The past year has seen a surge of interest in intranets and their ability to open up access to information which companies have long held but which has been hidden behind incompatible technologies. Jane Bird cate.
Designing a modern vehicle is a collaborative process involving a host of experts in such areas as bodywork, electronics, engines and transmission systems. Traditionally, incompatible operating systems have made such collaboration a slow process for Jaguar's 1,000 engineers, who have often found themselves unable to send each other files electronically even when they are based in the same office.
All will change by the end of next year, however, when intranet technology will allow all the systems involved to communicate seamlessly with each other. Jaguar's engineers will be able to send each other drawings, exchange technical documentation and run on-screen tests together. And they will be able to communicate on-line with their colleagues in Ford, Jaguar's new owner.
For intranets - individualised Internets, if you like - offer companies open communication and information access, just like the Internet, but with the added advantage of protection from the outside world by passwords, encryption and electronic barriers or firewalls. 'The intranet will allow our engineers to work in what seems to them to be the obvious and natural way,' says Roger Staines, manager of technical services for Jaguar's product engineering division. 'The logic is to ensure that all information is available to the people who need it and that they can access it easily.'
Of course, intranets have been around for several years in computer companies such as Silicon Graphics and Hewlett Packard (HP), and these advanced players now use them to run large parts of their businesses. During the past year, however, the idea has captured the imagination of a much wider audience and intranets have become one of the hottest buzzwords since the Internet itself.
And words are translating into actions. Netscape, the main provider of software for browsing the Internet, already generates 75% to 80% of its sales from intranets, and reported revenues of $100 million (£62.5 million) in the three months to September, a 329% increase over the same period last year. US-based market research company International Data Corporation reckons the global intranet market for Web servers alone (the machine which store the intranet programmes) will be worth nearly £650 million in 2000. Take-up in the UK is slower than in the US where 16% of companies already have intranets, 26% plan to install them, and 24% are 'evaluating' the idea, according to Netscape, yet IDC forecasts growth of up to 70% during the next five years in the UK.
The reason for the surge in interest is that intranets solve some of the biggest problems companies have with their computers. As with Jaguar, top of the list is the ability to link a wide range of disparate machines which were previously unable to communicate. 'You can now pull whole organisations together in a standard way without having to worry about individual links between separate departments or parts of the business with different machines,' says Derek Sayers, director of multi-media in ICL, the London-based computer company. No longer need companies abandon vast investments and start again from scratch. Intranets allow them to interconnect their existing systems, re-use their old programs, and move ahead incrementally. Moreover, intranets are becoming increasingly powerful with the advance of computer power and networking technology.
Glaxo Wellcome began building an intranet three years ago to help scientists share information and conduct research on new drugs. The fact that it allows all software to be presented in a similar way has been a boon to the company's scientists who increasingly use computers for analysing test results and modelling molecular structures. 'With an intranet, far less time needs to be spent learning how to use computers, so more time is available for science,' says John Wodehouse, the company's advanced information and technology specialist. As with the Internet, users can select how much information they want to view. This is ideal in a complex area such as pharmaceutical research where there is likely to be a huge amount of data of which an individual scientist might only want a small part. 'We present information in the form of management summaries with highlighted words that the user can click on to find out more,' says Wodehouse.
Intranets are also ideal for publishing a vast spectrum of company information from management reports and sales brochures to price lists and internal phone books. Not only do they save paper, they also hugely reduce computer storage requirements because people dial in for what they want rather than having everything sent automatically to their own desktop PCs. And intranets reduce the problem of e-mail overload, while making it easier to keep information up-to-date.
Such advantages makes the tools invaluable for sales staff, for example, who need to check the latest prices, availability dates and configuration details.
Mercury Communications decided to use an intranet for its internal phone book after estimating that the paper version had three errors per page on the day it was first printed and nine per page by the time it was reprinted.
ICL's employee handbook is similarly published and updated on the company's intranet. 'People can check up on ICL's policies and practices, and most importantly they can be sure that they are looking at the latest version,' says Clive Wright, ICL's manager for corporate remuneration.
The company's intranet also contains details of job vacancies, organisational charts, company announcements, press releases, health and safety information, and maps for getting to different ICL offices. It can be freely accessed by any of the company's 23,000 employees in 80 countries. 'It has entirely replaced the old paper bulletins we used to put up on notice boards,' says Wright.
Intranets work well for on-line brainstorming sessions and discussion groups too. Scientists at the Met Office, for instance, use an intranet as a discussion forum for ongoing research and computing projects. Staff are able to access each other's Web pages to catch up with their colleagues' research, and there are Internet-like news groups for individual departments and for special scientific interest groups.
Jaguar certainly finds on-line discussion groups invaluable. 'When we communicate on the intranet, we can push through ideas much more quickly,' says Staines. 'It is an extremely effective way of conveying new concepts and getting people started on things where previously we would have been struggling to have meetings, push out piles of paper, or almost bully people to go on courses.'
Although the original concept of an intranet is exclusively for in-house use, a number of companies have begun to realise the benefits of secure links with select groups of outsiders such as customers and suppliers.
The commercial aircraft manufacturing division of McDonnell Douglas is using its intranet to make aircraft service bulletins available to its customers across the globe. The intranet is cheaper, faster and more flexible than any other method available, says Brad Foreman, general manager of maintenance and modifications engineering. 'We distribute four to five bulletins each day to customers around the world. This accounts for over four million pages of documentation every year. It would take a small forest of trees to produce that much paper.'
Another area for future development is the use of servers on intranets to run applications that are not available on individual PCs. This eliminates the need to equip remote offices with complex hardware or software to run core applications. Intranets allow staff simply to dial a server containing the required programme, run it, and get the results back on their computer screens. This they can do from home, a customer site or even a hotel room.
The fact that intranets can be cobbled together on the back of existing systems with no need for complex programming has the advantage of making them relatively inexpensive. Indeed some organisations claim to have spent virtually nothing setting them up. Prices are also kept down by the wide choice of software, while browsers are often free and conversion programmes can translate existing data to run on intranets thereby minimising upgrade costs. Lotus Notes, which offers many of the facilities now provided on intranets, is rapidly being adapted to work with them. The centralising of applications on servers clearly also helps keep costs down.
Many organisations are already claiming substantial cost benefits from their intranets, with one financial institution predicting it will save £10 million a year by using an intranet to replace leased lines between London and Tokyo. And HP, which has doubled its turnover in the past three years while increasing staff by just 10%, attributes much of its financial success to the intranet.
Not that the intranet picture is completely rosy, for there is still a problem with security, an issue made all the more tricky by the fact that internal company information tends to be far more confidential than that regularly transmitted via the Internet. Although much is made of the danger of hackers on the Internet, 80% of data hacking is done from within organisations. You may want people to be able to access reports and sales figures in which they have a legitimate interest, but you certainly don't want them peeking into all the organisation's future plans or private files. Some corporations are so worried by the security aspect that they have set about introducing military-style procedures.
The other problem is one of change management: a lot of people take a lot of convincing and cajoling to adopt new working methods. As ever, one way to deal with this resistance is to demonstrate a useful application of the practice in question. Take documents with a specific level of security classification, for example. The chances are either that the reader will have forgotten the codings or that the rules will have changed since he or she last saw them. With an intranet, the document can contain a hotlink to the latest version of the relevant section of the security regulations. 'If a security breach emerged, the individual involved would have no excuse for saying he didn't know the rules,' Wodehouse says.
Like most new technologies, intranets have their sceptics whose misgivings are sometimes reinforced by vested interests in the computer industry.
The open nature of the intranet threatens IT companies which have built their business on proprietary systems. Even within user organisations, there can be resistance to the idea of opening up access to information.
For intranets afford people control of their own data and a doorway to a whole lot more across the entire organisation. Of course this can be a danger as well as an opportunity, but improving access to information is, after all, what computers should be all about.