Webbery contents

Making an Intranet

talking to yourselves

What is an Intranet?

In the wake of the astonishing growth in the World-Wide Web, many businesses discovered that the tools of the Internet could be used on private networks and that this offered distinct advantages over other methods of communicating within the company.

Techies can argue for days about the precise definition of an intranet. Some insist that a web-site is an essential requirement; others suggest that any use of Internet-like protocols is enough. Some would even argue that an intranet is a state of mind, rather than a particular collection of software - that one might even have an intranet without computers, provided that the will exists to communicate and share information across the organisation.

The reality is that most intranets run on a web-site, accessed by standard web-browsers, working across a private network (which may be a Local Area Network (a LAN), a Wide-Area Network (a WAN), or across normal Internet lines - with company-specific security (a Virtual Private Network - VPN).

However you choose to define an intranet - the name of the game is communication and sharing.

Now, of course, every company already communicates and shares its knowledge, freely and easily. And pigs often take part in formation flying exercises.

Face it - if you've been assigned the task of initiating your company's intranet, you've been lumbered.

Do we need an intranet?


Any discussion of this subject keeps coming back to communication and sharing of information - that is what intranets do. So, look at your company as it is now - pre-intranet.

It might be useful to question whether you already have a communication system (electronic or physical), which an intranet might improve upon. Not only is that a good indicator that your company is big enough and diverse enough to profit from an intranet, it also gives you a target to reach - can you deliver a system which performs better than the existing one? Additionally, it will give you a framework of content to migrate to the new system. Lastly, it gives you some leverage in your budget - if you can replace a system, you can save its future costs.

Planning, Planning, Planning

Creating an intranet from scratch is a mammoth task, and it should go without saying that such an endeavour requires careful and detailed planning. But you had better recognise that your plans - like military tactics - are unlikely to survive contact with the enemy.

By all means plan your project in detail - but leave yourself plenty of room for manoeuvre. You will need to react to criticism, to appease special interests, to bludgeon the stubborn, to skate round delicate subjects, to abandon cherished projects. In short, you'll need to be nimble.

The Physical Layer

In many respects, planning the physical requirements for your intranet is the easiest part of the entire process - because there will be a "best " solution for your company; all you have to do is find it. Even then, the second-best would probably do.

You'll need a number of server machines (a minimum of two - one for the web and one for email). These should be the fastest and most reliable you can afford.

There is no "best " choice of operating system for these. NT, Mac, Unix can all do the job. Ultimately, the choice will depend on the expertise you can call on to maintain these servers, and the software which will run on them.

You'll also need to make sure that all the relevant desks in the organisation have computers on them (if they don't already, then this is going to be an uphill task).

The Software

Your choice of server software will be limited (slightly) by your choice of operating system. In reality, there are half a dozen web servers which will do the job quite adequately. Much more important is the method used for "server-side" functions.

These are fragments of software which give added power to ordinary, HTML web pages. Some of these options are ASP, Perl, ColdFusion, XML. They connect readers to the company database, they handle form pages, they add bells and whistles. You need them. You need to decide on one system (it can be disastrous to mix them). You also need to ensure that you have access to people who can write this material, and maintain it. Ultimately, your choice of server will depend on the quality of expertise you can call on to run it. A stalwart system administrator won't be enough; you're going to need (at least) one of those programmer types. Make sure your coffee/coke machine is up to the strain.

On the client side - the desktops of your intranet's readers - the software is relatively easy (and usually free). You should review the installed browsers. You should try to narrow the range of browsers, and try to ensure that everyone is reasonably up-to-date. Any browser can read a web page, but some of the special functions your propeller-head is going to write will not run on every browser. What's more, the wider the range of browser this chap has to cater for will severely limit the reliability and effectiveness of the whole system.

The "Wetware"

Apart from system administration and "back-end" scripting and coding, someone will have to design and impose a house style for the intranet. The rules of design for an intranet are pretty much the same as for the Internet (The Design Thing). You'll need to decide whether to hire someone to devise this style, at the beginning, and rely on your own staff to follow it thereafter, or to hire someone (permanent, or long-contract) to set it up and maintain it.

Let me also make a (self-serving) plea for the skills of a writer. Just because someone is literate, doesn't mean they can write - in a manner which readers will understand (or will want to). Depending on the size of your organisation, you should consider appointing a writer/editor to avoid great wodges of turgid text with tortured syntax. It is not enough to know the latest business buzz-words.

One of the supposed benefits of a web-based intranet is that web-browsing is a skill-free task. Don't fall into this trap. You will have to offer training - even in the basic use of a browser. Not everyone "gets" the web paradigm immediately. Some find it quite bewildering (it's common to see people stubbornly double-clicking web links). But, since you will need an opportunity to introduce all your staff to the concept of the intranet, and to your company's individual implementation of one, such training sessions can be dual-purpose.

However, you need to remember that one of the genuine benefits of an intranet is that it can change very quickly. Therefore, you need to make sure you update your training frequently.


Obviously, much depends on the nature of the work your organisation does, but a good way to start is to look at what you share already.

Public folder(s)

Do you have a "public" folder, where departments place documents/reports/spreadsheets for other departments to view? If so, you already have the makings of an intranet. With minimum effort (simply providing hotlinks to the documents) you can give your audience real value.

You will need to persuade (some) department heads to change their perception of what constitutes "public" material. If possible, try to thrash out an organisation-wide policy for document-sharing. Also, ensure that a named person is responsible for updating material which needs updating.

At the beginning, at least, you will need to change people's thinking - away from judging which documents to release, towards judging which documents are /not/ suitable for release (with the assumption that everything will be released to the intranet, unless there's a damn good reason not to).

Bear in mind that everyone in the organisation will see this material - including disgruntled employees and staff who have been poached by your competitors. But such people need to be managed - with or without an intranet.

Who's Who

Do you have an internal telephone directory/email address book? If so, this can be converted to appear on your intranet. If done properly (basically, the intranet page should be accessing a database), this can be very useful to your staff, and to the intranet project. Everyone needs to use such a directory, and the intranet version can offer a vast improvement over a paper system - it can be updated instantly, for one thing. For another, you can add extra value by adding additional facilities - showing an individual's position in the company structure or showing photos of them. Users will also be able to email their colleagues directly from this directory. If your phone system is up to it, they can even dial - with a single click of their mouse.

If you do decide to place this directory on your intranet web, then you should also plan to remove the old paper system after a short transition period.

A Sharp Report

Do your executives produce business reports or analyses to throw at each other in meetings? Why wait for a meeting? Put them on the intranet. Better yet, agree a core package of reports which would be useful to the organisation, and set up a procedure to create those reports, and place them on the intranet. Thereafter, executives can attend meetings knowing that they're all talking about the same thing. (Now, that would be a breakthrough.)

In addition to these core reports, it is possible to set up your intranet in such a way that each reader can create a new report on demand. This is the sort of facility which will:-

  1. Provide real value to your company from the intranet
  2. Build enthusiasm for the corporate intranet (it's likely to need friends, for it will have many enemies)
  3. Create genuine problems for companies which aren't prepared for it

Etc. etc.

Each company will have its own requirements for intranet content. If your company has information to share, the intranet can share it. For some material, it will be better to try to present this information in a recognisable form - probably aping an existing format. For other stuff, the intranet will offer an opportunity to throw away formats (and assumptions about their purpose) which aren't working at present.

Although form should follow function, there can also be advantages in investigating what new forms of communication can do. Your intranet can offer things like real-time ("video") conferencing. This is very different from the real thing, and needs to be treated differently. It has many disadvantages, but its advantages can be very attractive. You can also have time-shifted ("forum") conferencing - which is different again, with a different set of disadvantages and advantages.

In general, formats which try to ape existing business practice need to be taken on their own terms; they will never be exactly the same. But they can offer new insights and new understandings.

It is tempting to set up separate areas for each sub-department, and leave them to fill up their own bit. In reality - some will churn out tons of stuff; others will do nothing. At the beginning (and for some time afterwards), there will need to be a central authority (tyrant!) to drag material out of those who "own" it, and to impose some discipline on those who are "showing off".

Eventually, you will be able to derive a set of universal rules for content, build routines for regular delivery of this content and establish working structures to devolve these responsibilities to sub-departments - but don't expect that to happen very quickly.

You won't be able to create such structures at the beginning - not if you hope to stay sane.

Selling the Intranet

There are two main "markets" for you to pitch to. You'll first need to sell the idea of the intranet project to your company's decision-makers (and those who will sign the cheques). Then you'll need to sell the idea of using it - to the staff in general.

Just sign here...

Who is going to object to good communications or information-sharing? No-one (not openly, anyway). The opportunity for a company to operate on a common set of reliable information about its market, its stock, its customers - about itself, should not be a difficult product to sell.

However, I would caution about overselling your intranet. There will be problems with it. It will crash, it will give wrong information, it won't solve all your company's problems at a stroke. It might be best to ensure that your initial proposals mentions some of the drawbacks, so that you can point them out when the complaints come in. (Remember - the large print giveth and the small print taketh away.)

One extremely important point needs to be made here; you need more than a budget from your decision-makers - you need their commitment. Don't let your intranet project go through "on the nod" - make sure that it is fully discussed, and that everyone realises that an intranet will impose duties on them, and that it is likely to put strains on their usual patterns of working.

It will be a matter of judgment how strongly to pitch these issues - depending on how fragile your company's management structure is, but when things begin to stray from the original plans, you are going to need ammunition to defend yourself. When a department head refuses to release information to the intranet, you should be able to say "You committed to this project. I made it clear what that entailed. I am insisting that you fulfil your commitment."

It is likely that your intranet project will be the most politically fraught episode in your company's history. Arm yourself.

If you build it, they will come...

No they won't.

Don't rely on the intranet to sell itself. Use other media to promote it - whatever media are available to you. Put up posters, send round memos and booklets. Organise meetings (which can be merged into training sessions). I'd recommend making a lot of fuss about this new service, to convince people it's a good idea, and that it will make their work easier/more fruitful. Above all, you should also make it clear that they are expected to use the intranet - that it is not an optional extra.

Ensure, above all, that the most senior members of staff are committed to the project, and will use it themselves. If they don't, their juniors won't either.

Be prepared to re-launch (with appropriate fanfares) whenever the bugs have been shaken out of the system.

Learn to love your critics

Within a few months of the intranet launch you will be surrounded by grumbles - about the loss of perfectly-good services which the intranet has replaced, about information which isn't there, or is incorrect - even about the colours used.

Resist the temptation to tell the grumblers to get lost. If people have taken an interest in the project (even if that interest is negative), you should be capitalising on that interest. Listen to them, and make every effort to satisfy their demands - even if those demands seem contradictory. Of course, there must be some limit to this selflessness, but try to err on the side of generosity.

Handled properly, these critics may well become the project's greatest allies - simply because they now have a stake in it. Even if they don't, you have removed their ability to grumble to other people, or to build anti-intranet factions.

Facing up to the problems

An intranet will have a profound effect on your company. If it doesn't, you haven't done it properly.

Intranets work best with relatively "flat" management structures (it might be argued that everything works better in such a structure).

If your company has seven or eight layers of hierarchy between shop floor and board room, the intranet will shake things up alarmingly. Why should anyone follow the chain of command, when they can get what they want with a few clicks on a mouse? Why should anyone pay attention to a badly-thought-through policy statement from a senior executive, when there's a much better proposal on the intranet - from someone much more junior?

The intranet shovels information towards all levels of staff - not just to department heads, so department heads who rely on knowing more than their underlings - to bolster their power over them - will find the ground cut from underneath them.

So, if your company is one of those multi-layered monstrosities, your time might be better spent trying to cure the core problem, rather than releasing a dangerous animal like an intranet on it.

On the other hand, persuading a hide-bound company to review its management structure may be a task even Hercules would baulk at. You might want to use this intranet in your guerilla action against the forces of evil. If so, be careful. It's not much use insisting you were right all along, as the security guards escort you to the front door.

State the issues from the outset, and keep on re-stating them. If people ignore them, that's their problem.

See also Don't go near the Net.

Webbery Index
© 1997 David Craig Send me a message