What is an Intranet?
The Internet has captured world attention in recent years. In reality, growth of internal networks based on Internet technologies known as the Intranet is outpacing the growth of the global Internet itself.
An Intranet is a company-specific network that uses software programs based on the Internet TCP/IP protocol and common Internet user interfaces such as the web browser.
Simply put, an Intranet is the application of Internet technologies within an organization private LAN or WAN network. The Intranet environment is completely owned by the enterprise and is generally not accessible from the Internet at large. Today, many Intranets are built around Web servers delivering HTML pages.
An Intranet is a company-wide network that is based on Internet technologies.
TCP/IP protocol suite
The TCP/IP protocol suite includes the Transport Control Protocol, the Internet Protocol and other protocols. The protocol suite manages all the information that moves across the Intranet and Internet and each protocol transferring data across the network uses a different format. These protocols work together to transfer information across the network.
Common used TCP/IP protocol
TCP/IP exists as an open standard, anyone can use and develop new applications on top of TCP/IP. It can manage almost all the network tasks on the Intranet and Internet and is also the only protocol required to ensure that the computer systems and communications and networking software are interoperable.
The benefits of Intranets
Many corporate computing environments use different computing platforms. The capability to exchange information across platforms is crucial. The Intranet enables companies to unify communication within a multi-platform environment. Hence, companies can mix and match platforms as needed with no adverse effect on the overall environment. Within an Intranet, universal browsers such as Netscape Navigator and Microsoft Internet Explorer enable the users to perform the following tasks independent of the platforms used:
Breaking down the barriers
Intranets dissolve the barriers of communication that are created by department walls, geographical location and decentralized resources. Intranets create global accessibility by bringing together individuals and resources from a distributed environment. Employees, customers and vendors are able to access information stored in multiple locations simultaneously.
Reducing distribution cost
By combining computing and communication in the same system, Intranets reduce distribution costs by eliminating the traditional paper-based internal corporate communication media, such as printed pages, pamphlets, booklets and flyers. Instead, they are published electronically on the company’s Intranet, saving the resources needed to print, distribute and update them.
Putting manuals on-line is an example of how a company can reduce paper consumption and hence costs. Most companies have found that hundreds of paper-based applications can be eliminated using Intranets.
Information delivered using an Intranet becomes available almost instantaneously throughout the entire organization. With HTML form-support, users may even fill out forms, post sign-up sheets and schedules on the Intranet. Information can move much more quickly and effectively by removing the need for human intervention. For example, an employee can make a request for taking leave on an Intranet. The request form can be filled out and submitted electronically and can reach the concerned parties in seconds.
Increase internal communication
Intranets greatly facilitate communication among employees, especially when they are located in different buildings, cities or countries. Individuals and groups can distribute their ideas to those who need it without having to go through the department traditionally responsible for the distribution of information.
Employees in Hong Kong can communicate easily through e-mail with their counterparts in the United States. They can, for example, send project documents electronically, create online forums on new policies and use videoconference to exchange ideas.
Minimal learning curve
With the increase in popularity of the Internet and the World Wide Web, training users to use the Intranet is easy as many people are already familiar with the Web interface and can translate that experience to Intranet use quickly.Many companies have designed their Intranet pages to look as similar to the Web pages as possible.
Getting the customers involved
Involving the customers with a company’s Intranet will help that company’s focus move from being product driven to being more customer driven. Customers are no longer required to go through various layers of organizational hierarchies to reach those who build the products or provide the service. Companies are able to build a long-lasting relationship with their customers. Employees can learn first hand on how customers feel about the company’s products and services.
At Sun Microsystems, for example, different departments are setting up their own servers to serve their customers directly.
Internet technologies follow a set of open standards, which facilitate software developers to develop cost effective and easy-to-implement Intranet solutions. Users can choose from a number of vendors for software products. The growth of Internet technologies provides companies with a greater pool of resources to develop their own Intranets. Conversely, traditional GroupWare products have a more limited range of compatible products and fewer specially trained consultants to install and administer them.
Since Intranets are based on Internet technologies, size is not a limitation with Intranets. Unlike traditional GroupWare products, which often charge on a per-client basis, Intranets use open systems to distribute information. The only per-client cost associated with Intranets is the cost of the browsers.
Basic intranet structure
The corporate intranet has been hailed as the most important business tool since the typewriter, but the track record so far has been mixed. Despite many successes, particularly in cost and time savings, many sponsors of corporate intranets are dissatisfied. They have spent time and money on development, Net-enabled desktops, even intranet training, but still aren’t enjoying significant enough productivity or cost savings. Why? While critics often point to technological glitches, the real problems may lie in information design.
Intranets should help employees collaborate on business processes such as product development or order fulfillment, which create value for a company and its customers. Specifically, intranets centralize the business process in an easily accessible, platformindependent virtual space. Successful intranets allow employees from a variety of departments to contribute the different skills necessary to carry out a particular process. While each department of a company may have its own virtual space, intranets should be organized primarily around the business processes they help employees carry out, rather than the organizational chart of the company.
Focusing on processes rather than departments is a widely-hailed business trend. Recent shifts in corporate structure point to the emergence of “communities of process.” Management gurus are helping companies move away from vertical, hierarchical organizational lines towards horizontal, process-oriented groups that link cross-functional teams focused on the same set of business tasks. The trouble is that this requires significant interaction between departments, functions, even countries. Enter the intranet, the ideal vehicle for creating and empowering process-based corporate communities. Successful process-oriented intranets look and work as differently as the processes they enable, but they share several common characteristics. First they are built on smart information design. Second, they focus on tasks, not documents, and aim to integrate those tasks into distinct processes. Finally, the best intranets encourage collaboration by creating shared and familiar spaces that reflect the personality of the company and create a common ground for all employees.
Don’t Overlook Design
Just as physical work spaces rely on architectural plans to optimize efficiency, an intranet needs to be carefully designed to help employees access information and collaborate effectively. Because the public doesn’t see the intranet, information design for intranets often receives scant attention. Unlike customers, employees are assumed to be insiders, able to easily locate company information. So, while the company Web site usually has the input of the marketing department, design and structure of the intranet is often relegated to the IT department.
By default, an organizational chart of the company is often used to organize information on the intranet. While seemingly the obvious candidate for the structure of the intranet, an organizational chart actually works against the collaboration the intranet is meant to foster. An organizational chart can’t help employees from the marketing and legal departments collaborate on bringing a document through the approval process. It won’t allow employees from marketing and research and development to work together to create a new product.
Think About Tasks Rather Than Documents
Thinking of the intranet as a tool means understanding the intranet as more than a collection of documents. While important, documents are usually a means to an end. People use documents to complete tasks. Tasks include fulfilling orders, looking up a customer’s billing history, or collaborating on a research document. To complete these tasks, people need to have related documents and tools close at hand. The principal of organizing by task can be demonstrated by the example of working at a desk. When you sit down to begin a task (e.g., creating a budget), you have a variety of information and tools at hand.
While a spreadsheet is a “calculation” tool, and last year’s budget is an “internal document,” both need to be next to each other in order to develop a new budget. Similarly, on the corporate intranet, the tasks of the users rather than the classification of documents or tools, should dictate the organization of the intranet. Designed effectively around dynamic tasks rather than static documents, intranets can contribute to dramatic increases in efficiency (as much as a 40% improvement in time spent processing documents, according to the GIGA Group). Organizing documents within the context of tasks also focuses employees on the function of the documents they are working with. For example, to save employee time while signing up for various retirement plans, information on various retirement plans (including links to financial Web sites) should be placed near the forms actually used to register for those plans.
Organize Tasks Into Larger Processes
Isolated tasks are usually part of a larger process. Intranets should group together all the tasks that make up a business process. Processes can be relatively discrete, such as tracking deliveries, or getting approval for documents. Or, they can be more complex, such as developing or selling products. The most important processes in a company are those that create value for a customer. These are the central processes which every intranet should help employees accomplish.
Even simple processes can become more efficient when incorporated into an intranet. For example, when Ford implemented an intranet, the company included an application to help geographically dispersed engineers to get authorization for new projects. What would previously be a time-consuming, expensive process, involving the potential for lost documents and delays, is now centralized in an efficient electronic process.
More complex processes can also be effectively integrated into an intranet. For example, Cadence Systems created an integrated section of the intranet for its entire sales process. Each phase of the sales process is represented on the intranet with relevant information and tools. So, the section covering an initial stage of the sales process includes links to customer presentations, sample letters, and internal forms. Organizing all steps of the sales process together also allows for easy tracking of each sales effort.
Create Virtual Workgroups Organized Around Processes
Intranets can break though departmental walls to help accomplish business processes more efficiently. For example, a customer complaint might involve people and information from the accounting, sales and marketing department. Even though the employees necessary to resolve the complaint work in different departments, they are all involved in the process of customer service. By creating spaces for cross-departmental collaboration, the intranet can help employees collaborate to efficiently carry out the central processes of the company, and cut costs by avoiding in-person conferences and employee reallocations.
Intranets (and private extranets) can also bring together employees and partners who are geographically dispersed to work on common problems. Travel costs are eliminated, and employees can increase their productivity by sharing knowledge. For example, a pharmaceutical company is using its intranet to allow scientists all over the world to collaborate on research. A major franchise retailer is using bulletin boards on its intranet to coordinate major marketing projects. Caterpillar is developing an extranet application so that experts from around the world can collaborate with employees to design new products. Other applications for intranet collaboration include complex transactions with lawyers and multiple parties, which rely on access to, and modification of, key documents.
The bulk of discussion about collaboration in and between companies centers around security, certainly an important issue to resolve. What receives less attention-but is central to the value of an intranet-is the design of virtual spaces, which encourage new forms of collaboration. These, in turn, increase the efficiency of key business processes such as product development, marketing and customer service.
The Intranet Reflects the Company; the Company Reflects the Intranet
The corporate intranet can help a company organize around “communities of process” both on- and off-line. When Texas Instruments initiated a process-centered organization, oriented around collaborative work groups, software development time fell from twenty-two to eight months. The Texas Instruments intranet was established after this shift, and was designed to reflect and enhance the new organization. Whether it precedes or follows the organizational shift, an intranet that encourages this type of collaborative work environment can provide a significant return-on-investment.
At the same time, using an intranet to shift the way work is done in an organization requires a cultural change within the organization. Unless there is a clear commitment from senior management to have employees collaborate across departments to more efficiently accomplish key business processes, the intranet may have only limited application and benefit. Even after the intranet is designed to encourage collaboration, marketing the intranet to employees remains essential. As the intranet creates new forms of collaboration, it will challenge traditional ways of doing work and obtaining information.
For the intranet to be successful, it must provide ways of empowering all employees, offering concrete incentives for employees to use, and encourage the use, of the intranet. The process-oriented intranet, then, is “in sync” with the company it works for. And this is where graphic design, tone and standards emerge as vital to the intranet’s success. Like it or not, intranets have personalities, which are amalgams of visual style, tone and content. An intranet that reflects the culture of its company will make employees feel more at home, will help dispersed employees feel that they share the same space, and will encourage collaboration and communication around the processes they support. Turner Entertainment Group, for example, created a distinctive, casual feel for its intranet with a home page that uses a refrigerator with magnates to represent the various divisions. The unique imagery created a friendly, shared, familiar space for all employees.
From blue-chip companies to one-person start-ups, the Internet and its related technologies have provided new opportunities and new ways of doing business. Webbased systems have enabled organizations to provide maintainable, secure global access to their data and applications. The ease of deployment over the web has made such applications very attractive for enterprise systems.
Any device which has a web browser can potentially utilize an internet/intranet application. These applications are no longer restricted to the traditional PC user running Windows, but are also available for PDAs and mobile phones. The introduction of Web Services has widened the scope of web-based applications by allowing other systems to interact with them.
Tessella has acquired wide ranging experience of internet and intranet applications, and the majority of our work has a web-based component. We have worked on a variety of web-based systems which have fulfilled many different business roles, including systems such as sophisticated workflow systems that help organizations manage their day to day business, and web front ends to large corporate and scientific databases. We also have experience of developing distributed applications deployed over the internet such as climateprediction.net, the world’s largest climate prediction experiment.
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