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 / First Quarter 1997 / Issue 6(originally published by Booz & Company)


The Wired Enterprise: Here Come the Intranets

Cypress Semiconductor Inc. put its catalogue of chip products on the Web only to find that 30 percent of the traffic on the site was generated by its own field sales force. The Web page was more up to date than the catalogue's paper versions, and it was accessible from anywhere in the world. Cypress soon produced an intranet version, which could offer more sensitive and proprietary information to employees.

The Federal Express Corporation began giving customers access to its internal package tracking system via the Web in December 1994, saving untold dollars in telephone service calls as a result. This, too, became a popular tool for employees.

"We looked at that and said, how can we bring it in-house and save money and time?'' said Angela Maynard, the company's head of program management. "It was a natural transition for us.''

Federal Express first put corporate manuals and an employee directory on its intranet, but it is now testing an electronic expense accounting system, deployed entirely on internal Web pages. Longer term, the company is looking at ways to put browser software on the wireless handheld computers carried by its couriers, giving them full access to the intranet in the field.

At Federal Express, and at many early adopters, the initial deployment of the intranet was a grass-roots phenomenon, not unlike the infiltration of corporate America by personal computers in the early 1980's. The decision to publish information on an intranet came not from the executive suite, but from individuals or groups much further down in the organization, who took it upon themselves to acquire a Web server and create the initial sites.

At US West, the Denver-based telecommunications company, the intranet was originally the vision and creation of a single engineer, who dubbed it the Global Village. But as the intranet expanded from simple information exchange and publishing to include transaction processing and data base retrieval, US West management realized that the Global Village was a resource that had to be managed.

"It was probably about a year ago that we started saying this is a serious business tool, how do we manage it as a strategic business asset?'' said Patricia Hursh, US West's intranet manager. "We had to make a move to centralized management, processes and controls to make this thing usable." But central management does not extend to authorship. "The information on the intranet needs to be owned by the part of the business that produces it,'' Ms. Hursh said.

US West's most successful program to date, Facility Check, is typical of the evolution to more interactive and strategic intranet applications. Prior to the creation of this application, the company's customer representatives could make only vague, uninformed estimates of how long it would take to deliver a new telephone line or other service, because they had no way to access the corporate data base that monitored the availability of facilities. Commercially available data base querying tools were all too costly and complex to deploy to these employees.

"Sometimes we would make a commitment to the customer and not have the physical plant to fulfill it,'' Ms. Hursh said. "So we built a front end where the rep could put in the customer address, and behind the scenes, a program would search our data base and bring back some very plain-English description of the facilities available. They could then make a realistic commitment to the customer.'' Because the system uses a browser for a front end, she said, "you really don't have to train people; in five minutes they're up and running."

US West has not done a formal return-on-investment analysis on Facility Check but Ms. Hursh said that it is a huge win in terms of reduced cost and increased customer satisfaction. Other benefits of the intranet application are that it runs on any computer in the company, whether PC, Macintosh or Unix workstation, and the time to deployment was a fraction of a conventional program.

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