Reinvent your intranet: Page 4

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As intranets extend their focus, they often expand their sphere of users to customers and business partners. Office Furniture USA, a Pelham, Ala.-based office furniture franchiser, built an extranet in early 1998 called Triple-Net that is used not only by employees, but also by manufacturers and its network of 152 dealers.

An interactive communication tool

Triple-Net eliminated many cumbersome workflow processes. Before, for instance, dealers who wanted to return damaged merchandise to a manufacturer would send hard-to-read handwritten faxes to the corporate headquarters. They might languish on someone's desk for three weeks. By automating the procedure for processing damaged merchandise through Triple-Net, "return material authorizations" are handled more smoothly by the customer service center. In addition, orders that once took a customer service representative up to five weeks to process can now be done in three days or less. Reps can also get company information such as sales data with one or two mouse clicks, whereas before they had to pull it out of a file.

Putting the corporate newsletter-- which goes to 69,000 employees across 49 states and six countries --on the intranet slashed $400,000 in printing and mailing costs.

"This saved money for us, the dealer, and the manufacturer in handling the transaction while improving the accuracy of the transactions," says Gary Sweetapple, the firm's CIO. This was a boon to cash flow, a crucial element in a business founded on the idea of delivering quality office furniture at 50% off retail prices.

Sweetapple figures Triple-Net allows $250,000 worth of "cost avoidance" a year, 25% more than its total cost of $200,000. Since Triple-Net was launched, two of the customer service center's seven employees have left without needing to be replaced. Without Triple-Net, Sweetapple figures the firm would need 15 customer service representatives.

Another key element of Triple-Net is that it acts as an interactive communication tool. With Triple-Net, dealers can instantly receive reports about manufacturer items that might be out of stock. When a major Canadian furniture manufacturer lost power for a week, Triple-Net kept dealers posted on the status of orders, when in the past they'd have to find this information by sending faxes and making telephone calls that might not be quickly returned. By putting the sales order entry application online in 1998, Office Furniture was able to boost dealers' productivity, since they no longer needed to do duplicate order entry.

Looking to the future

A mark of second-generation intranets is they tend to look to the future even as they're keeping pace with today's needs. Sun Healthcare, for instance, is looking to turn its intranet into the mechanism by which nurses and offices order supplies, allowing for cost efficiencies and inventory management. "We could save tens of thousands of dollars in the cost of pencils alone," says Sun's Nolan.

But these fast-movers also know when to go slow. Nolan will try the first e-commerce applications on a non-mission-critical area: the online employee store. "We want to get the bugs out first before we move on to more important purposes, such as inventory," he says.

And that will be a priority, because streamlining business processes is what next-generations intranets are all about. //

Joe Mullich, who lives in Glendale, Calif., has written for more than 100 publications and won over two dozen awards for feature and column writing. He can be reached at JoeMullich@aol.com.

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