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EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES - On the Cheap

EMERGING TECHNOLOGIES - On the Cheap

Dorothea Eiben didn't have much in terms of resources when she launched her campaign to establish an intranet at Genzyme Corp. No budget. No staff. And initially little support from management. "We built the entire thing using a summer intern," recalls Eiben, the associate director of information services for the Cambridge, Mass.-based biotechnology company. As the company phased in its intranet in the summer of 1996, "you could see [the intern] learning," Eiben says. "The day she learned about frames, all our pages had frames." By September the intern was a veteran developer-and, for the cost of her summer job, Genzyme had its intranet. Today the Genzyme Information Exchange, dubbed Genie, provides 3,500 employees in 40 branches worldwide with access to everything from industry headlines to a corporate year 2000 compliance database to personalised stock-option data.

The intranet at insurance giant Chubb Corp. started out as sort of a hobby, a do-it-yourself project, for a just-out-of-college mainframe programmer and some friends who, purely out of curiosity, tinkered with the project at home nights and weekends. "They found an old PC someplace and converted it to a Web server," downloading the server software and operating system from free sites on the Web, recalls B.C. Verniero, assistant vice president of marketing and electronic commerce. Then the programmer, James Walter Martin III, asked to move the project into the insurance giant's Warren, N.J., headquarters. "He went to IT and said, 'Do you mind if I bring in Unix and do a couple of things on my desk that won't hurt anybody?'" recalls Verniero, himself a former IT staffer. "He put together a prototype of what became our intranet." The prototype didn't do much: "It kind of served as a home page for employees to access the Internet," providing pointers to relevant online resources, recalls Don Garvey, also an assistant vice president. But it did lure people into the intranet concept-and up to that point, it hadn't cost Chubb a dime.

Since those humble beginnings, both projects have evolved into full-fledged intranets that play a major role in the two companies' business strategies.

Genie now provides Genzyme employees with a wealth of previously unavailable industry news, research and regulatory information, helping employees stay a step ahead in their hotly competitive industry. And Chubb's intranet, now known as ChubbNet, provides about 10,000 employees worldwide with access to e-mail, human resources materials, international insurance regulations and customised information for functions such as claims handling and underwriting. But the companies' early experiences illustrate an often underemphasised facet of internal Web site development: It's possible to launch an intranet-nothing overly sophisticated but perfectly serviceable-for very little money. In fact, "you can do it for nothing," insists Harold Wolhandler, vice president of market research for ActivMedia Inc., a Peterborough, N.H.-based Internet research firm. "It's more a question of how much elbow grease versus how much you use off the shelf." Of course, the deal comes with fine print. If you spend zilch, relying on cast-off equipment, shareware and Web developers who work on their own time, you won't get a state-of-the-art intranet that's the envy of your industry. (On the other hand, maybe you don't need one.) More important, once you've launched an intranet, you must maintain and grow it, investing in hardware, software, training and salaries for full- or part-time dedicated staffers.

A growing number of companies apparently consider those expenses worthwhile. A study by International Data Corp. of Framingham, Mass., a sister company to CIO Communications Inc., indicated that of about 15 top American and European companies surveyed, all either had corporate intranets or planned to develop them (see "Inside Everywhere," Threads, CIO Section 2, Sept. 1, 1998). Among business-to-business companies of all sizes (as opposed to business-to-consumer companies), Wolhandler says, one in six has an intranet. And despite some executive resistance-many view intranets as low-priority projects, ranking well below e-commerce and year 2000 efforts on IS to-do lists-that ratio is expected to keep rising.

Normally, intranets are a relatively high-ticket item. Companies not taking the shoestring approach currently spend $US50,000 to $US150,000 to get started, says Ken Burke, president of Multimedia Live, a Web development company based in Novato, Calif. It's not the number of users that determine cost. It's the features.

Companies that want to put their policies online will pay less than companies that use the intranet for e-mail, transaction-based benefits applications or collaboration. Putting confidential information online requires additional security-and additional expense.

It's possible to build an intranet for $US3,000 to $US4,000, says Christopher Mega, president of NetImpressions Inc., an Internet outsourcer in Maynard, Mass. For that price range, companies can expect to get a server and a few basic tools, and still have enough cash left over to train an employee on HTML authoring. That will provide "a minimalist version of a functional intranet," Mega says. The trade-offs: No fancy graphics. No leading-edge applications. No sophisticated navigation. And nobody responsible for trouble-shooting or upgrading. "Who's going to reboot when it crashes?" Mega asks. "Who's going to figure out how to password-protect something? Who's going to figure out how to add the next thing?" Both intranet developers and executives at organisations that launched low-budget intranets have plenty of advice for doing the job without breaking the bank. Some recommendations differ little from the common-sense advice for any Web project: Establish priorities. Involve management early. Ordain an evangelist. Set short- and long-term goals. But other suggestions are less obvious, even counterintuitive. For instance: Make an intranet operational as soon as it works, no matter how humble it is, and tell people to expect it to evolve. "You don't have to hit home runs. You can hit a lot of singles and doubles and get tremendous paybacks," says Max Mayer, president and CEO of Internet Business Advantages Inc. (IBA), a Concord, Mass.-based Internet strategy firm. "The payback you get in the early phases can fund the later phases." The following eight recommendations from intranet veterans-corporate executives, project champions and outsourcers-describe how to cut costs without cutting corners. When human resources executives at Arbella Insurance Group of Quincy Mass., pushed for an intranet, Hildy Stover, the company's vice president of information systems, reacted with reluctance. "I accepted this request with some fear because I'm in a major transition with all our applications," including year 2000 work and an enterprisewide conversion to Pentium PCs, Stover says. "We saw this as not a particularly mission-critical project." But the human resources team convinced her that an intranet would provide an easy, elegant way to reach one of her own goals: finding a way for headquarters to quickly communicate with the company's 1,000 employees who work in 10 branch offices or on the road. They also found an outsourcer that could do the job for $US25,000 requiring no new hardware, minimal training and little direct involvement by Stover's staff, which allowed the IT group to concentrate on more pressing projects. For Arbella, the main issue was that "we didn't want anything to divert our IT staff away from the Y2K conversion," which potentially could cost the company far more money than the $US25,000 spent on the intranet, says Ellen Hoadley, vice president of human resources. And while it seems Arbella could have saved thousands of dollars in outsourcing costs, the company balanced that expense against the cost of reassigning and training an existing employee who probably couldn't have delivered an intranet in anything approaching the team's time frame.

Keep it Simple.That's a lesson Mega had to keep in mind when NetImpressions designed an intranet for its own parent company, Harpell/Martins & Co. Public Relations of Maynard, Mass. The 40-person public relations firm wanted its employees to be able to collaborate on the PR and ad campaigns in progress, but they didn't need the technically and graphically complex sites NetImpressions designed for its larger clients. "We had to step back from that to do our own Web site," Mega says. "It had to be more like, 'Go here, edit this, push this button and it's done.' We basically had to scale back to keep it simple and have it run itself." That simplistic approach applies to navigation and design as well. Remember those frames that Genzyme's student intern added to the intranet? User fascination quickly turned to frustration because pages took too long to load. Consequently, the intranet team dumped them. "Forget about the bells and the whistles and the spinning mailboxes," advises Chubb's Verniero.

"Show [users] the power of the technology. Change workflow for the better." One example: Chubb developed a prospecting system for international clients that would have taken at least six months to launch worldwide, requiring massive disk mailing or establishing a local area network. By putting the system on ChubbNet, the company "literally deployed it overnight," Garvey recalls. After that, getting support for the project was no problem. In fact, Garvey says, "It was the easiest sell I've ever done." Tie it in with an existing IT initiative. Arbella's intranet required no hardware purchases because the company already planned to roll out new PCs for all desktops within the year. "The fact that there was [relatively] low cost made it much easier to convince management" to invest in intranet development, Stover says. Genzyme also slid Genie's development into a year-long effort to switch to leased desktop hardware worldwide.

Use ready-made tools.Intranet teams can expect to spend $US100,000 or more to custom-develop systems for handling employee benefits, says Multimedia Live's Burke. But for about $US6,000, a company can buy Benemap, a pre-packaged product from Lifemap Communications Inc. of Walnut Creek, Calif., which installs in minutes and offers the same functionality. Another company, ZLand Inc. of Santa Ana, Calif., offers several plug-and-play tools for intranet applications for everything from press releases to management.

No budget for tools? Start with shareware and prove its value-and then seek funding in future budgets, or push to have intranet-related savings funnelled back into intranet development and upgrades. That's what happened with ChubbNet. Developers initially equipped the intranet with the Linux operating system and Apache server software, both downloaded free from the Internet.

"Once the [intranet's] value was seen, we could go back and get some dedicated hardware and upgrade from shareware to shrink-wrap," recalls Garvey. And those companies that outsource intranet construction should ask their hired guns whether costs can be cut by having company employees do some of the finishing work, like HTML coding or using off-the-shelf page-builders to design individual pages.

Recycle and repurpose. Try to reuse as much as possible-not just hardware, as Chubb did in developing its ChubbNet, but existing Web knowledge as well.

"People often forget to leverage their Internet expertise," says David Burk, president and CEO of Clear Ink, an Internet strategy and development firm in Walnut Creek, Calif. "Go to your company's [public] Internet site and see what's there." Use the graphics. Use the links. Use the talent. Without realising it, many companies may also have some Web tools in hand. The standard Microsoft Office suite, for instance, includes an option for saving documents in HTML.

Go for small wins. "If you try to create [the intranet equivalent of] Amazon.com in one fell swoop, you'll be delayed and lose a lot of credibility," warns Clear Ink's Burk. Instead, he and others say, go for something quick, sweet and simple. "It's not necessarily the big business-related functions that do the trick," says Ken LeBlanc, IBA technical project manager, who worked on the Arbella project. "Sometimes it's the basics." In Arbella's case, a simple application targeted by the intranet developers was an enterprisewide employee phone list. That's hardly innovative by intranet standards, but because the company had never previously stored all that information in one place, the intranet version was new, different and wildly popular. At Genzyme, half of a librarian's workday was spent producing a daily executive news briefing of up to 30 hard-copy pages. The intranet team replaced the newsletter with an electronic version, published on Genie and pushed to subscribers by e-mail. The e-newsletter-timelier, more comprehensive and personalised, with built-in links-won raves from both its executive audience and librarians whose time was freed for more interesting projects. Other features likely to qualify as easy early wins: online suggestion boxes (if responses are prompt), employee chat rooms, automated time sheets and anything that reduces paper.

Balance design and control. It's generally cheaper in the long run to construct one companywide intranet than to let people create any number of individual pages and subsequently try to herd them into a single coordinated site. At Genzyme, intranet development "was centralised initially because that's easier to do than train people in the technology and concepts" of Web page management, Eiben says. But if doing it again, she'd opt to teach people to design and maintain their own pages from the start. It's simply more cost-effective. But others say that approach leads to the right hand not knowing what the left hand's doing. On ChubbNet, for instance, "the claims Web site is great. The operations Web site is great. The underwriting Web site is great," Verniero says. "But if you're in claims and you want to know about a particular underwriting question, you're going to look awfully hard and probably not find what you need. The sites were designed for the audiences they were serving, not for Chubb as a whole." Chubb's now aiming for a more enterprisewide approach by indexing pages for cross-functional use.

Follow up. Asked to describe the biggest mistake, intranet veterans all give the same answer: Failure to keep developing the site. In some cases, managers emphasise the site's launch, but not ongoing maintenance and updates. Once online, an intranet "gets pushed to the back burner, three stoves down," says Pat Harpell, president of Harpell/Martins & Co. Public Relations. Or the project's sole champion disappears, leaving an intranet that degrades into "a ghost town," says Clear Ink's Burk. That can do more damage than having no intranet at all, particularly if it's employee information-such as vacation-day tallies or 401(k) account balances-that's outdated. As Harpell notes, "When it's personal information, people take it personally." If an intranet isn't maintained, whatever money was spent to launch it was wasted.

Like any Web project, low-budget intranets, if done correctly, are forever a work in progress. At Genzyme, which still has no formal intranet budget and relies largely on volunteer labour, the intranet team has paused to catch its breath and consider its next steps. "We're slowing down development because we can't meet demand," Eiben says. "We're revisiting the idea of a [central executive] steering committee. We haven't had a corporate discussion yet around whether we have a corporate site or 200 corporate sites, whether we have standards around publishing content or not." Meanwhile, Chubb's intranet quickly moved away from its underground beginnings to become part of a consolidated electronic commerce department covering electronic messaging, publishing, intranet and Internet initiatives. Six to 10 staffers work full-time on intranet projects, and the network reaches 90 per cent of the 10,000 Chubb desktops all over the world. "In the future, ChubbNet will become the desktop," the source for all company operations, Verniero says. "That's clearly the direction we're going, from communications tool to strategic resource. They may be baby steps, but we are moving down the path."

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