Borrowing from technology designed first for the Internet, companies are now creating intranets as powerful management and integration tools. Here is how some of the leaders have gone about the task.
Truly transforming technologies often present challenges in direct proportion to the benefits they offer. So it must have been with the telephone; so it surely was with the computer; and so it may be with intranets, the in-house rendition of the global Internet.
Few technologies have been so rapidly accepted as intranets, which have gone from conception to virtual ubiquity in less than two years. Nearly every member of the Fortune 500 has deployed an intranet or is in the process of doing so. For the most aggressive early adopters, intranets are already strategic assets, lowering costs, improving communication and empowering employees.
But they are also presenting fresh challenges to management. These include overcoming the reluctance of employees to try something new, applying the right amount of control to what is inherently a decentralized operation and coping with political battles among a company's divisions and business units, which can have radically different hopes and fears about the changes that intranets will bring.
Intranets apply the technology of the Internet to an enterprise's internal networks, a simple concept with profound consequences. By adhering to standard Internet protocols -- simple software-based rules for the transmission of data across networks -- intranets allow different computer systems within an organization to speak to each other, often for the first time. Using the hypertext language and browser model of the World Wide Web, intranets present a tool that is graphic, simple to operate, even fun to use.
A tool that makes information more broadly and easily accessible within an enterprise could not be more timely. The leaner, flatter organizations that are the legacy of years of re-engineering have a greater need to know than the old hierarchies. The mutual dependence of work groups, departments and business units calls out for a new medium to exchange ideas, establish mutual goals and track progress.
On a more prosaic level, intranets are cheap and easy to implement, and they leverage rather than replace existing systems. Many corporations have spent a painful decade or more deploying systems in the last major paradigm of information science, client/server, in which applications are split among powerful servers and desktop computers across a network. Adding an intranet only requires installing a new server and distributing the appropriate software across the existing network.
Not surprisingly, the high-tech companies have moved the furthest and the fastest in adopting intranets. After all, companies like Sun Microsystems Inc. and Silicon Graphics Inc. have used the Internet for many years, and to varying degrees played key roles in its creation.
But there is nothing intrinsically different about the management of a high-tech enterprise, and the lessons learned by these pioneers are relevant to any company installing an intranet.
In any case, companies in other industries are not so far behind. Already intranets play a key role in customer support at US West Inc.; in human resources at the Lockheed Martin Corporation, and in marketing and communications at Levi Strauss & Company. Nonprofit organizations, academic institutions and the national laboratories are all moving rapidly to embrace and integrate intranets within their information and management systems.
Why are intranets proliferating at such a pace? "The biggest reason is that they are unlocking value in existing information systems,'' said William J. Raduchel, vice president and chief information officer at Sun Microsystems. The simple "page and link'' metaphor of the World Wide Web, where one reaches new sources of information by clicking on highlighted words or phrases on so-called Web pages, provides a key to previously inaccessible data.