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TOC - Ch 1 - Ch  2 - Ch 3 - Ch 4 - Ch 5 - Ch 6 - Ch 7 - Ch 8 - Ch 9

Chapter 1: Why Do I Care?

Intranet Organization: Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D.


Like it or not, we are all cursed with living in interesting times. This is not meant as a call to action or a premonition of doom, for there is little we can do except keep alert and muddle through until the new order makes itself clear. It does appear that we are on the verge of a major punctuation point in human social organization. We have the symptoms of a fundamental paradigm shift as described by the late Thomas Kuhn in his classic book on paradigms, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Changes in technology and business are happening so fast that the world seems in constant chaos. Our traditional theories of management and organization seem less and less capable of pointing us to useful courses of action. Entire industries are shifting in form, function and importance. 

The term "Information Age" seems to be the most common designation for the emerging order. The paradigm shift to information as primary driver already is taking hold as we explain our present, cast our future and recast our history in terms of the information metaphor. A good example can be found in Michael Rothschild’s Bionomics. In this book he provides a table that articulates quite well how we can use the information paradigm to discern useful patterns on a macro scale. He wrote his book in 1990, before the advent of the World Wide Web. I have taken the liberty of modifying his table to take this into account and show the magnitude of the changes we are facing. 

Patterns of Information Evolution

Adapted by S. Telleen from M. Rothchild's Bionomics
(Mil. Yrs.)
Cell with

Homo sapiens
(200,000 Yrs.)

(55 Yrs.)
The New
Information Age


The table begins with biological information, coded in chemical form. Life is distinguished from other chemical reactions by its ability to encode and copy information, to reproduce itself. Over time, some information pools evolved more efficient ways of organizing their information and copying themselves. This continued until an evolution in organizational structure led to a major revolution in information generation. The evolution was the nuclear membrane, the revolution was sexual reproduction. 

Rothschild calls this phase in the information cycle, "communication," but it has important characteristics beyond our current connotations of that word. What caused the revolution was the ability to break the confines of isolation and add information from other systems. The mixing of information created new information that did not exist in either system before. The rate of innovation exploded exponentially and eventually created the seeds for the next major evolutionary stage. The new stage was set by the development of intellectual information, information that exists as mental patterns in the organism rather than just its chemical DNA. 

This new type of information was much more flexible when it came to adding and mixing information, that is learning, but the information pool survived only as long as the individual organism that collected it. The evolutionary benefit of passing this intellectual information to one’s offspring, along with the chemical information in the DNA, led to the development of culture. And the invention of mechanical writing started the cycle of information development again, this time for intellectual information. 

Prior to the 1400s, the world was a very different place. Ideas and knowledge were confined to localized areas. Sharing and dissemination of new ideas was limited because there was no practical way to share. Writing was the only mechanism other than verbal communication. While writing was more efficient than verbal communication for sharing ideas over time and wide geographic areas, sharing still remained limited by the number of copies available. And, making new copies could only be accomplished by the slow, laborious process of hand copying. 

Human organizations developed around these limitations. In many cultures, an entire profession of scribes sprang up to provide new copies of the existing knowledge. But consider the limitations. In a religion like Christianity, which was spreading across many languages, it was probably a good idea to translate the Bible into more than one language. However, if the organization could not create enough copies in one language, how could it realistically support additional translations? What started out as a practical reality, quickly became entrenched as a source of power and prestige. The information gatekeepers had exclusive access to the copies and could relate and interpret the content to support their own positions. Once established, there was strong pressure to maintain the status quo. 

In 1450 another revolution happened. The modern printing press was invented, and again the power of information increased exponentially. The technology was evolutionary. It did not tax what was known at that time about materials or technology. It was an easy fit. The organizational and social effect, however, was revolutionary. Suddenly ideas and knowledge could be distributed widely, in quantity. Existing controls on information access became ineffective. Information began to flow and mix and generate new ideas that in turn joined the mix. As the quantity of information exploded, new ways to identify and validate quality information became necessary. The Scientific Method was one mechanism developed to serve this purpose, and the name we have given to this period, the Scientific Revolution, refers to the methodology developed to manage the information explosion, not the technology that enabled it. 

The new information from the Scientific Revolution took physical form in an explosion of mechanical and physical conveniences known as the Industrial Revolution. But the printing press also enabled, and encouraged, public education, democracy, capitalism and the modern corporation. Human organization and culture was transformed radically by the mix of ideas the printing press enabled. 

Out of the Scientific Revolution came the seeds for the next stage in the cycle, the world of electronics. As we progress down this path, the advent of the World-Wide Web seems to occupy a position similar to that of the printing press in the mechanical encoding cycle. If so, we are in the beginning stages of a revolution that will affect all aspects of our lives, from business to government, from personal to social. Already we have seen the old controls and models break down. How do I control access to information? who decides what information should be controlled? How do I know the quality of information on the web? How do I keep up with the explosion of information? These questions will get answered. But not until they have shaken the very foundations of the world as we know it.

Moving closer to home

Most businesses today do not implement new technology for its own sake. Nor do they implement technology to help move society toward some new macro stage of evolution. However, experience shows that many businesses do implement new technology based on vague business goals and without identifying many of the critical elements required to reach those goals. Organizations that are lucky stumble onto many of the critical elements as they gain experience. But even the lucky ones often fail to realize the full potential of their investment. 

Intranet goals commonly are stated as the specific projects that the organization intends to implement first. Make our collateral available to the field sales force electronically, or provide email and electronic conferencing capability to our employees. While these are useful outcomes, they are not broad enough business goals to justify the introduction of a technology as fundamental as an Intranet. After examining a number of initial project initiatives for their underlying business goals, and talking to many organizations undertaking an Intranet project, there appear to be some common business expectations behind these initiatives. 

A surprising number of executives support an Intranet implementation expecting it to create a fundamental change in the way they do business. They expect this change to come from increases in both organizational productivity and personal productivity. They expect improved decision making, higher quality information and increased information visibility to be outcomes that support these productivity gains. 

The expectations of many people lower in the organization can be quite different. Their reasons for implementing an Intranet often focus on easier information access and cost savings. It should be apparent that the level sponsoring the Intranet initiative can have a significant impact on both the goals and what the implementors consider critical elements for success. Easier information access and some level of cost reduction can be achieved with a straight technical implementation. Improving information quality, decision making and organizational productivity cannot be achieved by technology alone. That requires development of the organizational and management infrastructure. 

It’s all about communication and innovation

At their core, the benefits of an Intranet come from improved communication and innovation within the organization. Tying this back to the global order of things, communication is the stage of the information cycle enabled by improved copying, and communication enables improved decision making, improved productivity, and improved effectiveness. Just as the printing press was the great enabler, lowering the barriers for the average person to publish information on paper, the Intranet lowers the barriers for the average person to publish in the electronic world. 

Electronic publishing increases the speed and breadth of information flow across geographic and organization boundaries to a degree unobtainable with paper. The web technology, at the core of an Intranet, makes electronic publishing easy, inexpensive and accessible to the average employee. It improves information access. But the improved access this technology delivers is only an enabler. The rapid sharing of information that previously would not have been available electronically, the mixing of information that otherwise would not be likely to mix, is what creates the revolution. 

We have shared computerized content electronically for some time. But this has been primarily the sharing of data, usually in the highly structured context of a specific business transaction. Ideas are something different. Ideas are what give data meaning. Ideas are how we share the context of our experiences and explore the possibilities of our futures. And, it is the sharing and mixing of ideas that an Intranet enables. It allows us to overcome organizational and geographic barriers and share ideas on a scale and with an immediacy not available before. 

Perhaps the biggest challenge in the business world today is the ability of organizations to innovate and learn. The premise of many old Star Trek episodes is increasingly the most durable survival skill for business. While access to data can suggest or support specific actions, in the end the unpredictable human force of creativity, of new ideas, is what brings competitive advantage and victory. 

Innovation and creativity have been the subject of numerous books and articles. It is a skill that can be strengthened in all of us. But in the end, the basic ingredient of human creativity is the mixing and evaluation of ideas. In fact, it appears that the best predictor of creativity is the number of novel combinations tried, the amount of idea mixing that takes place. Creative people are creative because they are not afraid to try ideas in new combinations, even though most combinations do not survive to reality. The "failures" are not a waste of time, they are the necessary ingredients for innovation. 

The same must hold true for innovative organizations. The ability to support diversity and facilitate the mixing of ideas increases the ability to learn and innovate. This is the message of many management books going back at least as far as In Search of Excellence. The most successful organizations value and encourage contributions and sharing of ideas from all their members. An Intranet takes this process to new heights by enabling information sharing, and idea mixing, on a scale previously not possible. 

Another message from the modern management books, and the goal of many corporate re-engineering projects, is the need to distribute actions and responsibilities (decisions) closer to the opportunities and points of contact. This make sense from a couple of vantage points. Those closest to the action see the problems and opportunities first. They have the most experience applying the current procedures and therefore are more likely to know where to look for improvements. They are the ones who have to implement the new solution so they have a vested interest in making it work, or continuing to modify it until it does. 

All of these are valuable reasons for distributing decision making, but, there is yet another. Distributed decision making allows the organization to try more ideas, more rapidly. And, as we noted above, creativity and learning are directly related to the number of new ideas tried. Mixing of these ideas and experiences is an important ingredient in this process. The Intranet’s ability to enable the rapid sharing of directions, experiences and status supports and enhances this effect. The Intranet enables the learning organization. 

"It’s probably too inexpensive, easy and forgiving"

This was the off-handed comment of a vice president of information systems at one of the Regional Bell Operating Companies. It happened during a conversation we were having on the need for a goals clarification activity. Her observation, based on her experience with their Intranet, was pointing out the lack of business scrutiny that was going into Intranet projects. She clearly had mixed feelings about this situation. On the one hand she felt the need for a business justification, on the other she questioned whether it didn’t cost more to do the analysis than to just do the project. 

The comment stayed with me because it succinctly summed up many of the major challenges traditional MIS professionals face when confronting an Intranet. It also points out the difference between project planning, which may not always be cost effective, and goals clarification, which is a larger issue than individual projects and project selection. 

On first exposure to the idea, MIS professionals find it hard to believe that this statement is really true. They have heard about "inexpensive" and "easy" before, and every time they have gotten into it, hidden technical complexities quickly emerged. Only through experience do they discover that this technology really is both inexpensive and easy. Which leads to a second challenge, it gets out of control. 

We tend to apply what we know to new situations, and in the case of Intranet development this often takes the form of treating the implementation as just another programming project. Users are surveyed, or involved in Joint Application Development exercises. The results are documented and MIS develops or installs the applications. The technical publications organization may be commissioned to create or translate the content . And, the "first" Intranet pages go online. 

Before long, pages and web servers are springing up everywhere as users discover that the technology makes publication easy enough for them to master, and most of the software they need to get started is cheap or free. It is so easy they no longer have to wait for MIS to get around to their needs, so they don’t. 

In most cases, the challenge at this point is not a result of things being out of control, but of people feeling out of control. In the past IT professionals controlled the flow of computerized information by virtue of the technology barrier. Almost overnight, this barrier has come down. Some IT professionals welcome this change with open arms, others go to great lengths to try to impose new barriers in the name of control. The reality is that information control is not gone, only shifting back to the business owners. And this shift creates the new challenge, a change in roles and responsibilities. 

The Evolution of Information Management

There is no question that the role of IT will change. The final chapter of this book, on Intranet futures, will look at possible directions the MIS and IT organizations might take. Whatever the outcome, it is clear that this technology is driving IT functionality quickly toward enabling knowledge workers to meet their own information needs. The role of MIS is shifting from doing the management of the information for these workers to delivering an infrastructure that supports self-service information management and use. 

A few words about why this technology is so powerful. The Intranet technology is evolutionary, not revolutionary. It consists of two sets of standards that work together to provide the environment for organizational revolution discussed above. One set of standards, the Internetworking Protocol (IP), standardizes the way multi-vendor computer systems communicate with each other. The other set of standards, the web standards, standardizes the content and makes it system and application independent. These standards have essentially eliminated the need for information content providers or users to be concerned about vendor-specific variations in most content creation and user viewing tools. 

Because it is evolutionary, the underlying hardware infrastructure (and in many cases the system software infrastructure) can be used with little or no modification. The web standards not only affect new information, but provide a form of Rosetta Stone for legacy applications and data as well. And, if the software vendors get out of the way, we also may have system independent standards for application logic and object linking as well, which will make application logic both machine independent and user configurable. 

It is important to recognize that the tremendous simplification of technology enabled by an Intranet is based on standards, because many vendors are looking for the first U-turn that will take us back to the world of technological Babel. Experienced Intranet organizations are beginning to understand the very real savings in development and maintenance costs that the Intranet standards provide. They tend to select products based on implementation of these standards, and set policies that discourage using non-standard features in commercial products. Organizations implementing their first Intranet may be less concerned about preserving cross-vendor standards, because they do not have first hand experience with the benefits. The message, if you are implementing an Intranet, stick to the standards available to multiple vendors. In later chapters we will discuss when and how proprietary advances can be safely implemented. 

It will change your organization and how you do business

The introduction of an Intranet is not a revolutionary technology change, but it can create a revolutionary change in the way your organization relates to information, and hence the way it operates. Throughout this book we will explore some of these changes from different perspectives. Below is a list of the basic principles that underlie most of the observations, suggestions and pronouncements in this book. You already have seen some discussed in this chapter. If I have done an adequate job, these principles should become more practical to you as you read the book, not because of the "how to" advice, but because of the different perspective these principles provide on organizational assumptions and options. 

The basic principles: 

  • Organizational Latency (Surface to Volume Ratios slow down centralized organizations)
  • Information Drives Function versus Function Generates Information
  • Push versus Pull Information
  • Self Service versus Do For Me Support
  • Communication/Coordination versus Command/Control
  • Distributed Decision Making versus Central Control
  • Information Access versus Information Quality
  • Information Context versus Information Content
  • Standardize the Known (don't lock yourself into investing in incremental gains)
  • Exploit the Unknown (this is where new knowledge, hence the real value, lies)
Now that you have the keys, it is time to move on and look at the role of management in organizations. 

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Table of Contents

Original Version: October, 1996
Last Updated: November, 1996
Copyright 1996 - Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D.

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