The good, the bad and the ugly

Most corporate intranets had humble beginnings, but even in their young and immature phase they delivered benefits to corporations.

Enterprise intranets usually follow a pretty standard evolutionary path, according to Gene Phifer, the vice-president and research director of the Gartner Group Inc.’s Internet strategies service in Plano, Tex.

“The first step you tackle on the intranet is typically publishing on the Web,” he said. These kinds of intranets are quick and easy to deploy, and the pay backs are immediate. Information relevant to everyone, such as news and policies about sick days and vacations, can be made available to employees on the intranet, rather than through periodic company newsletters and cumbersome paper manuals.

In less centralized organizations, especially in the days when intranets could not progress much beyond static HTML pages, employees also began to publish information important to their departments or segment of the corporation.

“A lot of times it was the first opportunity that groups of people had to really contribute to the corporate information space,” said Jonathan Eunice, an analyst and IT advisor at Illuminata in Nashua, N.H. “It was very much guerrilla activity. People were doing it in a distributive mode. And it was very successful because it was empowering people,”

It was the guerrilla activity that made early intranets really successful, according to Eunice, because they let employees access information that was pertinent to them.

But decentralized intranets may also have their disadvantages.

With so many pages being published, employees might become overwhelmed by info glut, said Phifer, who prefers the term Wild West intranets. Employees might also get lost in a wilderness of outdated and now incorrect information.

But to further harness the power of the intranet, companies move, now quicker than ever, into the next phase, where they start placing collaborative applications on their intranet.

During this phase, employees use the intranet to access synchronous applications, such as messaging and electronic meeting apps, and asynchronous applications, such as news groups and workflow apps.

From there, it’s a quick jump to developing applications for the intranet.

These typically start off with fairly simple self-service applications, moving forward relatively quickly into business applications and eventually into the high-end mission critical line of business applications, Phifer said.

At this phase, companies start integrating their front-end screens with back-end databases and applications. When employees fill out forms or update information, they do so in real time.

“It’s not just HTML pages showing (things such as) course availability and HR content, it’s getting into live back-end databases,” said Tom Vassos, an instructor on strategic Internet marketing at the University of Toronto. “It’s getting into live applications where it’s changing my address or whatever. It’s actually changing the back end application.”