To build a base of clients for intranet consulting requires more than the usual networking skills.
By Matthew Peterson
Network-experienced VARs may seem to be the obvious partners for IS managers seeking to implement intranets. But "obvious" assertions usually aren't, and this is a case in point. Successful intranets require much more than traditional corporate networking skills. Intranets are private networks built with the technology and connectivity of the Internet. They offer enterprises many advantages over traditional networking, including the ability to utilize the same set of standard application software and network connections to fulfill both private and public connectivity requirements.
Pundits are already predicting that the growth of intranets will exceed that of the Internet. Hype aside, there is convincing evidence that intranets represent a significant opportunity for VARs. But will they be the vendors of choice for intranet development?
IS managers looking for assistance in intranet implementation and management often have two kinds of vendors from which to choose. The traditional VAR offers considerable experience in the implementation of corporate networks. An IS department's existing VAR partner is likely to be familiar with the corporate databases and other existing components that must tie to the new intranet. On the other hand, webmasters and related Internet vendors offer vital expertise in the new technologies. They are often the most aggressive missionaries for the new solutions.
Many IS managers would like to draw from both worlds, without having to manage two vendors. VARs can position themselves as the lead vendors for this opportunity by acquiring the intranet experience necessary to complement their core skills. Among the required skill sets for intranet VARs are the following five.
The first skill is basic competency in the Internet. VARs lacking this skill face the usual build-versus-buy choice. Do you invest in the training and staff necessary to develop an in-house competency? Or establish relationships through which to subcontract with experienced Internet vendors? In selecting the former option, a VAR must make the investment in advance, because no IS manager is going to let you learn on the job.
A related effort involves taking a hard look at VAR product lines. Every computer manufacturer seems to be packaging a "Web server" to cash in on the Internet; obviously, some are better than others. Do you have superior server and networking product lines for intranets? What about application software? Developing the right products for intranet resale goes hand-in-hand with developing the expertise to support them.
A second skill set involves binding intranets to corporate IS systems, such as database, document management, facilities management, order processing, purchasing, inventory management and others. An intranet will not get far with just a Human Resources Web site and a few discussion groups that managers feel are a waste of employee time. Sometimes the business application will already exist but will require intranet access. (Existing applications will often be running on legacy systems, already an area of integration expertise for many VARs.) In other cases, the VAR will have to develop the application as part of the intranet project.
The third key skill is in the area of security. Intranets deliver the most value when they successfully combine three classes of access. First, open public access to product and service descriptions, press and investor relations material and other public information are a basic requirement for any enterprise wishing to realize the basic advantages of an Internet presence.
Second, restricted public access is required for Internet users seeking specific services and information based on their unique relationships to the enterprise. These may be product owners needing service, vendors exchanging order information or customers seeking to execute a transaction. Each of these forms of access must be kept separate from the other.
Third, restricted internal access is required for employees working on common projects or with common business units. This access is subject to all the traditional constraints of corporate networks. Interweaving an intranet with the Internet to provide all forms of access while preserving security will require knowledge of firewalls, encryption, secure transactions, intranet application security and more.
The fourth skill set revolves around the impact of intranet technology on enterprise network performance. Web pages and browsers often consume far more resources than do traditional alphanumeric network applications. An organization's acceptance of a successful intranet implementation can sour if response time deteriorates and traditional network applications are disrupted. This is where a VAR's experience with corporate networks can be invaluable. Activities like establishing a network baseline and executing capacity planning are critical to intranet success.
The fifth skill involves the corporate culture. Don't let the Internet/intranet hype cause a project to run ahead of the company culture. The large number of stale sites cluttering up the Web today should be a warning against implementing an intranet for its own sake.
Innovative VARs can team-use a number of techniques to ensure success. Executive seminars focusing on business advantages rather than technology can often help. (It does not hurt to include a survey about what competitive or related businesses are doing.) Organizational facilitators can help users conceive their own intranet applications. Good project management will ensure that users buy into the intranet concept, participate in its design and own the applications. All this will go a long way to strengthen management's perception of the intranet's value--and of the VAR's value.
Experienced VARs who invest in mastering intranets will find tremendous opportunities. VARs unwilling or slow to make that investment will find their MIS customers turning to a new breed of Web-savvy competitors.
Matthew Peterson is president of Scenic Wonders in Madison, WI, which provides visual products and services for information highways. He can be reached at email@example.com.