Spinning the internal Web
As corporations discover the savings in internal Web sites, they are also discovering the need for careful planning.
The lasting impact of today's frenzied commercial Web site development remains to be seen, but there is another side to the Web -- more sober, more practical, and less flashy. Businesses large and small are using Web technology to streamline internal corporate processes and communication. The so called intranet is getting down to business. Plus a sidebar with tips for preventing intranet chaos. (3,000 words)
"I'm seeing about a ten-to-one ratio of internal Web servers to public Web servers," said Mike Bauer, director of technology planning services for EDS's (Dallas, TX) client/server group. "People are now considering Web applications for everything from publishing to data warehouse front-ends."
"The amazing thing about intranets is the rate of adoption. People woke up one morning and found all the pieces in front of them," said Paul Callahan, director of Forrester Research's Network Strategy Service and author of the report, "The intranet."
The December 1995 Forrester report concluded that the intranet phenomenon can be characterized by one word, "speed." Internal Web deployments have gone from nowhere to production release in less than 12 months. Twenty-two percent of Fortune 500 companies polled said they have already set up internal Web servers, and another 40 percent said they are seriously considering using Web technology internally.
Internal Web sites are quick and easy to develop and promote better intracompany communication, Callahan said. Plus, users believe they are easier and cheaper to develop than Lotus Notes or traditional client/server applications, he said.
Most existing internal Web applications are fairly straight-forward publishing efforts that emphasize one-way communication from a department or corporate office out to the employees. But simple does not mean low-value, Callahan said.
"Don't underestimate the impact of simple applications. When applications are simple and straight-forward, they can be really big wins," he said. "They don't take much effort to put up and they often address fundamental business requirements."
Technology plays catch up
As companies scramble to make more and more information available to employees online, the complications and limitations of such an involved enterprisewide endeavor soon become apparent. (See sidebar, Preventing intranet chaos.) For the time being, companies at the forefront of internal Web development are facing some technical challenges. The lack of easy-to-use database and document search tools being the most obvious of these problems. Companies are often forced to sacrifice valuable resources building these tools.
John Swartzendruber, technical manager of the Internet Services Group at pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly and Co. in Indianapolis, said 2,000 to 2,500 employees were wired to the company's intranet last October. The figure rose to 8,000 by the end of February. He expects this number to increase to 16,000 by the end of this year. Swartzendruber said his group needs strong authoring tools and is seeking commercial solutions for indexing document sets on the internal Web. Server administration and utility tools are also important. The company now has to either develop the tools from scratch or tweak what is available.
Lockheed Martin Corp. is also in the market for a more advanced Web crawler for full-text searches, said Katie Finneran, manager of communications for the company's enterprise information systems group in Bethesda, MD. This would let employees go beyond keyword searches and perform key "phrase" searches on all information accessible on the intranet. The company is also working on a corporate-wide directory and posting a helpline with questions about various projects answered by project managers.
Lockheed Martin wants 80,000 employees connected by the end of 1996, said Finneran. The company eventually hopes to reach all 170,000 employees. In order to achieve this, Lockheed Martin will set up standalone PC stations on workshop floors so workers who don't have a desk and a PC will be included.
Progress pays off
Despite a few remaining gaps that need filling, many organizations are finding great success with their intranet ventures. Federal Express (Memphis, TN) now has 40 to 50 Web servers on the firm's internal network and a SPARCserver 1000 run by corporate staff for departments that do not want to create a Web server on their own, said Susan Goeldner, FedEx's manager of Internet technologies.
Flexibility and responsiveness are two big advantages of publishing information on the Web, according to Goeldner. If a schedule needs to be updated, that can be done in one place, and instantly the new information is available to everyone.
Pre-publishing also pays dividends. Groups are experimenting with publishing early drafts of documentation so that users can comment and make suggestions. The comment and revision process generates more feedback and, Goeldner expects, a better finished product.
Intangible benefits are nice, but saving cold, hard cash is always a compelling incentive. FedEx is in the process of putting corporate procedure manuals online and making them accessible with a Web search engine. This searchable publishing project will not only greatly reduce publishing costs, it should also significantly reduce the time it takes employees to find the data they want.
Annual savings on publishing and distribution costs of one manual that is published twice each year could be as high as $120,000. Goeldner said she has eight corporate manuals sitting on her bookshelf, and there are probably a few she does not have. Admittedly, they won't save 100 percent of the publishing costs immediately since limited print runs will still be required.
Seventy percent of the staff at corporate centers now have Web access. Goeldner expects that will grow to 90 percent by June, and nearly 100 percent by the end of the year. Field locations lag a bit behind. Sixty percent of employees should have Web access by June 1996, she said.
At Sun Microsystems, the Web now plays a pivotal role in the delivery of training materials to the company's employees. Bonnie Toy, director of quality tools and training for SunSoft, said the company needed to offer its technical staff more efficient training. "We found that classroom training was not appropriate for most engineers," Toy said. "Most of them want immediate training right before they need to use the particular program and don't want to waste their time reviewing information they already know." Sun had to make various training options available right on the engineers' desktops so the necessary materials would be there when they needed them.
The vision for developing training modules for Sun's internal Web began in June 1995, and by January of this year, the Web site was up and running. Employees can access the site and merely click on the software tool training module they need. The training itself is provided in a variety of formats ranging from digital video to plain text -- whichever is the most effective and useful. The movie format, due to the high bandwidth required, is used sparingly. Interactive computer-based training modules are also being considered. Web-based training is an alternative, not a replacement to classroom training, stressed Lee. But such training is often the only option when classroom training for a certain application is not available, and this has been an enormous benefit to employees.
Every tools training has a "hack" section with tips that are often contributed by the engineers themselves. Another component is the "technical journal," an archive containing short descriptions of some interesting technical subjects. A third component takes advantage of all the e-mail that is exchanged among engineers regarding technical problems and solutions by depositing it into a searchable hypermail archive.
Sun will introduce a fourth component, the "projects registry," this month, said Robin Lee, education program manager for Sun University workgroup solutions. The registry will index engineers' home pages and/or project Web sites and enable employees to link to them.
Toy said that while Web-based training at Sun is still in its infancy, so far the company has achieved its goal in providing a centrally-located, attractive, well-organized, and fast way for employees to access technical training information when they need it.
Harris Corp. (Melbourne, FL), a 27,000-employee, multinational firm with four business units, is using internal Web servers to dish out volumes of information crucial to the firm's day-to-day business. The intranet isn't new to Harris. Web-based applications are actually a second generation follow-on to 35 topical e-mail listservers, 80 bulletin boards, and about 15 internal Usenet news groups, said Chuck Musciano, a staff engineer at Harris and SunWorld Online's Webmaster columnist.
Harris now uses intranet Web applications for a variety of purposes -- searchable employee database, internal job postings, and health and safety data. In additon, it plays a central role in promoting the firm's Quality First initiative, said Jack Johnson, Harris's vice president of quality and new products and head of the Quality First Steering Committee.
Harris started out putting its "Red Book" on the Web -- the firm's exhaustive compilation of all the polices and procedures that govern each of Harris's business units. Rather than tracking down one of the volumes to resolve a question, Musciano said, employees can simply access the book through the Web browser on their desktop computer.
The firm also compiled what they refer to as a database of "best industry practices" experts. This amalgamation of quality gurus -- both internal experts and outside contractors -- increases the efficiency with which employees can get the information they need to do their job, Johnson said. Best practices training events, tutorial documents, and other Quality First materials are also on the firm's intranet.
Harris' intranet has even climbed to the top of the corporate ladder. Johnson said the President's Council, a committee chaired by the CEO to facilitate interdivisional collaboration, debuted on the Web in March. Corporate material that is currently being faxed around to divisional presidents and other involved parties will become part of the Web site.
Receptivity among upper management is a bit of a mixed bag at Harris, Johnson said. "Executives who keep their computers on their secretaries' desks obviously don't even think about it, but hands-on users are very excited about its ease-of-use."
Motorola's (Schaumburg, IL) Cellular Subscriber Group (CSG), is also taking a step beyond simple document publishing by using the Web to improve the quality of its software development processes, said Rick Johnson, director of applications development for CSG.
Johnson, who oversees about 20 developers within CSG, formerly worked out paper-based processes defining the gathering of user requirements, the design process, coding standards, and other elements of the traditional development process. Now CSG is putting that data on an enterprise-wide internal Web, together with data entry and search capabilities.
Many of these processes are designed to fulfill requirements of the Carnegie Mellon University's (Pittsburgh, PA) Software Engineering Institute, which confers quality ratings analogous to ISO 9000 certification. CSG's Web project extends the reach of these processes and procedures, and documents the linkage between the processes and SEI requirements.
"This is more than simply a manual of style," Johnson said. "We will use the Web as the front-end to a database application that records all the information now submitted on paper. Data will be entered on a project-by-project basis to create an online repository."
The result, Johnson said, is that the organization will be better able to create metrics for the data it collects and will be better prepared to fulfill adopted process and quality control requirements.
The project not only benefits CSG, but also leverages its knowledge and experience to the wider Motorola enterprise, Johnson said. Groups that are not as far along in the process can even use CSG's creations as templates for their own work.
US West (Denver, CO) is also seeing the proliferation of intranet Webs. The firm's Global Village project started a year and a half ago with four employees and a $75,000 budget. The goal was to spread information and training regarding how Web technologies could support internal business operations. Today there are nearly 50 different information servers supporting a wide variety of functions across the 55,000-employee firm, said Sherman Woo, the project's director.
One creative and elegant example is the way US West uses a Web front-end to a database to manage Domain Name Server (DNS) information on an enterprise-wide basis.
Previously, one group managed the DNS information, said Ted Johnson, a network manager. They were frustrated with the responsibility of chasing down information as systems and subnets changed. User groups were annoyed because there was no way to confirm whether the centrally-held information was accurate until they talked with someone on the phone.
Now any employee can check the accuracy of IP addresses or host names via the Web. Each group can enter password-protected DNS information into the database and update information about their systems as necessary. The central database updates Web pages hourly.
As intranets mature there will certainly be a lot of changes to cope with -- more than just changing technology. Organizations will have to play out the inherent tension between fostering creativity within user organizations and establishing corporate controls and enterprise-wide standards.
For the time being, these firms are relying upon departments to control information and servers central to their mission. responsibility for data which crosses organizational boundaries generally ends up in the hands of corporate webmeisters.
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About the author
Barry D. Bowen is an industry analyst and writer with the Bowen Group Inc., based in Bellingham, WA. Reach Barry at email@example.com.