Intranets: The Next Best Data Delivery Tool?
Intranets: The Next Best Data Delivery Tool?<@VM>Microsoft Corp.<@VM>Cisco Systems Inc.<@VM>Federal Government
By John Makulowich
Whether or not intranets become the next best data delivery tool since spliced genes, it won't be for lack of the right ingredients. Armed with market research, innovative software, advancing hardware and network administrator and top executive encouragement and acceptance, it seems intranets are a sure bet.
Add to all that a deep source of demand in the coming years from small business and government agencies, and the channel should have more than enough work to keep improving its profitability. In fact, the only barrier at this point looks to be reluctant or ill-trained users, either too hesitant or too unskilled to exploit the tools required by the modern knowledge worker.
To the information technology market research firm International Data Corp., intranets are at the threshold of a new age. In its most recent report, "The Intranet Opportunity," IDC analysts Mike Comiskey, Amie White and Ian Campbell project the number of total intranet users at 133 million worldwide by 2001. Already, they find that 51.9 percent of U.S. organizations with 500 or more employees have an intranet.
Highlighting trends in the data they collected, the analysts noted: "As cost of deployment continues to decline, look for smaller companies to move toward intranets through either hosted services or internal deployments. Intranet suppliers should aggressively target medium-sized and large companies, especially in the next two years."
It is instructive to see that 93.9 percent of small organizations (those with 1 to 99 employees) surveyed had yet to deploy an intranet. Nor had 66.9 percent of those in the medium-sized class of 100 to 499 employees. In fact, 72.4 percent of small organizations and 54.2 percent of medium-sized organizations flatly stated they had no plans to implement an intranet.
Given the software and hardware coming on the scene, which make application use and equipment deployment easier and maintenance less a burden, that may change. For example, Microsoft continues its onslaught on the business market with its newest suite, Office 2000, and Cisco continues to outpace rivals through innovation and acquisition.
Such developments can be only good news for users such as the Environmental Protection Agency and the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which sport some of the more advanced intranets in the federal market.
Those who upgrade to Microsoft's newly released Office 2000 suite or purchase the Premium version will find a host of intranets tools, including FrontPage 2000, the World Wide Web authoring tool, and PhotoDraw, a graphics and image application. Standard parts of the suite, such as Word, now contain an option on the File menu for exporting directly to HTML. Thus, for users so inclined and permitted by the Web administrator, creating and updating Web pages on the intranet will be much easier.
Chris Barker, principle technology specialist for Microsoft Federal, said that with many intranets, people get overly ambitious at the start and have neither enough expertise nor time.
"Since the Web is inherently read only, a traditional bottleneck arose in keeping information up to date," said Barker. "If the content is not fresh, we quickly tire of it. You must keep the pages and the site up to date."
He noted that Office 2000 adds some capabilities that help the user around this problem. For example, any Office user with permission can write directly to a Web site through a Web folder, which he or she creates either from Windows Explorer or the Open or Save As dialog box in Microsoft Word. After adding the Web folder, you save files as well as other folders to it on the Web server.
Further, in trying to put the proper tools in the hands of the knowledge worker, that is, the worker with content, experience and skill, Microsoft programmers tried to appeal to the Web developer.
Said Barker: "We have become a little more hands off with the editor in FrontPage. You can write any kind of HTML in FrontPage and it will be left alone."
In an aside, he mentioned a new product from Microsoft, Vizact 2000, especially suited to the early adopter who wants to add razzle dazzle to the Office 2000 suite. That offering, available on the company Web site as a Preview Version, allows you to add timing, interactivity and motion to Office 2000 documents.
Cisco plies its trade on the local area network, where the data pipe is usually large in an intranet, from 10 megabytes per second all the way to 10 gigabytes per second in the near future.
According to Bob Deutsch, director of federal systems engineering for Cisco Federal, there really is no distinction among intranets, extranets and the Internet.
"The difference is really in the security policies you apply," said Deutsch. "Conceptually, we try to open up everything as far as possible. The more information you can share and provide, the better service you can offer, the higher the satisfaction of the customer and the higher the profitability for the company."
In fact, the level of efficiency that can be achieved is sometimes spectacular. Deutsch said one of Cisco's intranet applications, filing an expense report, is completely electronic, replete with American Express charges and all open items. What is impressive is that only two people are required to manage the expense reports for all 17,000 Cisco employees.
As an example of their open information policy, Deutsch noted Cisco Connection Online, which offers the same set of information for technical assistance to customers, technical engineers and systems engineers. For example, in purchase and ordering, Cisco customers can access and see as much about their order as the marketing department.
"From a business standpoint, we offer our customers better service if they can go in and see about a service order, or if a [certified engineer] can find out about the status of a job. Not only is it better service, you save money. But from a business and policy standpoint, the biggest single challenge for an entity is not technology, but a philosophical issue. As you make information widely available, it tends to take some of the power out of the hierarchy," said Deutsch.
The computer/telecommunications industry now needs to figure out how to offer, bundle and build these services for the home user and to tackle the billing and packaging issues, he said. Another challenge is to deliver a consistent level of service, including quality of service, reliability and security.
Such best practices are still a far cry in the federal government. A classic case in point is an effort led by the Office of Management and Budget to create a so-called Intranet Best Practices Guide.
Embedded deep within the General Service Administration Web site is a page (www.itpolicy.gsa.gov/topbuzz/top
buzz/0216.html) announcing a project meeting, "GSA's Office of Governmentwide Policy (OGP) Participating in Development of OMB Intranet Best Practices Guide."
That was back at the beginning of 1998. As the Web site noted: "OMB held a kickoff meeting Feb. 11, 1998, to begin developing an Intranet Best Practices Guide. Seven agencies were represented at the meeting. Currently, the group is developing an outline, and the final report is scheduled to be completed at the end of May. OMB is looking for additional agency participation, including GSA regions and other components of GSA that operate intranets. The OMB point of contact and program manager is Chris Schoenewald (schoenewald_c@a1.
eop.gov); telephone (202) 395-7367."
Nothing ever came of that initiative. Not only is the project more than a year late, but the program manager has left the government, and the OMB communications office refuses to reveal details about the project's status. Apparently, Lew Oleinick in the OMB Information Policy and Technology Branch now is in charge of the project, but the communications office declined Washington Technology to speak with Oleinick.
Notwithstanding that stonewalling in the era of open government, efforts are advancing in some of the more progressive federal agencies, including the EPA and HUD.
One of the better examples of an guide was produced early last year by the EPA and updated July 8, 1998 (www.epa.gov/epahome/webguide/intranet/intrapub.htm). It includes policy guidelines, a glossary and valuable information for those tasked with setting up an intranet.
According to that document, the EPA has three types of intranet. The first is EPA@Work, the agency-level intranet for employees.
The second is a Location Intranet, which contains information for employees of a specific agency location. Examples are the EPA headquarters intranet or the EPA Region 3 Infonet.
The third type is a program/local intranet site, in which a program office or division has an independently managed intranet site with information for staff members of that organization.
According to Mike Weaver, computer specialist at the EPA and the person involved in setting up the first intranet in the EPA two years ago, a decision was reached then that the way things were being done did not fit with the technology available, especially with the need for the EPA to communicate with staff at 10 regional offices, laboratories and specialty locations.
"We had to transfer many of the functions from the old environment and do a lot of training," he said. "The intranet is accepted more widely now, but many people are still not comfortable with the Internet. We just taped a half-hour training video for the Internet and intranet and are offering a public tutorial on the site."
While no specific surveys have been done among users, Weaver cited data that confirms expanding use. In May, the headquarters intranet received 560,000 successful requests, with 870 distinct files accessed and 7,000 distinct hosts served.
Among the initiatives to bring all users into the intranet fold, the EPA has created a Web site that has forms that new employees need to complete. There also are floor plans and the locations of restaurants that cover EPA locations in the Washington, D.C., area.
"We seek to give new employees an idea of what the environs are like. We want to wean them soon from the new users site and bring them to the EPA@work site," Weaver said. "One of our newest efforts is offering remote access to the intranet via modem."
Weaver said he feels the intranet was an outgrowth of the Internet and now needs a life of its own: separate recognition, treatment and attention. For example, because the intranet was allied with the Internet, the need was never acknowledged to create a separate budget.
"We are making the intranets work without expending a lot of effort. And people are liking the intranets," he said. "While there are not a lot of fancy technology tools, there is the need for collaboration over the intranet. But we are hesitant to take on technology for technology's sake. We will not implement unless we have a good reason to do it."
Weaver is moving to contact other offices in the federal government that are working on intranets and on bench marking their practices and performance. He is in the process of setting up an informal intranet group and has already met with Phyllis Preston, the departmental web manager for the HUD intranet named HUDweb.
HUD policies (www.hud.gov/wwwpol.
html) are signed and issued by the deputy secretary. Each week, Preston updates the front page of the intranet to highlight important information and issues for HUD staff. She updates the site itself almost daily with new postings.
Alongside communications, HUD is trying to use the intranet as a tool for doing work online.
With 81 HUD locations and 9,000 employees, the need for an intranet was seen early. Development of HUDweb started in August 1996, with the first version released in November. In March 1997, the first revisions to the pages occurred.
"We see the intranet as a valuable tool for doing work faster, better and smarter. Content is important, and so is talking with people to reach an endpoint of effectiveness," said Preston.
One of the more effective ways to attract users, she said, is to organize information into news formats and have a so-called Focus Message from HUDweb as the first item users see upon logging on to the network in the morning.
For prospective intranet Web masters, Preston offered this advice:
- Know your audience and present information in a way that is easy to find and understand.
- Ask for and listen to feedback.
- Keep the site up to date so people will come back, and make it easy for users to know what is up to date. Preston uses a What's New hyperlink.
"You need to figure a way to make the intranet useful for them and make it critical for them to do their jobs. For example, allow them to look up conference rooms to see what is available when they need to schedule a meeting," she said.
Has the HUDweb been successful? Preston points out there were 21,000 hits the first month in November 1996. In May 1999, she recorded 700,000 hits.