The intranet has replaced the Internet as this year's buzzword. But what can the technology offer businesses? If intranets are to live up to the hype, they have to deliver real business benefits. Yet most are just being used for static corporate publishing.
This may be useful, but it is not business-critical. For an intranet to really prove its worth, it has to become an integral part of a company.
Intranets have the potential to revolutionise business. Indeed, more new Web sites are being created for personal use on intranets than are being set up for public access to the Internet. This trend is predicted to continue. The IT community already sees the benefits as indisputable.
The corporate intranet draws on freely-available, secure technology that is already in place in most organisations.
The existing corporate LAN or WAN can be used with desktop client Web browsers. These have become commodity products, available at no cost or for very little. Web server software is similarly economical and Internet technology is easy to set up and manage.
Thin client or network computers at the user end cut down on maintenance costs. Add to this the fact that many business users will already be familiar with browsers, and it is clear that a corporate intranet can be cost-effective as soon as it is set up and running. But can it add value to the business?
The way that organisations are using Internet and intranet technology today shows that they have latched on to a new way of distributing corporate information. Publishing read-only information, such as an employee handbook, on an intranet is efficient, cost-effective and convenient. However, think how much more powerful that could be if employees could add suggestions or make corrections.
For example, a member of staff may look up their personnel details via a corporate intranet. If there is a mistake, such as an incorrect phone number or holiday allowance, the employee has to contact the personnel department, explain the mistake and give the correct details. It is the responsibility of the personnel department to amend the information and publish the correct entry on the intranet.
With programming languages such as Java, mini-applications or applets can be produced which can be downloaded through a browser, as and when they are needed. An applet written as an extension to a personnel system would allow an employee to amend the details directly, with immediate results, without involving the personnel department.
The principle of using an intranet to extend enterprise systems is crucial to its success. By allowing casual users to access relevant parts of its systems, such as the finance set-up or prospect database, a company can reap the benefits of increased productivity, without needing to implement the full application or boost the desktop hardware to run it.
The same concept could be applied to suppliers, business partners, customers and shareholders. Why not extend the enterprise to include them? Most credit-control departments spend countless hours on the phone to suppliers sorting out invoice payments.
Using a secure intranet, the relevant part of the finance system could be opened up to a company's suppliers. They could browse through their own account and find out for themselves the dates and amounts they are due to be paid, leaving your staff free to do their job.
The intranet will only live up to its true potential when it can deliver productivity benefits to businesses. It can do that today, by extending systems beyond the traditional user-set, and even beyond the organisation to the world outside. So it's now up to the IT industry to ensure it is integrated with current business processes so that it is viewed as a valid way of increasing company effectiveness.
Tom McDonagh is European programme manager at Geac (formerly Dun & Bradstreet Software).
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