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Frequently Asked Questions


Subject Areas

Basic Intranet 
Collaboration 
Content Organization 
Organizational Knowledge and Learning
Publishing
Push Technology
Return On Investment


Basic Intranet (back to top)

Question:

What is an Intranet and how does it differ from an Extranet? 

Answer:

The term "Intranet" actually is somewhat misleading conceptually, because it invites a contrast to the term "Internet." In fact, the real conceptual contrast is with the World-Wide Web. This distinction is important because the term Internet focuses us on the physical and technical networks, whereas the World-Wide Web focuses on the set of content accessible on that physical and technical infrastructure. Intranets and Extranets, like the World-Wide Web, are collections of content that use the same physical and technical infrastructure. An Intranet is a set of content, shared by a well-defined group (a community) within a single organization.  An Extranet is a set of content also shared by a well derfined group, but  one that crosses enterprise boundaries.  The difference is really a definition of the type of access decision that is made for sets of content that reside on the Internet infrastructure. 

Question:

Which problems can an intranet solve? Everybody seems to be sure that we need it, but for what, where does this need come from? 

Answer:

Here are the problems Intranets solve from three different perspectives: 

From a Business Perspective

Better Decision Making 

  • Information Access 
  • Information Quality 
Impoved Customer Relations 
  • Timeliness 
  • Relevance 
  • Satisfaction 
Better Bottom Line 
  • Decreased Cost 
  • Increased Revenue 
From an Operations Perspective

Make information easy to find, get and use 

  • Everything is a mouse click away 
Make bi-directional digital communication available to everyone 
  • We can finally drive the car without having to be a mechanic 
Make development faster and cheaper 
  • Non-technical people can do more for themselves 
  • Complex development has been simplified 
  • Output from cross-vendor tools really does work together 
Allow distributed development and management 
  • Each group or author can chose their own tools 
  • Rigid, pre-defined structures no longer required for content discovery 
From a Functional Perspective

Administrative Functions 

  • Forms 
  • Meeting Minutes 
  • Directories 
  • Calendars/Resource Sched. 
  • Plans/Guides 
Materials/Collateral Distrib. 
Process/Standards Docum. 
Facilities and Safety Infor. 
Education & Training 
Universal GUI to Legacy Info. 
Project Management 
Collaboration Support 
Human Resources 
  • Benefits 
  • Policies/Procedures 
  • Time Accounting 
  • Job Posting/Applicant Proc. 
Market Research 
Help Desk 
Sales Force Automation 
Recruiting 
Purchasing 
Partner/Distrib. Support 
Software Distribution 

Question:

I'm looking for an  "instant" intranet. 

Answer:

It depends on what you mean by an instant Intranet. I assume you already have the IP network. If all you want to do to start is allow people to publish and share pages, check out Cobalt Microservers' or Microtest

For a basic intranet I recommend the following as a minimum: 

  • POP-based email 
  • A static page web server 
  • A discussion forum server 
  • A good spider-fed search engine 
As you get more advanced you will want 
  • A cgi and/or Java library server 
  • A way to link to a database server 
Question:

I wonder if the virtual organisation structure(distributed control and central communication and purpose driven) is part of the person culture that many books have mentioned. 

The point is:  can the person culture alone be conducive enough for adopting an intranet. 

Answer:

Your question about person culture alone being conducive enough for adopting an intranet could have more than one meaning. Do you mean is it enough of a reason for a company to make a decision to implement an intranet or once a company has made a decision is it enough to get the people in the organization to adopt using the intranet? 

For the first meaning, I would say that most companies, that consciously adopted intranets, did not do so on the people culture issues. And even those who did looked for other ways to justify the time and investment to management. In biology we used to talk about two sets of causes for things, the proximate cause, which is the cause that stimulates the behavior, and the ultimate cause, which is the long term advantage that makes the behavior successful. For example, some birds in temperate regions of the world fly toward the equator in the fall and return toward the poles in the spring. When they leave and how far they go is set off by a proximate cause, perhaps the daylight patterns or the temperature during a certain week in August. The ultimate cause is the fact that those who don't pick up the que don't survive the winter cold and lack of food. 

Anthropologists have noted this same phenomenon in human cultures. Many of the rituals and taboos in cultures are proximate causes for behaving in ways that have long term (ultimate) positive benefits. I believe the same is true here. Most companies are justifying and adopting intranets for proximate reasons, ROI, shorter delivery cycles for new features, customer demands, etc. However, the adoption has long term consequences. In some companies the intranet gets almost immediate and widespread use. In others it is like pulling teeth to get people to use the intranet. I believe that the ultimate benefits in terms of organizational flexibility, innovation, knowledge management and learning are going to give those companies that adopt and incorporate intranets a growing "ulitmate" advantage over time. 

Which brings us to the second possibility for what you could mean. Why do some companies take to intranets naturally and other don't. This is a cultural issue. Some cultures are predisposed to distributed decision making and employee responsibility. Others are more bureaucratic with employee dependencies on fixed rules, activities and information flows. However, even in supportive cultures, the way you introduce the intranet to the culture can have a profound influence on how the intranet culture takes hold and integrates. This aspect of intranets is what I have been exploring since mid-1994. How do you introduce an intranet to the people in an organization in a way that helps them and the organization get the best advantage. 

The problem with intranet organizational implementation  is, that every top down decision sabotages the quest to distribute the decision making below. So how do you stimulate the process without making the decisions? 

I have developed a method for doing this that involves five high level steps. First, is identifying the roles and organizations required to manage an on-going intranet. Second, is implementing the base technical functionality that enables the people in these roles to support themselves. Third, is facilitating the adoption of the roles and skills by the appropriate people in the organization. Fourth, is creating a critical mass of participation in the organization. And, fifth, is creating rules-of-the-road that promote the efficient flow of information with minimum imposition on the communicators. 

These steps are implemented using a series of seminars and workshops that educate and support each individual in making their decisions each step of the way. The intranet is used to capture and share the decisions, and even facilitate parts of the discussion. See chapter 8 of  Intranet Organization for more details on this approach.

Collaboration (back to top)

Question:

Our organisation is currently implementing an Intranet. However, we are not very satisfied with the newsgroup function in Netscape. Although it does work, we have problems with the way it works. 

Therefore, we are trying to look for ways how to use newsgroups based on HTML. Could you please give us some information on how this works, what kind of software you use, problems that might arise, etc.? Your information will be very much appreciated. 

Answer:

Depending on what it is you didn't like about Netscape's news server, you may want to look at software from Swarthmore that turns news groups into web forums. It is called Forum News Gateway and you can find out more info at: http://forum.swarthmore.edu/forum.news.gateway.html. Also see the i-net tools section on this site under Collaboration for other text-based discussion software.
 

Content Organization (back to top)

Question:

Our goal is to improve the searchability on a big companys intranet. The intranet contains a VERY large amount of data (ca 100 000 docs) and about 80 servers!!! 

The main issue is to categorize the different documents into various "clusters", to in that way improve the accessability. Another important issue is the possibility to be able to quick and easy grasp the key concepts of the total object structure and contents. 

We have found a great amont of different methods and theorys, not to mention alot of nasty algoritms to wrestle with. We would like to use an unsupervised approach! 

Answer:
Take a look at the Semio product. It came out of a research project at the University of Southern California (USC). 

http://www.semio.com

You also might want to check out Autonomy (http://www.autonomy .com). It uses clustering technologies as well as both inductive and deductive refinement.

You also may want to look at the article: Using I-net Agents

Question:

We are currently in the throes of putting together an infrastructure for content for our corporate intranet. Do we publish content which is searchable mainly by a search engine, that is not linked to any particular home pages or do we create an infrastructure which resembles teams/divisions and the sort of infrastructure which we currently have. 

Answer: 

The first issue here is whether you are talking about your physical organization, or your logical organization. Physically, you can organize any way you like, because the location is transparent to the user. However, I suggest that the physical organization be set up with two principles in mind. First, all content does not have to be on the same server, so don't let yourself get too constrained by server. Choose server locations for specific content based on security, function or backup requirements. Second, make your physical organization as modular and independent of the management structure as possible, so you don't have the problem of moving content (and breaking links) every time a reorganization occurs. In other words, don't physically organize content into folders within folders, based on organization structure. Keep it flat. 

In terms of logical organization, there are many different ways to organize the logical navigation paths. A seach engine is only one, and if you look at most sites a search engine is provided along with other organization approaches (e.g. alphabetical, metaphorical, temporal, descriptive, etc.). Most effective top level pages recognize that no one approach suits everyone, so they provide more than one. The optimum number seems to be three different approaches (in addition to the search engine), or at least that is what most sites seem to be settling on. 

From your question, it seems that you have not yet made the shift to thinking about the content as independent of the navigation paths. Once you internalize this distinction, you will find it quite powerful and liberating, because you can manage the content separately from the navigation paths, and, you can create new navigation paths (I call them brokers in my book) easily and independently from the physical structure of the content. 

Organizational Knowledge and Learning (back to top)

Question:
  1. How can an Intranet function as an organizational memory and what kind of applications in an Intranet can be used as this memory? 
  2. How can organizational memory create/support organizational learning? 
Answer:

 Many of our views on organizational knowledge, memory and learning are tainted by the traditional computing paradigm. We tend to think of these activities in terms of traditional files and databases. And yet we know our own brains are not structured like files or databases at all. They are complex networks. Yes, even in our brains, the network is the computer. 

Some important themes: 

1. As with all complex systems, levels of organization will come into play. Thus, organizational learning requires individual learning first, and as an integral part of the process. But organizational learning will have some very different characteristics than individual learning. Just as individual learning cannot take place without learning and memory in the neuron pathways, the meaning of neuron pathway learning and memory is very different than the learning and memory that takes place in the mind as a whole system of learning neuron pathways. Thus, we should expect organizational learning to have different characteristics than those we associate with individual learners. 

2. Learning and memory work on may different levels. Our unconscious memory, for example, carries a lot of "informal" content. Is the unconscious mind just a lot of meaningless junk that we can discard without detriment? If you believe this, you had better go back and read Carl Jung again. I suspect that organizational memory will work the same way. No one person, or even community of interest, can predict what will ultimately be valuable and what can be tossed out. Nor will the same information be valuable to all individuals or communities of interest. Intranets allow us to capture a larger percentage of undifferentiated information than ever before. But more importantly, intranets allow us to create agents that help us screen, reuse and restructure that information, continuously, in novel ways. I believe this will be the real key to understanding organizational memory and learning. 

3. If the previous idea is correct, then the most pragmatic approach to intranets and organizational learning will come from a concentration on the kinds of agents that are required (both human and automated) to make the right intranet information "conscious" to the right groups at the right time. Some of the definitions in the agent paper mentioned above: http://www.iorg.com/papers/agents.html , are the most basic attempt to begin classifying the types of agents that are required. I also have addressed the concept of agents in  Chapter 7 of my on-line book (also mentioned above). 

4. The most important theme is that learning and memory are not static files, but dynamic processes, be they individual or organizational. In the end, organizational learning will come from counter-balancing agents, just as our other sophisticated systems (from muscular to hormonal) gain their tone and control from the tension of opposing forces. 

Also see: http:.//www.iorg.com/papers/knowledge.html and  http://www.internetworld.com/print/1999/03/22/intranet/19990322-advisor.html .

Publishing (back to top)

Question:

I am in the process of setting up an intranet for our department,  which will eventually link with the corporate network over a WAN. I have no problem in thinking of the type of things I would like to set upand have already set up the basics for some of them. Of course they are useless if people are not going to expand and maintain the content themselves. People here are very open to the idea of intranet and want to get involved. The idea has been sold. 

The major barrier is in how to enable (usually novice) users to be able to easily publish to the intranet. Word processing and spreadsheet apps are our common form of document creation and users are comfortable with them,....my problem is making it easy for them to then publish their docs in intranet format, in the right place and to be able to edit content as necessary. 

Do I need to provide collabaration products and tools? 

Answer:

First, let me state my bias right up front. I am a proponent of companies moving to web-standard content as quickly as possible. There is no reason this cannot be done given the tools available today. 

There are several good WYSIWYG, HTML editors out there that use many of the same buttons and conventions as common word processors. Netscape Gold is one and Netscape Composer  is even better, Microsoft's FrontPage also is a reasonable product, although starting novices out with a complete web management package, rather than a page editor, may be a little overwhelming. If the applications you currently use are Microsoft Office, you might consider Office '97. Word 97, in particluar, is a very easy way to generate basic HTML pages, and can even turn existing Word documents into HTML.  Personally, I think Adobe's PageMill is one of the best HTML editors I have seen. Until recently it was only available on Macs, but they recently released the Windows95 version. By the end of this year, HTML functionality is supposed to be available from Corel  implemented in Java, and will allow other participants in the community to make their own modifications. 

If you need to pass around spreadsheets, or other non-web-standard content that you want the audience to be able to use and modify, then make sure your web-server is set up to support the appropriate MIME extensions. This way the audience can use the proprietary application as a helper application. This also allows the proprietary content to be viewed as-is if a plug-in is available for the browser. 

As far as collaboration tools, you need to look at your audience and determine how much current content  is primarily the work of a single author and how much is a true collaborative effort. In most cases , introducing collaborative tools to organizations takes a proactive adoption program . 

The most basic advice in bringing on new intranet publishers is keep it simple. Unless you have a real requirement for collaborative tools in the beginning, the intranet equivalent of individual word processing is the best starting point. Once people become comfortable with the basics, introduce collaborative tools into  the review process. There are collaborative products that can help this process, but be careful! The last thing you need is a product that sucks you into their proprietary management system, then requires everyone in your organization to publish, update and modify all future versions from within their management structure. The strength of the intranet is the independence of the content from the tools used to create and manage it, so be vigilant. 

The real message here is not to let authoring and management tools lock your community  into proprietary content over the long run. There are reasons for transitional use of proprietary content, but your long term strategy should be to move to standard content where multiple vendors products can be used to create,  modify and manage  the content. That is the strength of all the web-based infrastructure. If you don't recognize that, you may as well just stay with your proprietary environment, because very soon you will find yourself right back in the old corner. 

Question:

 I would like to information about  putting newsletters on the Intranet. How do you structure it? Is it a replica of the print version? Have you killed the print version? What kinds of articles do you include? What is included that was not included in the print, if any? What problems have you encountered? 

Answer:

As with most intranet content, the issue really comes down to the purpose and objectives for the newsletter. Most large companies use a newsletter, generally owned by corporate communications, to provide a common culture and a place for new information with cross-organization interest. 

As such, the intranet version often becomes the intranet "home page" for the company. The challenges seem to be: giving it the proper cultural personality (this includes a name as well as the look and feel of the layout and graphics), keeping it fresh so people have a reason to come back, and marketing its existence so people build the habit of remembering that it is there. 

Some things to consider: 

Different content has different shelf life. Divide your electronic newsletter into sections that can be managed differently. Right up front have the section that you change everyday with the "late breaking news." This means you can keep the whole newsletter looking fresh by managing a very constrained section. Elsewhere on the newsletter top page have index links to the commonly used resources in the company and information that has a little longer shelf life (maybe changes every week). 

The index mentioned above should be the main index to the home pages of the different areas of the company (both line and support) and to specific information of use, e.g. the corporate phone book, benefits information, etc. Remember, in this section of your newsletter, the goal is not to keep the visitor on your site, but to get her to the information she needs and back to work as easily and efficiently as possible. 

Don't set up the structure so you put everything into the newsletter yourself. Since the depth past the first page is provided through links, let each organization manage their own information, and you just point to it. Now you have the whole company helping keep things fresh and accurate. Tell them what you are doing, and get them involved. But once you have established the brokering links, the work is distributed to them. There are tricks you can do with both formatting standards and a common location for the top logos for each group that will allow you to manage, and change, look and feel with very little effort. You also need to monitor your links to make sure a department hasn't moved something on you, but there are automated tools that will help you do that, without having to publish everything on your server, under your control. 

Finally, remember that the attractive  new feature to this communication medium is the ability to develop meaningful conversations where everyone can participate. At first this seems subtle, but traditional newletters are information broadcasts and do not have the immediate, two-way interaction of an intranet. Always look for ways to involve the audience in the community. At the very least make sure they can easily feedback comments to you in an unstructured format. Overtime, look for ways they can become more directly involved in the content of the newsletter. Use the newsletter as a spring board to facilitate cross-organizational conversations. 

Push Technology (back to top)

Question:

Having established an intranet solution a year ago, we are now considering moving towards pushing content to desktops. I would be very interested in anyone's experiences with Pointcast, Marimba etc. in an intranet context. 

Answer:

The real issue is what you intend to do with "push" technology. Pointcast and Marimba really were designed to do two different things. There is a lot of confusion in the market today about push technology. For a different take on the subject, that might help you sort through what you are trying to do functionally first, take a look at the following article: "Using I-net Agents" http://www.iorg.com/papers/agents.html
Also see the Subcription Agents section under "i-net tools."

Question:

What I would really like to do is push content to employees desktop 

  1. unrequested information that the company wants to disseminate. 
  2. particular information to the desktops of those who request it (create groups etc)
Basically, I want to make inforamtion available and ensure that it reaches its target audience, rather than hope that they "pull" information from the intranet. We have found that people who are used to such things as Lotus Notes announcing an incoming message become lazy and perceive having to go and find information on the intranet without prompting to be a major chore. Unfortunately, this is increasingly the world 
we live in. 

Answer:

I understand your desire. However, if you are in a large organization, there are probably a hundred people like you that want to push what they think is important out to the audience (rather than make it available to the community of peers). When this happens we have what might be called escalating information overload. 

If only one person pushes, and is very sparing about it, it works. When multiples push, everyone's "important" news gets lost in the noise. This is not just an intranet issue. I have noticed for years in large companies that the marketing groups all want to push their latest information to the sales force. They (1) don't trust the sales force to read it and (2) feel like they did their job as long as it got sent. If the sales force ignores it, then they can blame the sales people for not doing their job. 

When you go work with the sales people, on the other end of this, they get a steady barage of pushed material that they have no hope of ever keeping up with. So, yes, they don't read it. But pushing just makes it worse. If you can give it to them so they can easily find it when THEY need it, you are doing them a much greater service. Let's face it, neither paper nor email in an individual's inbasket are amenable to easy recovery. A well architected intranet is. 

I use the sales example because people seem to identify with it easily, but all of us face this similar situation everyday when we face our own in-baskets. 

You asked for a suggestion for those people who are too lazy to go to the web to retrieve information that is pushed to them in email as a link rather than directly sent. I suggest you get them an email reader that automatically hot links the URLs in mail messages so they can click to the page right from their email, if they want to look at it now. And, train senders to include the full URL in their email message (including the http://) so the reader picks it up as a URL. 

However, I also suggest you consider the possibility that they may not want to look at it now, or ever. If this is the case, you had better start asking yourself how you know they are reading (and not just discarding or ignoring) the stuff you are pushing to them directly. Is your pushing just making you feel better because you made them do something with it, even though it was not what they needed at the moment, and what they did with it may not be what you invision. 

In the end, the choice and responsibility is always on the recipient. Trying to hide it through the game of spoon feeding may be more costly to the organization than most people realize. This is not just an information overload problem. It is an issue of employees taking responsibility for their own requirements. 

And, the employee may in fact be making the best call for their productivity in the organization when they choose to ignore or discard pushed information. Even if it is important, if they have to wade through a swamp of non-critical information to find it, their time may be better spent doing other things. 

You also should consider making available on your intranet user controlled subscription agents (allowing subscriptions to highly targeted content), which some of the products billed as "push" actually do, and individualized automated pull agents like Katipo and  WebSeeker. And, don't forget training your employees on how to customize and use these tools effectively. 

Unfortunately, the software vendors also seem to be victims of the old "push it and they will look at it" delusion and  have not yet produced many focused agents  to help you in this area. A note to software vendors: being the first to take an intranet agent approach to your product planning, rather than a generic push approach, has potentially large rewards. 
 

Return On Investment  (back to top)

Question:

... Intranets can be more costly than they at first seem but the addition of huge intangable benefits should outweigh a low ROI.  I do not buy into 1000% returns.  What do you think? 

Answer:

As far as the 1,000 percent returns, there are a lot of variables involved, but two characteristics seem to be common. First, the companies already had a TCP/IP, client-server infrastructure in place, so the basic infrastructure investment was minimal. Second, they used individual time savings as part of the return calculation. The concept of "15 minutes a day saved for every employee, times the number of days in a year, times the average salary for that 15 minutes, times the number of employees," has credibility problems with some executives. And it is true, in many cases there is no good way to measure if that 15 minutes actually turns into a savings or a return somewhere down the line. 

It seems to me that ROI is very difficult to measure for any new base or infrastructure technology. In fact, it is not clear to me that we ever successfully come up with a true measure. The technology gets adopted based on intuitive judgement and bandwagon effect until it is incorporated into the way we do our work. From that point on, ROI will work because we are measuring the comparative cost of improvements, rather than the cost of a whole new way of doing things. 

For more information on ROI see  http://www.internetworld.com/print/1999/02/08/intranet/19990208-advisor.html
also: chapter 8 of Intranet Organization
(back to top)


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