The proliferation of intranets and intranet applications has many IS departments scrambling to find qualified personnel.
By Jim Johnson
At times it seems the hype over the Internet is rivaled only by the hype over intranets. Even reengineering didn't become this much of a buzzword this fast.
What are intranets anyway? It used to be that internal organizational collaboration, coordination and communication were the purview of proprietary groupware products like Lotus Notes and Microsoft Exchange. However, the popularity of the Internet has driven application development in directions that have given us open software platforms from which these same applications can be launched.
In-house Web servers are just the beginning of a range of benefits. Intranets facilitate handoffs between departments, further flattening organizations and enhancing reengineering efforts. Serving information and applications to an inside audience circumvents several problems with the public Internet. Security is not as much of an issue. Standard Ethernet provides plenty of bandwidth, even for intensive file downloads or sophisticated graphics. Because the audience is internal personnel instead of the general public, pages don't have to be perfect; users/publishers can make use of relatively basic Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) conversion utilities to simply get the information out.
Accessing databases through Web servers has come a long way in the last year and is now a suitable way of querying Intel processor-based, flatfile databases and client/server relational databases, as well as legacy systems. Emerging products like Microsoft NetMeeting allow multiple users to access the same application, even if that application is not available on their local system. Fax and voice-mail capabilities are being integrated into Web technology, adding important capabilities to corporate intranets.
Expensive, elaborate groupware solutions would seem to be facing obsolescence, but vendors are responding by integrating Web interfaces with the back ends of these products. By integrating Web functionality into the heart of Windows 95 and NT, Microsoft is making remote applications and information as accessible as local apps to the user. Lotus is attempting to graft Web functions onto its Notes groupware product, so the Web will appear as an extension of Notes to the user. Netscape is building up from the other side, morphing its product line into something resembling a network operating system. Each of these efforts is supported by third-party vendors adding on their own solutions.
While the intense competition is providing a proliferation of technical options at low prices for customers, it also creates integration problems for IS departments, which are trying to adapt to this trend. The open standards of the Internet are a significant driving force in development for all vendors. This is good news for MIS; those that do choose to commit themselves to a single vendor's products are (perhaps for the first time) not locking themselves out of the ability to integrate products from competing vendors. It's still not smooth sailing, but it's less difficult now than it has ever been.
For now, the open systems revolution seems to have been won, but with choices also come challenges. The broadening variety of software, hardware, operating systems and networking products makes it more difficult to establish a comprehensive stable of talent. Even with relative standardization of the user interface, the speed at which these products are evolving and emerging is mind-boggling, and it's hard to say the situation is going to stabilize soon. Making a commitment to one vendor's suite of products used to shield MIS from recurring learning curves, but that's not the case anymore. All vendors are pushed to the wall with respect to the release cycles and speed of innovation that the market is requiring of them, and it is unlikely that any one vendor will ever be able to provide all of the necessary services for a comprehensive corporate intranet.
It would be great if there were an effective system of certification and training for Internet webmasters, but in a situation that is changing so rapidly, this is impossible. Indeed, as training classes proliferate in this field, managers should look carefully at what kind of return they can expect from their training investment. A qualified employee now is one who can solve many different problems using a variety of tools, as opposed to one who has a strong knowledge of existing products.
Because so much on-the-job learning is now required, managers must not only make allowances for but also encourage this activity. In a large shop, providing for an open forum (perhaps over lunch) where different staffers can trade tips and question each other in a free-flowing, bull-session atmosphere can be invaluable. In small shops, the situation is more difficult; managers should be willing to shoulder the cost of subscriptions to at least of few of the relevant technical publications and allow the employee to study these publications "on the clock." Likewise, managers should take the initiative in structuring the learning priorities of the staffers and expect them to use a certain number of business hours to stay abreast. Providing thorough user orientations and plenty of online documentation for the users themselves will help to cut down on the number of hours (as well as the amount of frustration) that staffers spend in supporting users.
Security may be less of a problem with intranets, since in-house users are generally considered to be relatively "trusted," but there is still no substitute for a well-thought out, management-supported in-house security policy. The most significant threats to corporate information resources are still blunders by the well-intentioned and sabotage by disgruntled employees.
Security is a particularly relevant issue as we look toward the future of corporate intranets. One important feature that adds significant value to a corporate intranet is the ability to extend it to a customer or a supplier--the extranet trend. Federal Express has effectively demonstrated the value of extending the corporate database out to the customer and into the realm of electronic data interchange (EDI). Such applications of intranets and intranet technologies represent a triumph of corporate reengineering, although the security considerations are considerable and may prove to be too risky for some organizations. However, even if an organization initially rules out having an extranet, the option should continue to be weighed as security technologies develop.
The future of HTML itself is questionable in light of the advent of Web-based object technology. This approach is still shaking out, and the competition between object request brokering methods is far from settled, but it seems clear that, sooner or later, Web-based objects will dominate both the Internet and corporate intranets. Therefore, IS departments should measure any commitments they make to specific products or technologies with respect to the ease or difficulty with which they can be retrofitted, as object technologies develop and mature.
The price/performance advantages of the current crop of resources for the corporate intranet are substantial. But this has, in turn, led to rapid development cycles for most products and is requiring IS departments to devote more staff time to learning the new products and technologies. In the long run, however, the intranet boom is a solid indication of the superiority of TCP/IP and other open technologies over proprietary groupware approaches. This is indeed a victory for corporate technologists.
Jim Johnson is a certified personnel consultant and the principal of Options Unlimited, specializing in the placement of Unix professionals in the Washington, DC, area. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.