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Intranet success: the dos

This article appears in the issue April 1998 [Volume 7,Iissue 5]

Involve everyone, focus on user comfort and bring out the cheerleaders!

With the number of innovative, intranet implementers increasing so rapidly, KMWorld decided to check out some successful projects and gather some "dos" and "don'ts" for other users who may be about to take the intranet plunge. Although many constants cross implementation guidelines, there are also unique aspects of every network that raise proprietary issues.

Cincom Systems (http://www.cincom.comwww.cincom.com)

Gary Applegate, new media communications specialist

Marty Strohofer, public relations specialist

Back in 1995 when the Internet was building a serious head of steam, Applegate and Strohofer presided over proprietary departmental networks that were closed to the rest of Cincom--a software vendor that has 1,200 employees, 60 offices in 23 countries and customers in 98 countries. Most of the information in their domains was product and marketing related, and many of the tasks done by one network were duplicated by the other. It was not unusual for valuable documents such as price lists to be circulated in the form of paper documents.

After six to eight months of that dual network configuration, Applegate and Strohofer decided it would be wise to collaborate on one companywide intranet that would be open to all authorized users. The result was Cinsonet. Rolled out on Oct. 1, 1996, it went from conception to implementation in just four months.

To create Cinsonet, it was necessary to assemble a task force of departmental representatives. Twenty people from across the company were thus joined in the common effort. Said Strohofer, "Do get everyone involved who is going to touch the system."

The two intranet advocates had one big advantage as they developed the new intranet: an existing, mainframe-based electronic bulletin board system that was being replaced by Cinsonet. They reproduced the look and feel of that aging system whenever possible in the new network. For instance, they carried forward old features like a marketplace capability wherein people could buy and sell used cars or other items.

The commonality of Microsoft products such as Windows 95 and Microsoft Office throughout Cincom also made the transition to the intranet easier. According to Applegate, Cincom's task force used the Microsoft Internet platform that runs on Windows NT with the Internet Information Server. The lesson here: Do make your new intranet as comfortable and familiar as possible to users.

Staying with the ease of use theme, Cinsonet was originally created with a relative paucity of graphics. That was done to make access easier for international users, specifically those in remote locations such as Australia characterized by low-speed, 14.4-Kbps and 9.6-Kbps modems

In the course of organizing Cinsonet, Applegate and Strohofer--who were the only task force members with knowledge of HTML--made it a point to have the various task force members also learn HTML. "We made it easy for these people to get up and proficient in HTML," said Strohofer. "We used tools like Microsoft Word and its Internet Assistant, so people can just type a document like any other document and hit 'Save as HTML' and it was done." The point here: Do provide knowledge transfer.

Another big "do": Make a big deal out of the rollout. On the day Cinsonet was unveiled, the company had a big internal meeting and there was a lot of Cinsonet-related hoopla. It was clear that the intranet was something people could start using right away. Applegate believes the big introduction helped create wider spread adoption.

As is the case with all new technology implementations, there was some resistance to the change from people who had never used the Internet before. Those people were afraid that their data would be tampered with or destroyed. They had to understand that access was on a read-only basis. Once that obstacle was overcome, they became eager converts.

Major "do": Do make the intranet dynamic; it must be in a constant change of update and flux, or people will lose interest. As Applegate said, "If the site doesn't change every three weeks, people will stop using it."

Looking back on the experience, Strohofer said Cinsonet would have been better initially if they had focused more on international users. After all, 60% of Cincom's revenues come from outside the United States and half the company's employees are based in other countries. So, do take into consideration all possible intranet constituents at home and abroad.

In the final analysis, Applegate said, "It's all about taking knowledge from each group and making it available to the company."

Kofax Image Products (http://www.kofax.comwww.kofax.com)

Bryan Schacht, director of development for NetScan

The 60-person engineering intranet developed by Schacht was born of his curiosity and a project he did at school. Curious to learn more about intranets, a year ago he took a class on them at the University of California Irvine. "For my class project," he said, "I wrote up an outline for an engineering intranet here at Kofax, not knowing I was going to come back and implement it." His boss liked the plan, the project began in earnest and the intranet was up and running in just under five months.

As with the Cincom Systems case, a task form was organized with the goal of gaining widespread user representation, and Schacht talked to managers and users in an attempt to gauge their interests and needs--two "dos." To help future users visualize the system, he created mock-ups of the user interfaces.

One of the primary goals of the project was to make engineering processes run more smoothly. Toward that end, rather than just publish static policies and procedures pages, Schacht aimed at having some real data behind the application and creating dynamic pages that could be updated. The lesson here: Do make your intranet interesting.

There were four primary areas of concentration: Area one: engineering project status and reporting, i.e. measuring schedules. Area two: engineering project metrics measuring the time put in on different phases of projects. Area three: integrating the existing trouble reporting system so people can quickly review project problems. Area four: creating document imaging capabilities that would allow the system to publish not only text specifications but image documents as well. The "do" here: Have a finely honed focus and implement applications with the most potential benefits.

The importance of unified Microsoft technology came to the fore in this project just as it did at Cincom Systems. "I don't want to sound Microsoft-centric, but we are," Schacht said. "We found that sticking with a consistent set of tools helped. For example, we were using Microsoft Internet Information Server on NT."

After finding that Microsoft Access databases didn't work very well on the Web, the task force changed over to SQL Server to take advantage of its robust transaction capabilities and high performance. Point: Don't use Access for a Web server environment with significant amounts of activity.

Initially, the task force used CGI scripts to produce pages. That approach soon gave way to the use of Microsoft's Active Server Pages, which use a Visual Basic-like scripting language and work well with Internet Information Server. "When we switched to Active Server Pages, we found that development was much easier," Schacht said. "We were much more productive and we rolled out things much faster."

Don't try to implement an intranet without people who are dedicated to the project on a full-time basis. In the Kofax case, Schacht and another person worked on that project and nothing else for six months. He pointed out that even good programmers will spend the first six weeks just learning the tools and fighting the urge to constantly go back and improve things.

He used a CD-based training course from Microsoft to quickly get project members up to speed on Microsoft technologies. The course gives lots of examples and problem-solving techniques. The task force also used Visual Studio from Microsoft, a development environment that comes on four CDs and includes SQL Server, Visual Basic, Visual Java, C++ and a range of tools that help create Active Server Pages.

"So those are two key things that we did," he said. "We did the training with the CDs and we picked one set of tools and stuck with it, and that accelerated the process quite a bit."

Schacht recommends two Web sites for intranet developers: http://www.15seconds.comwww.15seconds.comhttp://www.activeserverpages.comwww.activeserverpages.com

City of Largo, FL

Kevin Dulaney, MIS manager

Optimizing the performance of its police force was the driving factor behind a personal digital assistant (PDA)-based intranet developed by the city of Largo. The idea was to reduce the amount of time police officers spent filling out reports and increase the amount of data available to them in their patrol cars via E-mail, databases and the Internet.

The first effort to accomplish those laudable goals foundered when a fat-client system based on laptop computers acting as terminal emulators was plagued by power failures and other inefficiencies.

"We basically eliminated the microcomputers along with the operating system and hard disk drives and replaced it with PDAs, some of which are hand-held devices and some of which are notebook size," Dulaney said. In that environment, using CDPD wireless cellular transmission to the host computer and the PDAs--which act as browsers--officers are able to compose, send and receive E-mail via the Internet. They can also receive faxs, videos and mug shots.

Beyond that, the officers can also create word processing files, store them in ASCII code and import them to Word Perfect and perform formatting when they return to the police headquarters communications center.

In the world of law enforcement, CAD stands for computer-aided dispatching, and at any given time, a CAD screen describes where various units are deployed. With the city's new thin-client system, the 16 cars piloting the new technology can keep closer tabs on each other.

Other capabilities include "master main lookups" that allow officers to enter a last name to access record and "priors," which provide recent information on any activities at specific addresses. Those activities include prior calls to an address or prior offenses or calls on a specific name.

Although only 16 units are currently packing the new intranet technology, once the one-year test period is over in January and all parties are satisfied that the bugs have been worked out, it is expected that the network will be rolled out to another 80 or 90 units.

Given the experience of Cincom Systems and Kofax, it should come as no surprise that a big "do" in the mind of Dulaney is keeping it simple. "We wanted to keep it as simple as possible because there are so many links in the process from what the officer has in his hand all the way back to the host machine," he said. "For us, the big 'do' was using the thin-client philosophy."

Although some officers resisted the new technology, Dulaney said that peer pressure was a powerful weapon in breaking down that resistance. According to him, the peer pressure was intense during the three, all-day training courses the participating officers took. When the majority of officers became excited about the possibilities that were being presented, the resisters were turned into converts. (Do provide comprehensive training.)

In Dulaney's words, "It's like carrying a gun, only now they're going to be carrying computers."


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