Intranets: from the Wild West to Portals

In the old days, corporate intranets were decentralized, Wild-West places where the sheriff had little control over the goings-on. Employees with similar interests would gather at a favourite watering hole, mosey on up to their stool and chew the fat with others who shared their experiences and challenges.

Any number of employees could publish information, as there was no centralized authority controlling what was published to the corporate intranet. Because they were decentralized, HTML pages of specific interest to different groups started to spring up. The sales and marketing people each had their own corner on the intranet where they could find and publish information that was applicable to them.

These structures were referred to variously as Wild West or Guerrilla intranets.

The intranets of today are much more sophisticated – they are no longer static HTML pages but dynamic interfaces that let employees connect to an assortment of different databases and applications. But the goal of the new age of enterprise information portals (EIPs) remains the same as in the days of the Wild West – to provide employees with easy access to relevant information, and by doing so, to transform business practices.

This portal’s for you

With the advent of portals, intranets will have come full circle.

The key to creating a successful intranet, according to analyst and IT advisor Jonathan Eunice of Illuminata in Nashua, N.H., is making the available information relevant to every employee. Only about 10 to 30 per cent of a company’s vast repository of knowledge is of interest to all employees. Portals let employees pull in only those items within a corporation that are of actual concern to them.

Portals have the same mission in a company as groupware products, such as Lotus Notes, Eunice said. The goal is to create cohesive organizations that act more fluidly. In other words, portals can turn the group of people that work for you into a team. By breaking down the traditional lines of authority and empowering all individuals to get at just the information that is relevant to them in a faster and easier manner than before, companies can bring their organizations together, Eunice said.

He oversees his own company’s intranet, and he believes it has turned his organization into a more efficient machine.

The intranet is the central entrance point through which employees access all their information. Employees have no choice but to “touch” the intranet to do their work, and therefore they all have access to the latest developments in their industry as a whole and their own areas of interest.

“It’s getting everyone on the same page. That’s really what the goal is,” Eunice said.

The company has also Web-enabled all of their applications and left behind the cumbersome world of paper and a variety of different systems that were not connected to each other, and this has significantly reduced the time it takes for analysts to publish their reports.

“It’s not a one-click system, but it’s a system that leads people through the process, and as someone looks at one step of the process, it gives them an immediate path to get to the next step of the process.”

Essentially, Eunice said, portals achieve some of the same positive results as guerrilla page publication did in the past.

“You have to make it genuinely relevant to the employee base and customize it to individual employees or individual groups so it isn’t just a ‘Here are all the things the company is doing.’ But it’s really filtered out for individual customers or groups,” he said. “And that was true in the old days when people were putting up these guerrilla Web sites.”

Companies can transform their business by creating EIPs that allow them to automate all their processes and gives them a basis from which to conduct business in the new landscape of the Internet.

“The role of the portal is to allow an organization’s current information systems to be integrated to this new genre of technology or this new paradigm of technology, (e-business), with relative ease. So it really means the integration of all structured data, all non-structured data and all business events into a seamless layer,” said Sybase’s Canadian technical manager Tony Antonello in Toronto.

making linkages

Ultimately, the companies that are likely to reap the most benefits from their intranets are those that start tearing down some of the barriers that separate their intranet from the rest of the Web, according to Tom Vassos, who is an instructor on strategic Internet marketing at the University of Toronto and a senior business advisor for IBM in Toronto.

EIPs can lead to a number of different savings for companies. They can lower administrative costs. Employees can make purchasing requests through the intranet, and if it is tied into a partner and supplier intranet, most processes can be automated. This can significantly reduce turnaround time.

As a result, business cycles will speed up, Vassos said, and those companies that are not prepared to enter into the world of e-business through their own intranet will eventually be left behind.

Intranets can also reduce administrative headaches by giving all employees a single sign on and a single access point to all applications.

IBM has a myriad of applications on its own intranet, and just the educational feature alone saves the company millions of dollars. IBM supplements its classroom education with on-line training for its employees over the intranet. For every 1,000 hours spent on on-line education, the company estimates it can save about $1 million in North America. IBM would eventually like to offer about 30 per cent of its employee education on-line, which would represent a savings of about $100 million, Vassos said.

In the U.K., IBM employees can access information about suppliers and banks through their own individual portal.

“I think that is going to be interesting, especially as we move from just a portal within my own company controlled by me to a portal that represents my kind of extended family of companies that I’m dealing (with), whose processes link in directly to [my portal]. I think that’s where we’re going to start to see more and more power,” Vassos said.

access to information

But even the simple step of placing information that was once distributed through paper copy on the intranet can be a great help.

Human Resources Development Canada (HRDC) in Hull, Que., negotiates a new collective agreement every two to three years. With that frequency, it was difficult to keep the agreement document up to date, said HRDC’s project manager of labour systems Larry Johnson.

“So keeping [copies of the collective agreement] current, up-to-date and available to all interested clients became a never-ending, paper-issuing and notification exercise. And not all clients are interested in all the information, so a method of targeting specific information items that are of importance to specific clients [was needed]. That led to the intranet as the solution,” Johnson said.

Eventually HRDC would like to provide linkages from the collective agreement to other sites that might interest employees looking up the agreement.

Enterprise information portals let today’s employees get at the information lying in their company’s databases faster than ever before. As the scope of the portal is broadened, and employees use their intranets to connect not only to their company’s databases but to information gathered by their partners and suppliers, portals can be of even more benefit to employees. As the divide between intranets, extranets and the Internet becomes more fluid, companies will be able to automate more processes, link to more information and transform their business.