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Randy Hinrichs

Intranets: the New Internet
As today's intranet overload indicates, we're confusing knowledge with information.

Enough already! That's about all you can say when you see how many intranets are starting to look just like what they were supposed to get away from-the Internet.

In other words, they're overloaded with irrelevant information that users have to plow through in order to find what they really need. That comes with the territory when you're surfing the Internet, but corporate intranets were intended to be more focused, free of distracting trivia and designed for real work.

I'm certainly not knocking intranets. They're an essential part of a larger corporate shift from an industrial paradigm to a knowledge paradigm. Knowledge is what builds an organization. Knowledge is what you can sell to customers. Knowledge is what your sales force needs to head off the competition. But as the intranet overload indicates, we're confusing knowledge with information.

Look around: Everyone in the company who can type, use an HTML editing tool, or cut and paste graphics is littering the intranet with lists, headlines, favorite URLs, product trivia, FAQs, road maps, telephone numbers, you name it. Instead of focusing on what the company does or what employees need to know, most intranets publish glorified home pages. It's the biggest information dump in history.

Consequently, intranets overwhelm the typical user. After a couple of hours of looking for something that will actually help you do your job, you end up reading so many different viewpoints that your brain is fried and you've forgotten what you were looking for in the first place.

The goal of an intranet as it exists within the corporate information infrastructure is to help speed access to useful information, reduce costs, simplify business processes and reduce the head count needed to handle routine tasks. Given those criteria, does your company's intranet investment provide any real return? Or does it just publish lots of information?

Rather than merely digitizing reams of trivial data, start looking at how you can truly move your business processes online. You'll be able to visualize how work flows in the organization and see where inevitable redundancies exist. I guarantee you'll get a shock when you see how complex your organization has become.

Next, find specific applications that make good business sense. For example, some companies have online expense-reporting tools. Travel and expense reports are filled out via online forms, moved through the intranet pipeline to the manager for approval, then to the finance department for processing, then back to the employee. On another front, there are salary-planning tools that balance different factors-legal requirements, company rules, department standards and so on. Procurement applications alone can justify a major investment in intranet technology. Requisition forms are filled out fast; each order is automatically routed through the accounting department and the appropriate supervisors; other departments are flagged for approval or processing; and the purchase is completed with no paper, no telephone calls and no sales brochures stuffing your mail box.

Intranets already represent marvelous communications technology, and they'll become even more critical as they evolve into "extranets"-interlocking intranets between companies.

But if the greatest strength of intranets is offering easy access to corporate information, their greatest weakness is allowing us to publish anything and everything online. That needs to change. The digital economy may not be here yet, but it is definitely coming, and the corporate intranet will be the critical medium of that environment. Start building the necessary applications now.

Randy Hinrichs is currently building a full-scale sales intranet at Microsoft. His most recent book is Intranets: What's the Bottom Line? (Sun Microsystems Press/Prentice Hall, 1997). This column does not necessarily reflect the opinions of either Microsoft Corp. or WINDOWS Magazine. Contact Randy care of the editor at the e-mail address here or the addresses on page 20. Have an opinion (or a gripe) about Windows computing you'd like to share? Send it to Diganta Majumder.

Windows Magazine, October 1997, page 47.

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