DESIGNING A CORPORATE INTRANET
by Jean C. Spoolstra
April 21, 1999
 

INTRODUCTION

Most people know what the Internet is, and many use it both at home and at work. Another type of network that is less well known but is becoming more important in the business world is the intranet, which is a corporate information network. An intranet is similar to the Internet but it is established for one distinct group of users and has security so that others outside the group do not have access to its contents. Corporate intranets are a new and important area of involvement for corporate librarians. They offer a different and exciting way for librarians to use their information organization and handling skills.

INTRANET VS. INTERNET

The Internet is a public access network, open to the world. A company’s Web page on the Internet is its public face and the company wants people to spend time looking at all of the information presented on it. This external site presents the image a company wants the world to see and it may be built for glamour, with many graphics and special features. The corporate intranet, on the other hand, is the company’s private face where employees get their information and then get off and go back to work. Its appearance is simpler and more casual and it’s built for speed, not glamour. Both use the same types of hardware and software but they are used for two very different purposes.

BENEFITS OF HAVING A CORPORATE INTRANET

Corporate intranets facilitate communication and access to information. They allow employees who might normally never meet to collaborate on projects. Intranets promote the sharing of knowledge and ideas and provide a single, secure, reliable access to a company’s private information. An intranet improves a company’s ability to manage its information and it can also streamline document distribution. Intranets can result in higher productivity because of better access to quality information. They also allow reuse of existing information and can reduce the cost of information sourcing, printing and distribution.

PROBLEMS WITH HAVING A CORPORATE INTRANET

Often the biggest problem when creating a corporate intranet is convincing management that no corporate secrets will be disclosed to the public. Management must know that security is in place (using firewall software) to keep the data safe from the outside world. Another problem is convincing people within the company to share their knowledge. The approach to information management on an intranet is open and egalitarian and many people are more comfortable with a traditional structured approach. If departments are allowed to publish documents on the company intranet there may also be a problem with the question of ownership. Lastly, there is the need for extra funding and staffing for the intranet and this may meet with resistance from management.

HOW TO GET STARTED

Creating a corporate intranet may look easy at first, but it involves a number of steps to follow if it is going to be successful.

  1. Establish a vision for the intranet and write it down. The intranet must be tied to a business purpose. If it doesn’t help the organization to function better it shouldn’t be created.
  2. Get the support of senior level management. They can help in dealing with funding, information access, turf wars, and access to users.
  3. Identify a key user group, build a prototype, and sell them on the idea. Once they are convinced of the intranet’s usefulness, this group can be used to sell the idea to others.
  4. Have a clear idea of the expected costs and the work to be done. Leverage the equipment and talent already in the corporation. If the company has a network in place, only a Web server and the appropriate software will need to be added. The IT department can help with the hardware and software issues. If needed, hire outside consultants to get the project started and then train library staff to handle the tasks after implementation.
  5. Set up a committee to decide on the contents of the intranet and, if possible, keep it in place to handle issues as the intranet grows.
  6. Educate everyone in the company on how to use the intranet and also on the benefits it will provide.
  7. Remember that a corporate intranet must be maintained and grown by investing in hardware, software, training and salaries for staff. If it is not maintained it will die.
HARDWARE AND SOFTWARE FOR THE INTRANET

A client/server network is the first component needed for a corporate intranet. The clients are computers (PCs) that are connected with high-speed cables (if they are on a local area network or LAN) or by telephone wires, fiber-optic cables, microwaves or satellites (if they are on a wide area network or WAN). The server is a high-speed computer with a large hard disk capacity. It contains the network operating system which is the software required to run the network. This server can also be your Web server if it contains the Web software. Firewall and browser software will also need to be on this server.

Web software allows the server to support HTTP so it can exchange information with the clients. (HTTP is Hyper Text Transfer Protocol and is the dominant Internet protocol.) Firewall software will provide the security needed to protect corporate information from the outside world. Browser software allows the use of hyperlinks to go from one place to another in a document, or to go to a completely different document. These three are the basic software packages needed for a corporate intranet, but other functions can be provided by adding software for Internet access and searching, authoring and publishing documents, collaboration and conferencing, database archive and retrieval, and document management access. (See Appendix for a listing of representative software.)

FUNDING AND STAFFING

Funding for the corporate intranet can be based on different criteria. Some companies consider it a cost of doing business while others fund it on a value-based allocation. Remember that there will be on-going operating expenses which will usually be greater than the initial expense of setting up the intranet.

A corporate intranet often involves new staffing and consultants may be needed to get the project started. After the intranet it is in place, a Web developer and an information designer will be needed, both of whom should be part of the library staff. People will also be needed to train employees in using the intranet and this can be done by staff from the library or from human resources, depending on the size of the corporation.

SECURITY

Security is very important. An intranet extends a company’s reach, but it also increases its vulnerability and exposure. Security policies must be in place to dictate who has access to what information, when they can get the information, and how much information they can get. Firewall software provides the security mechanisms the intranet will need. Security policies must be written down, maintained, communicated, enforced, and constantly monitored. All of this is necessary to ensure the livelihood of the corporation isn’t threatened.

COSTS AND ROI

A corporate intranet can cost very little (from $3,000 to $4,000) if it is done with existing hardware and free software that can be downloaded from the Internet. Most corporate intranets however cost between $50,000 and $150,000 to get started. The corporation must also budget for maintaining the intranet and this will usually cost more than what was spent on start-up as it will involve salaries for new staff and possibly more hardware and software as the intranet grows.

Return-on-investment can be quite substantial. Conservative figures place the payback at a low of 23% to a high of 88%, over 1 to 2 years. Costs will be reduced in paper dissemination and printing, but the greatest benefits realized will relate to information flow.

HOW TO DESIGN THE INTRANET

The corporate library should set up a central Web page where users can start on their search for information. It should have links to the book catalog database, the journal catalog (both print and digital), a news release database, the technical reports database, and help pages. The page can also have a request form for the librarian to conduct online searches of fee-based databases, and a ‘borrow this book’ button for material to be checked out and put into an internal delivery system to forward to the user. There should also be links to various departments within the company, such as human resources (for benefits and job openings), and to other departments who wish to publish their own documents.

There is software available to help librarians design Web pages so an expert knowledge of HTML is not necessary. (HTML, or Hyper Text Markup Language, is a platform-independent language designed to transmit documents that can contain different media formats in the same document, such as text, graphics, sounds, and hypertext links to other documents and to other resources.) An outside consultant can also be hired to set up the first Web page while the library staff develops skills in this area.

The Web page must be created in a way that appeals to various users throughout the company. The information should be bundled together by area rather than having a large list of applications on the main page, and the information sought should be just two or three clicks away from the user. The design of the page should be kept simple because if it isn’t easy to use, it won’t be used. The information provided on the page must be kept up-to-date and it must be reliable. If these features are missing, users will lose trust in the page and it will be accessed less and less.

WHAT TO HAVE ON THE INTRANET

In addition to having access to all of the corporate library’s holdings, there are a number of other features that the company may want on the intranet, including e-mail, newsletters, and company policies and procedures. Companies also use the intranet to provide access to archives of corporate data that can be shared by the enterprise. Conferencing between departments is another good use of the corporate intranet, especially for companies with offices located across the country or around the world.

A knowledge map is something worthwhile that the library can develop for the intranet. This is an easy-to-use guide that shows the knowledge workers within the company and can be as simple as a directory of names, titles, and departments, or it can include hypertext links to databases of research materials. A knowledge map lets one department know what other departments are doing. It must be refreshed with up-to-date material however if it is to be useful and there may be problems with the question of individual power versus team power that will have to be addressed.

Databases are good to use for archiving materials to be accessed through the intranet. Information stored in a database is easier to manage than having it dispersed over many Web pages. Special software is needed to access databases, but this is usually a worthwhile investment as databases can help keep company data accurate, and may be necessary if users need access to legacy data on mainframe systems.

Document management is another area that should be considered for the intranet. It provides the mechanisms to manage large numbers of documents with version control, revision tracking, and search and retrieval features. It may be critical to have this software if the intranet is used to manage large company projects that involve frequent updates.

If the company wishes the intranet to become the sole source of information within the organization, allowing departments to publish their own information will be necessary. The goal will be to enable employees to create Web information easily and authoring tools will allow them to do this without needing to know HTML. There are many software packages available to meet this need. The company will have to decide if guidelines should be set up for what can be published on the corporate intranet, and a mechanism will need to be put in place to archive this information after a certain length of time.

CHALLENGES

There are a number of challenges facing the library staff when creating a corporate intranet. Data will have to be integrated from diverse sources. Access will have to be provided to all employees, wherever they are located and whatever type of computer equipment they are using. The format of the information must be appropriate to the employee using it. Inranet performance must be guaranteed and the service must be available around-the-clock, it must be fast, and it must be secure. The information must also be useable by employees with very diverse skill levels, including both computer skills and cognitive skills.

WHO SHOULD CONTROL THE INTRANET

Corporate librarians are the best people to control the corporate intranet. Their business is to deliver information and services to employees and the corporate intranet is just an extension of this. They are experts in identifying the best-in-class information available for use by others. They are 'information finders' and the discovery process is very important in making an intranet worthwhile. Librarians know how information flows through the company and are the best people to package this information for online access.

Often the IT department is given control of the corporate intranet and this is usually a mistake. IT is very good at handling hardware and software but not as good at knowledge management. Librarians are needed here because of their skills in professional research and information-gathering. Librarians should work with IT in order to efficiently disseminate high-quality information via the intranet, but they should not give up control to the content of the intranet. Departments within the organization may be allowed to maintain their own Web pages and publish their own documents, but the core information for the company should remain under the control of the library.

Having the corporate intranet centralized under the control of the corporate library has other benefits in addition to ensuring the quality of the data. It allows for better maintenance of the site and can simplify startup and ongoing use. It can provide consistent navigation for all users if all the links are established on the main page. It also allows librarians to customize links for various users as librarians are good judges of each department’s information needs. Librarians are also skillful in communicating with people as the library is the one area that has dealings with almost all departments throughout the company, and the corporate intranet can be an excellent vehicle for communication.

INTRANETS AND LIBRARIANS

Corporate intranets offer librarians new applications for their information handling skills. Intranets move librarians from their roles of information gophers into roles as information organizers, value assessors and technology teachers. Librarians need to focus their efforts on identifying information needs and facilitating methods for satisfying those needs, and by doing this, they will play a pivotal role in intranet creation and maintenance. The computer is just a tool. The key to success for corporate librarians is not technology but their professional skill in the communication of real knowledge.

The purpose of an intranet is to facilitate the storage and communication of data, information, knowledge, wisdom, and ideas throughout an organization. When data and facts are collected and organized they become information; when information is given value it becomes knowledge; and when knowledge is of a timeless nature it becomes wisdom. Librarians have skills to enable people to use all these components of understanding and that is what makes them so well suited to create and control a corporate intranet.

Corporate intranets will hopefully cause librarians to be more highly valued than they have been in the past. Companies may start to realize how much they need librarians as knowledge brokers who know where the information is, how to find it, and then how to provide access to it across the entire corporate structure. Corporate intranets are the ‘next big thing’ for libraries and information centers and librarians must be ready to take on the challenge.

BIBLIOGRAPHY

Balas, J. L., "Learning about intranets in the library." Computers in Libraries, Oct. 1, 1998, 31.

Buchanan, L., "The medium and the message." CIO Magazine, July 1, 1995. http://www.cio.com

Chou, D. C., "Developing an intranet: tool selection and management issues." Internet Research: Electronic Networking Applications and Policy, 9 (no. 2), 1998.

Commings, K., "Library access via corporate intranets." Computers in Libraries, March 1997, 26-28.

Davenport, T. and Prusak, L., "Know what you know." CIO Magazine, Feb. 15, 1998. http://www.cio.com

Etzel, K., "Large-scale intranets: profusion of partners & profits." Networking, Jan. 15, 1998.

Hildebrand, C., "Face the facts." WebMaster Magazine, Feb. 1997. http://www.web-master.com

Hildebrand, C., "Guiding principles." CIO Magazine, July 1, 1995. http://www.cio.com

Holland, M. and Picard, J., "Librarians at the gate." WebMaster Magazine, Sept. 1996. http://www.web-master.com

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IDM, "Intranet basics." http://idm.internet.com/ifaq.html

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APPENDIX

SOFTWARE FOR INTRANETS

Network Operating Systems: Microsoft Windows NT, Novell NetWare, Red Hat LINUX, UNIXWARE

Web Servers: Apache, Microsoft Internet Information

Server, Netscape Enterprise Server, FastTrack Server, WebSite

Firewalls: Stronghold, JumpGate, Centri, Webtrends

Browsers: Netscape Navigator, Internet Explorer, HotJava Views

Internet Access: CompuServe, America Online

Search Tools: EXCITE, OpenText, Free WAIS, Harvest, WebSnake

Authoring & Publishing: FrontPage Express, MS Publisher, Fusion, WORD, WordPerfect

Collaboration: TeamFusion

Conferencing: Folio, DynaWeb, WebBoard

Databases: Oracle, Sybase, DB2

Database Access: Informix, ColdFusion, LiveWire, Saphire Web

Document Management: Basis, Saros, DynaBase

Web Site Management: FrontPage, COAST, WebMaster, SiteMill, NetObjects

Integration to Legacy Systems: NetDynamics, BusinessWeb

Project Management: SureTrak, MS Project 98, Project Manager


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