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Top 10 Intranet Deployment Considerations

Intranets, those mostly private networks with the same look-and-feel as the World Wide Web, were virtually non-existent in Fortune 500 companies four years ago. Before you rush right out to deploy one, here are some things to think about.

Intranets are all the rage these days for several good reasons. First, they unify multi-site operations, while simplifying and improving the quality of inter-departmental communications. Second, the collaborative computing provided through intranet and (typically free) browser technology is far less expensive than the $150-plus per desktop spent to implement proprietary-by-comparison Lotus Notes from IBM. Third, intranets are easy to use.

However, intranets are not The Internet. Creating an Internet web site is one thing; creating an intranet is something else. Not entirely different, but definitely with its own gotchas—even though most organizations already have a network infrastructure in place. Here are some steps to consider.

1 Gain executive sponsorship

By definition, the intranet is an enterprise-wide system. By extension, it affects the entire enterprise—from information technology (IT) architecture and purchases to the design of electronic documents, from employee and corporate communications to collaborative work, from the display of confidential information to the posting of the latest joke off of the Internet.

Such importance demands the commitment of senior management to the funding, implementation, standardization, and use of the intranet from the very start. Without this, the intranet is doomed to failure.

2 Establish a project team

A project team helps crystallize the stated objective for the intranet, initiates and oversees publishing standards, evaluates and specifies intranet tools and applications, and provides the change management consulting that typically accompanies any change in organizational dynamics.

The team also functions as intranet champions: it ensures that a collaborative spirit exists within the company for the intranet to succeed; promotes the use of the Web technology; helps to gain buy-in from all user constituencies; and provides employee training.

The team should survey end users about their intranet needs. This will identify what content needs to be on the intranet, including the collaborative tools for knowledge sharing.

By the way, the project team should include representation from all over the company—but initially steer away from techies and webheads. Technical people will likely draw the discussion toward arcane technical issues not germane to the greater issues of goals, information content, displays, and collaboration.

If this all sounds like business reengineering, you’re right.

3 Build a structure

Think “virtual workspaces” and “business processes” rather than “document types” or “organizational charts” to determine the structure and organization of the intranet. Give each corporate department its own virtual space on the intranet, deploy collaborative tools, and then step back. Points out Steven Telleen of Amdahl Corp., realize “The key characteristic of this technology is its ability to shift control of information flow from the information creators to the information users.”

4 Establish standards

Intranet standards are critical: design standards, publishing standards, technology standards—you name it. For example, Ford’s Usability Guidelines, which help create a common look-and-feel for Ford’s intranet, address the use of color, animated objects, lists and tabular information, hypertext links, and other design elements on a web page—all from a productivity standpoint. They are not mandatory. “Obviously, that’s a living document; it changes as technology and [our intranet usage] changes,” says Steve Scheerhorn, Ford’s manager of Enterprise Information.

They’re changing right now, in fact. When first deployed, Ford’s intranet web pages were organized in the traditional way: Navigation on the left, plus links upon links to various hierarchical menus that, as the intranet grew, buried rather than uncovered information. “It was more a gateway to people and web page search engines,” says Ford’s Martin Davis, project manager, Millennium Web Project. Just after New Year’s, the “Ford Millennium Web Hub” debuted, featuring a default home page portal that appears on all desktops attached to the intranet. The new design minimizes the number and size of graphic elements on each page, aiming for an uncluttered and consistent appearance. (This design must be incredibly unique, innovative, or/and stunningly proprietary, because Ford would not provide this magazine with a screen scrape of a sample web page.)

Ford also has a bunch of standards regarding information content. One, the “Global Information Standards,” applies to company-wide information, e-mail, and any records the intranet users create. It addresses creating, managing, retaining, and the security of information. These standards are “business driven, but they have a legal undertone,” says Scheerhorn. What this means, adds Davis, is that these standards help “derive a business benefit from using the Internet, while protecting the corporation in the way we do that.” (Think about the role of e-mail messages in the Microsoft antitrust trial.)Somewhere in there is what other companies typically call “use standards,” which define the appropriate use of the intranet. These standards need to cover both corporate communications and—this will happen, so get used to it—personal communications.

5 Resolve IT issues

The IT department gets involved when the intranet discussions become technical. Here’s a simple example. The choice of web browsers would seem to be a no-brainer. There are basically two options: Netscape Communicator/Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer. Unfortunately, the two browsers have several incompatibilities, particularly in how they implement, or display, advanced HTML features and Java scripts. To solve this, Ford has a “dual browser strategy,” which states that all applications and web pages must work with both browsers. That requires sticking with generalized HTML coding and Java scripts, and not implementing the latest browser versions. (Ford recently upgraded the “official” version of Netscape running on Windows-based desktops from 4.04 to 4.7.)

 

6 Focus on cultural issues

Technology is just one of the intranet challenges facing management. Cultural challenges must also be overcome. For instance, consider the “simple” purchase of desktop computers, especially for standalone (kiosk) access to the intranet. In many enterprises, desktop buys are a distributed function, the participants of which might be loath to following a technology standard from on high.

The same holds true with software applications. Enterprises consisting of multiple internal divisions or acquisitions have to integrate different messaging applications, such as e-mail. This often involves converting one system to the other, and throwing away the former. Data conversion is not the only issue here; there’s also user retraining—and resistance.

7 Start small

Inaugurate the intranet with a pilot. In need not be fancy. It doesn’t have to be packed with content. Part of it can even run from a CD-ROM. Because most people already know how the Internet works, the pilot only has to demonstrate the possibilities of this communications medium within the enterprise. It should show how easy it is to post and find information, as well as demonstrate the effectiveness of display designs, informational structures, and Web-based tools. A secondary outcome of the pilot would be to evaluate such issues as design, response times, policies, and the ability to find, access, and post information.

8 Deliver tools

An intranet toolkit is a must. Obviously, the toolkit delivers the computer-based tools to “publish” on the intranet. But it also performs a cultural function: Through its tools and templates, the toolkit reinforces the tool and design standards for posting on the intranet.

9 Perform an audit

So much can be learned from an intranet audit: are various intranet sites in compliance with style guideline; who is accessing what on the intranet and how often; by what path do users surf the various sites on the intranet; and of course the technical issues, such as response times at various times during the day.

Audits also provide a legal basis for discussing corporate policy and practices regarding intranet usage, versus what a plaintiff might contend in the courts.

10 Gain executive sponsership

Ford is working on giving its users the power to personalize their portal to the Millennium Web Hub. “Turning from what is mainly a central navigation page to almost a work environment,” is how Davis describes it.

To do this, a dedicated, centralized intranet staff—one person or a team of people—is mandatory. The staff can maintain the company’s intranet standards, manage the gobs of complex information posted on the intranet, evaluate rapidly changing intranet technologies, update templates and document links, monitor internal staffing requirements, and negotiate technology infrastructure issues with IT as user and corporate needs evolve and expand, and as intranet technology changes.

Content managers should work with this staff. These individuals, assigned from each department within a company, ensure that information for the intranet is identified, posted, and updated on a timely basis.

Along the same lines, consider forming an intranet users’ group. Often, employees will be quite happy to work on, and advance, the intranet. A users’ group will also help foster a sense of ownership among employees.

If you do all of this, watch your intranet explode. When the Ford intranet debuted on July 4, 1996, it had 2,000 users. Now it has over 150,000 users. The content currently posted on the intranet consists of over 250,000 documents augmented by over 500,000 documents included in the “enterprise knowledgebase.”