Kaprow.
He admits the majority of that content is straight HTML, or hypertext markup language, with the minimal amount of common gateway interface for programming interactive World Wide Web pages. He says the GSA is at the leading edge of federal agencies because agency executives early on saw the need for a countrywide system. "Alongside the evolution of the infrastructure, a lot of the success of the intranets comes from people having done this all along. We had a purely Notes [IBM/Lotus] intranet for a long time. The Web server environment is nice because everyone likes browsers," says Kaprow.
The drive to make GSA Internet-ready took on urgency when the administrator, David J. Barram, a former Silicon Valley executive with Apple, Silicon Graphics and Hewlett-Packard, made Flag Day (June 14) last year the key date for getting Internet protocol, or an Internet address, on everyone's desktop. In the same month, the agency's first intranet was launched on a Sun server. How far the agency has come shows in recently compiled data on staff use. From Nov. 1, 1996, through Jan. 31, 1997, more than 9,384 different IP addresses accessed the intranet at least once out of 12,000 to 13,000 with personal computers. Variation in the data is caused by proxy servers, as well as the use of Notes as browsers.
Don Heffernan, the GSA's assistant chief information officer and the person who manages the Office of Information Infrastructure, paints another portrait of the agency's activity. He admits that the agency did not build a business case before it set up the intranet.
"We had Internet connectivity for a number of years, a connection through BBN Planet. At the peak, there were about 1,500 users. But last year we formed a Business Technology Council at GSA in which the administrator was very active," says Heffernan.
At that meeting, there was a briefing of Internet technology and the issues involved in turning the technology inward were addressed. What became clear was that the use of the Internet would be a key competitiveness factor and that the agency needed to get people on the Web to get the experience. In fact, it was the administrator who led the discussion about intranets and the Internet and fired up the Business Technology Council for the Flag Day effort.
One of the major challenges for the GSA, like every other person and organization who's strolled on the Web, is staying atop the mount of information and keeping their professional content up to date. Heffernan, who brings to his position five years experience as GSA director of personnel and over 20 years in a number of human resource activities, says the GSA solution was to create a Webmasters Council.
For the future, he sees movement toward extranets, which amounts to allowing so-called "Trusted Partners" limited access to intranet-based databases. It's a necessary move, especially since, according to Heffernan, GSA has "pretty much lost its application development expertise. The other side of the fact that it's hard to keep up with what's possible is the increasing reliance on contractors. The result is that we don't have a stable of applications developers now."
He explains that the GSA mission involves, among other things, managing about 8,000 federal buildings across the country and serving as an office supply store for the federal government - not internal application development. Still, the challenge is the wide-area network and an Internet presence, as well as the need to maintain a level of expertise just to manage the contractors.
"Good networking becomes critical now," says Heffernan. "We need to make sure our expert staff get hands-on to stay interested. And of course we can't be at the mercy of our contractors."
American Productivity and Quality Center
|Dr. Carla O'Dell of the American Productivity & Quality Center says the center was largely responsible in the early 1980s for catalyzing the quality movement in the federal government. |
The issue of contractors guarding the hen house raises quality management issues, a fact not lost on Dr. Carla O'Dell, president of the American Productivity & Quality Center in Houston.
She points out that APQC was largely responsible in the early 1980s for catalyzing the quality movement in the federal government, which led eventually to the creation of the Baldrige Award, named after former Department of Commerce secretary Malcolm Baldrige.
"One of the things that came out of Baldrige was benchmarking and best practices. We worked with 85 corporations using computer
conferencing to fashion what has become the International Benchmarking Clearinghouse. We now have about 470 organizations as members, among them every Department of Defense service branch, DHHS, Treasury, Veterans Affairs, National Security Agency and the United States Postal Service," says O'Dell.
The organization also maintains a best practices database for members, which contains about 3,000 best organizational practices. About 300 are added each month. Covered are all the Baldrige Award winners in areas where they excelled, such as customer satisfaction and training.
More to the point, APQC addresses issues on quality management and intranets. According to O'Dell, the quality community inside organizations is called upon to identify their best practices, which are often both descriptive and prescriptive. For APQC, the area is best considered knowledge management, which amounts to the strategies and processes of identifying, capturing and leveraging knowledge to help the organization compete. It is also a set of management practices focused on common tasks, such as quality initiatives inside organizations or collaborative technologies, such as Lotus Notes or Domino 4.5.
O'Dell highlights IBM as a company aggressively using collaboration technology and the intranet to link people together to get information to the right people at the right time.
"Another example of the surge of interest in intranets and the speed with which it can penetrate an organization is the National Security Agency," says O'Dell. "We were invited to the NSA, the first private sector organization to do a site visit. We explored with them how they went about sharing nonconfidential knowledge, the medium of communication they use, how they conducted Web forums and how they constructed learning projects. We gained enormous insight into their vision, which they summed up as 'information superiority for America - one team, one mission.'"
At least three factors sped up the process. First, the NSA staff was highly computer literate. Second, extensive use of the Internet served to teach everyone how to use the intranet. And third, staff members, by the nature of their jobs, were mission-driven and knowledge-driven, eager to share information and easily accessible to one another.
Among the tools used on the NSA intranet are Practice Centers, where groups of employees share experiences and knowledge about a certain issue. There is also a Lessons Learned database with three types: Informational Lessons Learned, Successful Lessons Learned and Problem Lessons Learned. The first type covers events like temporary duty in an emergency; the second includes all that went well in a crisis; and the last describes when and where something went wrong and suggested recommendations to correct the problem.
Asked for the key intranet success factors, O'Dell notes that beyond the need for a common task, a common charter and a common relationship, there are five elements.
"First is universal access, not just [Internet protocol] on every desktop, but wherever users are. Second, is an intranet interface that is intuitive and easy to use. Third is a well-designed and developed directory, a way to find information and people, as well as search engines. Fourth is some common standards, such as taxonomies and research norms. Last is the need to address the liability issues, to create norms, rules and consequences of what is done on the Internet and the intranets.
Frontier Technologies Corp.
Dr. Prakash Ambegaonkar, chairman and CEO of Frontier Technologies in Mequon, Wis., is editor of a recently published work on intranets, "Intranet Resource Kit: Everything You Need to Create Your Intranet Today" from Osborne McGraw-Hill, and the head of one of the first companies to do client/server authentication. He says the current popularity of the Internet and intranets, especially the speed at which the technology is moving, creates a new array of problems.
"My personal feeling is that in the intranet world, most people are confused about the technology. The speed at which it moves makes it difficult to know when to start and when to stop. In that sense, maybe Microsoft and Netscape have done more harm then good. What do I mean? The danger is that you, as a business person, cannot make an economic decision about what technology to pursue or the customer does not know when they have come to a decision point about a particular technology. Thus, there are psychological and economic factors involved in creating an intranet," says Ambegaonkar.
Falling back to a common sense approach, he suggests that people ask the simple questions: How do I use this? What does it mean for my business? How compelling are the
"Right now we see a spate of complex products with too many bells and whistles. If the technology is made simpler, then that moves partly toward solving the customer's problems. We believe that the solutions must be very easy to use. For our products, such as Intranet Genie, we conduct focus groups among various customers in the metropolitan Milwaukee area during lunch hours. We stress that the intranet will change the culture of their company," he says.
For example, Intranet Genie is a software solution that allows network managers to set up Web sites without requiring extensive technical expertise. The client set includes remote administration, a Web page builder, legacy document conversion, secure MIME e-mail, and distributed search and discussion clients. There is no question in his mind that use of the Web or intranet for business sales will increase. In fact, he sees a radical impact on distribution and sales.
"In my model, the product will be developed on Saturday, downloaded the first thing Monday morning and used by Monday afternoon. The conditions, of course, are that the software must be designed correctly, shipped over the Internet or intranet, protected from viruses, easy to download, install and train. In fact, there will only be one department in the information age, that is marketing. All will be collaborative efforts," says Ambegaonkar.
He likens the current climate of development to the fashion industry, driven by marketing and consumed by promotion. Part of the responsibility falls on the industry, whose competitiveness, whether the fastest CPU or the largest memory, created the frenzy of betas. But that could be changing.
"The economic model is wrong because it does not give industry or the customer enough time to stabilize and recuperate. The rate of change may be slowing, with the browser wars normalizing and some players leaving the scene. With the increasing penetration of the Internet and intranets, serious business users want and need reliable products, not those in a constant state of flux," he says.
While that may be happening, there's also change afoot in the land of markup languages that may affect the amount of material available on intranets. Agencies such as the Defense Department have, over the years, been using SGML, or standard generalized markup language, to code their manuals. SGML is the international standard (ISO 8879) for document interchange, designed to allow users to share information across different publishing systems. With Web browsers readily available, those manuals are just an SGML plug-in away from finding a home on intranets and Web sites.
One company hoping to cash in on the flurry of activity is SoftQuad International Inc., Toronto, which claims it makes, among other products, the only SGML browser for the Web, named PanoramaPRO. It also makes a popular HTML editor, Hot Metal Pro.
David Gurney, chairman and CEO, started working on SGML in the early 1980s, before it became a standard in 1986. His company just released the first component of its Panorama Publishing Suite, the Panorama Publisher, giving SGML users and publishers a Web-publishing solution. Among its first customers is likely to be the U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, which has a mandate to provide access to its SGML documents on the Web.
According to Lt. Col. Carl Vercio, Department of Defense, Correspondence and Directives, "SGML has become a key part of our publishing process, but [it] has presented considerable challenges when publishing SGML documents on the Web. This product allows us to distribute SGML-tagged policy information to customers throughout the Defense Department and other government agencies, as well as to the interested public using the Web."
Business Operating Systems
The next best thing to being there, as they say, may be to experience it virtually. That at least is the promise on the Netscape Web site, as well as at Microsoft. If your pleasure reaches the skies, tour the fictional company Airius Aircraft. If you prefer java, then perhaps the Volcano Coffee Co. may be more to your liking.
At the former, as an employee of a fictional company, you can visit Airius Intranet Center for a hands-on, interactive intranet experience. What you'll see is Netscape AppFoundry's free applications, collaborative discussion groups and posted communications. On the Microsoft site, the online demonstration of the Volcano Coffee Co. shows off Web technologies along with Microsoft Office and Microsoft FrontPage.
|Delphi's Thomas Koulopoulos says an effective business operating system must capture, preserve and re-use business process knowledge across an enterprise. |
Beyond the strategies, specifics and subtleties of intranet planning and deployment is the larger picture, the merging of the activity within the corporate mission, the acceptance of the tool on the staff's workbench, the evolution of a so-called business operating system.
Enter Delphi's Koulopoulos. He feels the computer operating system is the burden of the modern organization's technology infrastructure and the bane of information systems. His case in point is the advent of workflow and workgroup computing, what he terms the logical next step in the use of "networked computing to integrate knowledge-based tasks and activities."
He argues that we need to rethink the very nature of traditional applications and operating systems if we are to overcome the basic problem of fragmented process, one caused by multiple user environments. The business operating system, or BOS, is "a single, cohesive point of access and repository for all applications, information and process interaction. It is location-, application-, data- and process-independent."
He argues that an effective BOS must be able to capture, preserve and re-use business process knowledge across an enterprise. And that amounts to integrating four key technologies: object-orientation, graphical interfaces, workflow and database. It is perhaps a vision toward which the increasing use of the Internet and intranets is leading the organizations of the next century.