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The Intranet Paradigm

Steven L. Telleen, Ph.D.

Paradigm, much like the cry of "wolf" in the folk tale of the shepherd boy who took that liberty too often, has been applied so casually that when a real paradigm shift looms on the horizon it meets a jaded acceptance. Raised to prominence in the 1960s by Thomas Kuhn in his classic work, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, the concept of paradigms has been applied to nearly every aspect of our lives. 

But real paradigms are not about technologies or products. Paradigms are about perspective. Paradigms define what we view as important and how we approach problems and activities. At the most basic level they form the fabric of our view of reality. It is not the paradigm that causes change. Change forces us to alter our paradigm of what is real and how to measure it. Changing from one paradigm to another can never be evolutionary. Either you "get it" or you don’t. The change is like a light bulb going off in your head. Paradigms shift, like tectonic plates, from one perspective to another. 

So what do intranets have to do with paradigm shifts? On the one hand intranets enable us to communicate and manage in ways that we never could before. On the other hand they provide us with concrete experience in how distributed systems function and can be managed. An intranet causes changes in the organizational pattern that encourage us to alter our perspective on how we manage organizations, how we view and value our employees, and how we approach problems. The paradigm shift is not the intranet. The paradigm shift is in our perception of management and business. Because the intranet is such a powerful change agent, understanding the potential paradigm conflicts becomes an important issue. 

In very general terms, the two views in conflict are the organization as an engineered machine versus the organization as an organic, self-adapting system - the assembly line versus the learning organization. The remainder of this column describes the conflicting perspectives in seven aspects of the paradigm shift: Culture, Management, Focus, Coordination, Tools, Communication, and Development. 

Culture - in the classic industrial organization power is wielded by hoarding information. In the intranet culture value is placed on sharing information. Managers who have built their careers by carefully controlling, and restricting, the flow of information find it difficult to grasp the value of an intranet and look for both reasons and technologies to restrict and control the intranet content. An organization whose culture values employees for their ability to follow routines rather than for their knowledge and experience, and that does not trust employees to natively act in the company’s interest, should not implement an intranet. 

Management - in the classic industrial organization decisions are made centrally, and filtered down a pyramid of managers, who are trusted to convey, properly interpret and oversee the implementation. An intranet is inherently distributed, where implementation and management decisions are made locally. Distributed decision-making forms the basis of the organic, self-adapting organization. An intranet provides the communication capability to coordinate the output of a distributed organization to support goal directed activities. 

Focus - in the classic industrial organization information management focuses on developing and optimizing processes and interfaces. Because of its distributed nature, information management in an intranet focuses on collecting and communicating "state" information. Distributed decision making leads to modular organizations, which means that the processes within the organizational modules are less important than the state of the output. Success becomes a function of successfully managing the states of the organization and its independent modules rather than the processes inside each module. 

Coordination - in the classic industrial organization coordination is accomplished through rather rigid organizational structure. In the distributed decision-making environment of an intranet, coordination is accomplished by sharing state information that is collected by automated agents and organized as needed. Because coordination is based on information rather than fixed reporting structures, virtual organizations and flexibility become feasible. 

Tools - in the classic early computing model tool interaction is accomplished by standardizing on specific products and tools. The power of the intranet comes from its vendor neutral output standards. An organization that has made the full paradigm shift not only allows diversity in products and tools but encourages diversity as insurance for future flexibility. 

Communication - our current information culture is structured around a publisher-push model. The user, overloaded with information, sent just-in-case it might be needed, has become dependent on this active push model. The intranet is inherently a user-pull model, where users acquire information based on their current information requirements rather than on what happens to be pushed through their in-baskets. This is perhaps the most significant aspect of the paradigm shift requiring behavioral changes in both publishers and users of information. 

Development - our current information processing environment removes management and manipulation of computerized information from domain experts and places it with technical experts. An intranet provides the tools and infrastructure to return control of the information development process to the domain expert. Instead of looking at proposed applications as potential MIS development projects, the perspective shifts to providing the infrastructure tools to allow the domain experts to develop their applications themselves. 

Intranets encourages distributed decision-making, modular organizations, open communication, and application of employee knowledge. These are platitudes that most management today openly espouse. Be aware that implementing these platitudes, even with the help of an intranet, will likely raise some difficult management challenges that will test your commitment at many steps along the way. When this happens, it might be useful to stop and ask yourself: "Do I want to engineer every aspect of my organization like a machine or have it respond like an adaptive organism? Do I need an assembly line or a learning organization?"
Last updated: June 24, 1997

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