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6/96 Analysis: The Explorer

Love the Web? Now You Can Build Your Own

Here's why your company should have its very own intranet.

By Mike Elgan - Editor

IT'S EASIER TO FIND stuff on the Web than it is on your company's own network. That was one of Bill Gates' more profound statements during the initial rollout of Microsoft's Internet strategy.

The statement is true because the Web is a collection of indexed, searchable hypertext documents, and your network is not. But you can change all that starting right now by creating your own little companywide Web, or intranet.

What's an intranet?

Simply put, an intranet is a companywide software--and information--distribution system that uses Internet tools and techology. It could be a simple HTML file linked on a LAN, a full-blown sophisticated system with dedicated server hardware, or anything in between.

You can use an intranet to give employees access to company documents, distribute software, enable group scheduling, provide an easy front end to company databases, and let individuals and departments publish information they need to communicate to the rest of the company. Typical intranet content could include the corporate directory, a calendar of events, a policies and procedures manual, the health plan and the company newsletter. The most important information will be industry-specific, such as supplier information and databases of products.

Five reasons why your company needs an intranet

1. Intranets solve the problem of information overload. Ironically, too much information doesn't cause information overload, and the solution isn't to reduce available information. Problems arise when individuals have little control over the information that comes at them. They're buried under a mountain of data. And it takes mental energy to filter, sort, store and later retrieve all this information, most of which is irrelevant.

I'm a candidate for information overload. I get about 130 e-mail messages a day. Most of them are sent to me just in case I'm interested or just in case I'll need the information in the future. I have a huge filing cabinet filled with company memos and other information I place there just in case I need it in the future. I'm sure your office and PC are full of just-in-case information as well. Most of the information we hang on to is now out of date or redundant.

I wish the people who send me these e-mail messages and memos would instead just publish them on an intranet Web page. They could update them when necessary, so that when I search for information, the most recent version would be a search or a mouse-click away. I'd get 30 instead of 130 e-mail messages per day. And I could buy a smaller filing cabinet.

2. Intranets are cheap. One advantage of using Internet tools to distribute company information is low cost. Your networked PCs are all perfectly capable intranet clients, and browsers are cheap or free. Even the server hardware, software and middleware is affordable. Any employee with access to a TCP/IP backbone can publish. Perhaps best of all, rollout can be gradual, modular and minimally disruptive.

3. Intranets are cross-platform. Most organizations are as heterogeneous as hell on the client side. Macs here. UNIX boxes there. A couple of OS/2 machines in the corner and, of course, Windows, Windows everywhere (in all three flavors: 3.1x, 95 and NT). Intranets are the easiest way to get everyone talking.

4. Intranets are robust. Even though the Web is just seven years old, and the first graphical browser just three, much of the underlying technology has been in use on the Internet for a decade or two, and it's robust and reliable.

5. Intranets are fast. You've seen Web sites with large, spectacular graphics, cool videos, neat Netscape forms, and other bells and whistles. And you'd probably enjoy them even more if they took seconds, rather than minutes, to download. That's one of the great advantages of an intranet: Videos and sound can load in less than a second. You can really push the envelope with the hottest available Web technologies without worrying about performance.

Once companies discover how useful intranets are, they'll start thinking about making some of the content available to customers on the Web. One shining example is Federal Express (, which has placed its package-tracking database online for all the world to see. Even if you're not in the overnight delivery business, you still may be able to reduce costs by letting customers get at your information themselves rather than through a telephone operator you have to pay.

Embrace a culture of decentralization

Corporations have devoted a lot of resources and networking technology to centralize the management and distribution of company information. The problem with this traditional approach is that centralized information is hard to keep up to date. Maintaining the data is a full-time job. Those who do it are middlemen-and usually bottlenecks-between producers and consumers of the information within your organization.

An intranet can eliminate this bottleneck, but it won't be all fun and games. Expect glitches and roadblocks. The biggest obstacle is probably cultural. Moving to a system of distributed information publishing is hard. It requires a new way of thinking'-breaking old habits and forming new ones. And it means giving up some control at the top.

Some within your organization will resist either using an intranet as a resource, or publishing information on an intranet. Others will catch HTML fever and spend all their time playing with Web authoring tools at the expense of the work you hired them to do.

Like the introduction of PCs into the workplace, the creation of an intranet will involve a sometimes difficult but ultimately positive cultural shift within your company.

What you can do today

If your company doesn't have an intranet plan, make one. I recommend a low-cost pilot project that lets you test the value of an intranet without disrupting the current workflow. Once you've adjusted to the concept, you'll know where you want to spend the money.

Make sure every networked employee at your company has a browser. And embrace the HTML format by downloading the HTML-authoring add-on to your word processor or buying the HTML version. Look for HTML support in all your applications. And get into the habit of saving your documents in HTML format. If you share documents on a LAN, be sure to transform them into HTML and link them to one another.

Intranets are the best thing to happen to corporate communication since e-mail. What are you waiting for?

Tell Editor Mike Elgan about your company's intranet plans. Contact Mike in "The Explorer" topic of WINDOWS Magazine's areas on America Online and CompuServe. To find his E-Mail ID Click Here

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