Here Comes the Intranet

In their February 26, 1996 issue, Business Week led with a cover story on the latest phenomonon to hit the corporate world — the Intranet. Jonathan Spira takes a look at some of the article’s assumptions and questions the reasoning that went into making them.  Business Week’s words are in italics.

Corporations are ‘seizing the Web as a swift way to streamline–even transform–their organizations.’

It is important to remember that many organizations adopted the Web and the Internet without first giving thought to their own internal business processes and planned strategies.  Because of this, many Web pioneers are, upon evaluation, unsatisfied with the fruits of their labor.  One cannot simply open for business and expect the cash register to ring.    So few organizations have been able to meld their marketing and sales strategies with their Web strategies.  Even among those who have taken the time to assess the direction of a Web strategy, many have failed to fully comprehend the paradigm of the Web.  Example:  a major German car manufacturer’s web site invites visitor communication.  How?  When the visitor to this site chooses the appropriate link,
he is invited to call an ’800′ number.  Example:  a professional medical society invites its
visitors to use their physician referral service.  Click on the link, and you get full
information on the phone-based query system, staffed during the business day only.

What’s Needed?  Most companies already have the foundation for an intranet–a network that uses the Internet’s TCP/IP protocol.

This is unfortunately not yet close to being correct.  Those companies, mostly medium- and large-sized organizations, which have internal networks have implemented Novell’s IPX/SPX protocol.  The TCP/IP protocol must be loaded on each network workstation,  and an IP (Internet Protocol) address must be assigned (and subsequently managed). This can represent a tremendous investment in systems administration time. Only those workstations running Windows 95 can easily at TCP/IP to their existing network protocols.

Intranets…pull all the computers, software and databases that dot the corporate landscape into a single system that enables employees to find information wherever it resides.

One of the major limitations that became evident to Web pioneers was the difficulty of linking your web site to a corporate database stored on a “legacy” (read: mainframe) system.  Information Systems professionals also tend to get very nervous about network security when the idea of allowing such access is discussed.  If it is done correctly, with by someone with an in-depth knowledge of such security safeguards as firewalls, it is time-consuming and expensive, but may be well worth the effort. Many organizations have not taken the time to inventory the knowledge that resides within their boundaries; consequently, glaring omissions can take place in terms of making data available corporate-wide when portions of it remain virtually hidden.  Moreover, corporate managers have not yet learned how to manage Web-based information, as evidenced by pages which still read “Last Updated, January 18, 1995″ yet purport to be current.  Even the BW article later refers to the Web as a repository of “static pages.”

Connecting all the islands of information via an intranet is sparking unprecedented collaboration.

For those organizations used to a top-down hierarchy and internal competitiveness, the idea of collaboration is anathema.  Yet, newer companies without an entrenched corporate culture that encourages the proprietariness of one’s customers and information will have an advantage here; startups and smaller firms are used to sharing such things as a necessity.  Query early users of Lotus Notes at large accounting firms: partners with 15, 25 or so years at the firm experienced tremendous culture shock when asked to make client details available to other firm members.

Furthermore, intranets “present” information, i.e. for viewing, a passive activity.  Collaboration implies groups of knowledge workers drafting, reviewing, editing, and changing documents with each member of the group having access to the same tools.

Employees from engineers to office workers are creating their own home pages and sharing details of their projects with the rest of their company

Sharing information is all very well and good, but does corporate America truly wish to turn each engineer and office worker into a mini-Webmaster?  Very few organizations have developed corporate standards to manage this outbreak, and more than just a few CEO’s would blanche were they to realize how much proprietary data were being made available to the “public” without the usual scrutiny that usual security standards would require.

It’s not just the cost of buying Notes or SAP’s R/3 and paying programmers to customize and maintain it.  The other factor tipping the scales…is the cost of training.  Corporate data owners already realize that Webmasters are not terribly less expensive than C++ programmers, if at all.  Good user interface design is universal; intranet designers are not exempted from this.  If the interface is poor, users will suffer the same problems that have faced users since someone decided that the QWERTY keyboard represented an advance in human factors engineering.  (To be perfectly honest, the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow typists down to prevent the slow mechanical typewriters of the late 19th century from jamming; as a universally-accepted standard typewriter “operating system,” it enabled any trained typist to sit down at any workstation — excuse me, typewriter — and be production.)

Suddenly, the Web provides a simple way to do things that in the past required gobs of complex code and specialized programs.

Since very few Web applications have been created which approach the complexity of even a moderately-advanced word processing program, the true meaning of this is that the gobs of complex code have simply been transferred to Intranet Web servers which funnel requests to legacy systems, in those instances where these links have been established.

The Intranet movement represents that latest thinking in corporate information strategy.  As has been the case with past “fads,” including Client/Server and Local Area Networks (“LAN”), tools which are adopted before their “business case” is analyzed represent advanced technology without a (necessary) foundation for use, a form of “all dressed up with nowhere to go.”  It is, of course, a matter of time before many of the concepts from the Web become an innate part of corporate America, as has become the LAN.  However, recalling that the computer industry  began its LAN attack  by calling 1985 the “Year of the LAN”,  subsequently giving this designation to the years 1986 and 1987 before giving up on trying to herald the LAN’s arrival, and was successful in penetrating the corporate environment only at the end of the decade through the arrival of Novell NetWare, the implications of the Intranet in corporate America are only now starting to scratch the surface.

Jonathan B. Spira is the CEO and Chief Analyst at Basex.  This article originally appeared in the Basex Online Journal of Industry and Commerce (BOJIC).

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