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The trials and tribulations of an Intranet


'Intranet' became the buzzword of choice over the last few years, but what it is and what a given company does with it, varies wildly. So, what is an intranet?

Corporate Intranets
Most companies' intranets are just a simple website with corporate information intended for an internal audience. They often contain predominately 'static' information which already exists in a print-based metaphor (e.g. internal communications, corporate phone directories, personnel information and company policies). Of course, there are always exceptions, and you will usually find at least one in most companies if you look. However, with ownership being controlled from either a corporate affairs or HR area, applications tend to take a back seat.

Most importantly: 'What is an intranet capable of?' To answer that, the word 'intranet' must be defined. It was derived from 'internet', which in turn came out of 'network'. The distinction between an 'intranet' and a 'network' is usually made on the premise that the 'intranet' is an internal network of computers based on 'internet' technologies. This does not necessarily mean web servers and browsers; the internet was around well before the HTTP specification was developed in 1990. Intranet goes back to the basics of things such as TCP/IP.

Once intranet is referred to in these terms, it becomes a tool much greater than the simple sum of its individual parts (e.g. web servers, email systems and transaction systems). It pulls all the disparate systems together, getting them to work in harmony. It is about trying to find the information, tools and people needed regardless of time, where they are or who owns them. It also means that the issue of 'ownership' has much farther reaching implications than who controls the 'website'. As a technological solution increases in complexity, so does the overhead. Building the system isn't even half the work; there are ongoing issues and costs for maintenance, support, training, interaction, etc.

The Network
From the physical standpoint, the hard part has been done; a network probably already exists and the cost justified long ago. The irony is that many financial institutions often have two or three 'networks'; some may even have more. Why? Simply because the IT services have grown independently of each other over decades to service specific needs. Admin people working on their PCs, churning out documents, are generally connected to some a LAN (or WAN) to print and share files. Involved in retail banking? There is probably a comprehensive branch 'network' that handles the front office systems and another one for the ATMs. Handle investments? What about the connections to the stock exchanges, currency systems, SWIFT network... It is not uncommon for these 'networks' to be disassociated from each other and, in many cases, for good reasons. So, how can all of the various information sources, applications and business processes on these various networks be managed effectively? The most common way is to implement an 'enterprise portal'.

Conceptually, an enterprise portal is simply a single point of contact for everything an employee needs to do their job. It should know who they are, what their roles are within the organisation, what information they are allowed access to (and what they aren't), and make available all of the information, tools and business processes needed at any given time. In essence, it transforms a 'network' into an 'intranet'.

However, taking all of this into account, getting it right is incredibly difficult. It is inevitable that in most companies; and the finance sector is no exception; there are a multitude of IT systems, each designed with a specific task in mind. Some are based on decades-old technology, others on proprietary client-server environments. In either case, more than one 'application' is needed for each employee's computer to work. In a trading environment, normally more than one computer system is in use. This makes integration problematic.

The most common reaction from the IT department is to develop a 'web front-end' to applications. This allows access to an application from any computer using a standard web browser. Of course each development usually happens in isolation and still requires the same login or authentication procedures to be used. This is the 'webification' of application systems. However, it is worth noting that although this allows the employee to work from only one computer and possibly, only one program (the web browser); but has it made their job any easier?

Swapping one interface (or many) for a single one does not dramatically change workloads. While it does significantly lower support costs by enabling the IT department to ensure every computer has a web browser installed, a more encompassing solution that provides a single interface for all work requirements is needed. This is where 'knowledge management' surfaces. The HR professional would argue that knowledge management is a company's best tool for maintaining competitive edge and retaining the intellectual property its staff accumulate. This is true, however, knowledge management is not an intranet and vice versa.

While the intranet can surely be a tool for knowledge management, its real niche is in helping to network people to encourage 'knowledge pooling'.

Knowledge Pooling
Over the past five years, countless HR directors have expressed a need for their company to have knowledge management systems. The reason they give is that they do not want to loose the skills and knowledge their staff have acquired when they leave.

If you have an intranet, you have a 'knowledge management system'; you just need to develop it properly. This is where the concept of knowledge pooling comes in. A company's intranet has a vast amount for knowledge spread across it. Some of it is explicit data (e.g. a company's share value for the last 20 years) and some of it is tacit (e.g. the context behind the fluctuations in that share value). A lot of the time the information is already sitting on the intranet, the problem is finding it. It is like trying to find a needle in a haystack: how do you find it? In these cases, a decent search engine is probably all you need to help you find it.

But this isn't where the real benefit is. The real benefit is in tapping into the implicit knowledge in someone's brain somewhere else in the company. It is the way an individual looks at the information/problem/situation that is needed and is something that cannot be stuck in an information system and accessed over the network. What is needed is a way of sharing the fact that someone in the organisation has this implicit knowledge, and what better way to achieve this than with the intranet! Once people have a vehicle with which the means to share information about themselves, and an easy way for others to access the information, a coordinated approach to work is deployed.

Universal access
So now once the all-singing, all dancing enterprise portal is installed; what happens when you have to travel to another office? What happens when at a client site or working from home or dashing across town on your way to a meeting and you need to know the current value of an investment you're managing; how useful is the intranet now?

The issue of access (the 'wherever' part of the equation) is consistently the bane of most organisations. Even if the entire staff is office-based, there are always occasions when access is needed to the very information or tools that your intranet provides. This is usually where the IT department starts talking about 'remote access' solutions and quotes amounts of money for infrastructure and support, not to mention the security implications. Even if a remote access solution is implemented, the unfortunate reality is often they don't meet the need. Ask any remote worker, how useful it has been to have the laptop, mobile phone and remote access account when on the way to the airport trying to get the latest information on something. Chances are, they have used the mobile, but only to call back and ask someone for the information.

So how do you address the problem? Unfortunately this question does not have a specific answer. Every company is different, as is every technology implementation and the needs of each user. The trick is to identify the users with the greatest need and ask them how they actually work. There is no end to the remote access solutions that can be bought, but not a single one of these will be the panacea for every company's needs. For some staff, the laptop/mobile/RAS account will work, for others a simple two-way pager might be all they really need. And while everyone is jumping on the WAP bandwagon, few are reengineering their applications for the medium which inevitably means to a useless system. In the craze to develop a WAP portal most technologists overlook how simple and inexpensive it is to do the same thing over an SMS interface. Always look to 'appropriate technology' rather than 'state-of-the-art technology'. Define the problem, then select the most appropriate solution to solve it.

What is the Answer?
The simple truth - there isn't one. There is no answer that adequately explains how to maximise an intranet in the space of a few hundred words. This is because every company has its own unique culture, problems and goals. Although there are only a finite number of industry sectors and two different banks will face much of the same issues, but trying to solve the problems their differing circumstances present, requires unique solutions. If one organisation merely tries to imitate what another has done, a lot of money and time will be spent without solving the problems unique to that organisation.

What should be clarified is that each company is unique and so are its needs. Communication is the key, talk to colleagues from other companies in your own business sectors, and even totally unrelated ones, lessons can be learnt from each other's mistakes and triumphs and, if attention is paid, appear where you least expect them. Technology is never the end result in itself. Remember that anything you do should underpin an existing business processes and improve them. If it doesn't deliver on your business goals, don't do it.

Dr Lee Fulmer
Senior Architect





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