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Intranets for organizational innovation

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The innovational capabilities of the internet have been well documented and discussed, but what of the intranet? How effective can an internal electronic system be?

What?

The intranet is a network that uses Internet technology within the organization for corporate communications purposes.

Why?

It enables fast and free communication as well as reducing time and costs of printing and distributing corporate literature. On the more creative side, the intranet encourages innovation through focusing upon business processes instead of individual departments.

When?

1996 was dubbed "the year of the intranet" and we haven't looked back since. Many organizations already have such a facility in place, and it is one of the main projects on most organizational plans.

Key Functions

It is a falsehood that Intranets are just for large multi-national corporations. Any organization of approximately 100 employees or more can benefit from the intranet, especially if they are located in different geographical areas (be that nationally or globally). In short, intranets fit any organization in need of disseminating information to employees.

Departments such as HR, Training and Marketing benefit in particular from such an entity. Training manuals would not need printing and re-printing, HR could focus upon critical organizational needs because routine requests could be dealt with more effectively and up to the minute marketing data would ensure no imminent sales opportunities are missed.

The good, the bad and the case study:

Benefits of the intranet

  • Reducing cost – Intranets save organizations money on printing documents and distributing information.
  • Saving time – An intranet can speed up employees' communications through e-mail transmission. With information residing in only one place - the web server - it is relatively easy to add new information or to update existing information to make it instantly available.
  • Rich in format – The varied use of forms (clicking radio buttons, checking elements from a pull-down menu) enables more accurate employee surveys. The intranet is well suited for multi-media applications.
  • Collaboration – The intranet facilitates shared corporate knowledge and support, group scheduling, managing projects in a group. Collaboration is the foundation upon which an innovative intranet is constructed.
  • Integrated and distributed computer environment – The intranet can support various operating systems so every user has access to information. It allows for a dynamic and distributed work environment that can empower local and global workgroups to conduct better business processes.
"An intranet has the potential to dramatically increase the flow and value of information within an organization and allows employees timely access to a wide variety of corporate information sources."

Concerns of the intranet

  • Security – There is always a danger of hackers. Bill Gates of Microsoft, admits that there is no secret once it gets online.
  • Management commitment – It is crucial to recognize that the successful running of an intranet depends more on successful management than on anything else. Managers need to be resolute in issues such as resource allocation, project management and content development in order to ensure that the intranet does not become merely a money-wasting exercise.
  • Training hassle – You must have well-trained employees (a training budget is necessary). You must also allow for the fact that many employees who are used to existing systems may resist change. They could refuse to learn and catch up.

How Sun Microsystems used the intranet to facilitate innovation

In 1993 Sun Microsystems began work on developing a commercial internet which later became the intranet. Their model was a success, namely because from the outset they identified a fundamental dynamic: the human factor.

We are not robots

Although seemingly obvious, it is imperative to remember that every system is built and used by people. If this is not a consideration then you may encounter negative perception and consequently a degree of resistance from employees. Thus, building a user-friendly intranet becomes essential to the success of its implementation.

Sun understood that the web would only pay off if people used it. They used the following 6 tested elements of "human-factors design" to web-page developers:

  1. Internet users want to browse and click;
  2. the busiest spot on a Web page is the upper-left-hand corner;
  3. the depth of content should be minimized;
  4. a sense of consistency is essential;
  5. a "navigation metaphor" should be defined; and
  6. designers should weight the use of text versus graphics.

The intranet team also held weekly meetings and worked closely with content providers and those responsible for ensuring growth would be managed in order to create something which most closely reflected the Sun Microsystems ethos.

Innovation not repetition

Sun also concurred with a widely hailed business re-engineering trend of focusing on business processes rather than the individual departments. They built their model upon smart design information, placed an emphasis upon tasks as opposed to documents and aimed to integrate those tasks into distinct processes.

The Sun Web intranet now includes functions from virtually every department and connects approximately 19,000 users. Sun have experienced saving through reduced distribution and handling costs, and productivity improvements made possible by more accessible information.

Conclusion

Given the rapid growth and success of the internet, it is unlikely that we have seen the peak of the intranet. This has much to do with today's business life which centres around a cost-cutting environment and a "doing more with less" sentiment. An intranet has the potential to dramatically increase the flow and value of information within an organization and allows employees timely access to a wide variety of corporate information sources.

Perhaps a more profound change brought about by corporate intranets will be cultural, as we gain new tools that reassign the influence of information access within the organization.


This is a précis of an article entitled "Intranets for organizational innovation" originally published in Information Management and Computer Security Volume 9 Number 2.

The authors were David C Yen of Miami University, Oxford, Ohio, USA and David C Chou of St Cloud State University, St Cloud, Minnesota, USA.