Managing the Corporate Intranet

This excerpt is adapted from Chapter 9 of "The Corporate Intranet" by Ryan Bernard (John Wiley & Sons). Copyright 1997 by John Wiley & Sons. Used with permission.


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In most companies that were early web adopters, it has been with the tolerance of management, rather than at their urging, that the Intranet was formed. Lucky is the manager who understands what's going on.

Executives are getting little help with this from their IS staffs. Some corporate IS departments are still mired in the mainframe world and are only starting to explore client-server. Those that are heavily committed to client-server have jumped into some very expensive proprietary technologies and big-bang projects that require a lot of administration and maintenance, and it will be some time before they get their heads unstuck enough to see what is happening around them.

When they do, they may find that their original assumptions about client-server technology have to be completely rethought. "IS people were asleep when personal computers happened," says Chris Koehncke of Nortel, "and I think they are asleep now on the World Wide Web."

In companies where employees are truly empowered, people tend to take Intranet technology and run with it in all kinds of unexpected ways. In fact, you might gauge the intellectual health and level of entrepreneurship within your own organization by the speed at which web systems are adopted and grow.

In companies where employees are functionally empowered, technologically enabled and intellectually challenged, web technology may spread very fast. In companies that ration technology and where initiative is stifled by layers of bureaucratic control, you may see some signs of life on the web front, but the general rate of adoption may be incredibly slow. The quickest adoption often occurs at companies where savvy managers catch on and help lead the charge.

Intranets work best when people are given the same freedom to use them that they now have with ordinary business applications like desktop publishing and spreadsheets. It's important to recognize that web technology-at its core-is not rocket science. It's just another business communications medium, like desktop publishing is now, but one in which the network substitutes for paper. But it's also important to realize that web will exponentially increase the speed and immediacy of business communications and that it will eventually suck in all the other information stream-not just words and pictures, but data, multimedia, messaging, conferencing, and applications.

When this happens, watch for a further flattening of organizational structures and drastic changes in the management of information systems. In the Web Era, mid-level managers will have an even smaller role as the intermediaries who interpret and transfer information between the bottom and top rungs of the corporate ladder. Grunt-level workers and executives will have a common platform for communication where they can silently (or even audibly) audit each others' web pages, hear each others' concerns, and add their voices to corporate-wide discussion groups focused on special topics. The new technology will enhance the communication of corporate goals, performance targets, and employee feedback across the organizational nexus.

IS managers may find their entire world shifting around them once again, as the internal web becomes the dominant environment for delivering data and applications. The entire method of application design and delivery may require a new phase of reengineering with a focus on more modular, applet- based information systems, and a more serious look at ways of integrating the entire information stream, including data, documents, multimedia, and applications.

IS will certainly continue to be the guardian of back-end legacy data, but will find more and more of their information being served out directly onto the Intranet. Many application programming functions may devolve out to individual departments or information centers, as people create their own form-based interfaces to data sources.

None of this should suggest that an internal web is unmanageable, or that there aren't concrete steps that should be taken to manage it. In fact, there are many management issues that must and should be addressed to ensure that people can use the new technologies in efficient and productive ways. This chapter will discuss the key management concepts, and suggest ways that management can cope with the coming web explosion.

The Matter of Control

Large organizations love control, and the larger the organization, the more effort they spend controlling things. It's no wonder, then, that one of the biggest impediments to adoption of a web may be the control issue.

People make no bones about it. "Our company likes control," one client told me. "We might not want just anyone going out and setting up a web server, or using one of these things."

But think about it. If the company likes controls so much, where are the controls on the telephone and e-mail systems? Who controls the desktop publishing and interoffice mail systems? Anyone can use a word processing program to prepare a document, print as many copies as they want and drop all those copies into interoffice mail to be distributed throughout the company with no questions asked! Where's the control there?

"We can't control the use of word processors or the copying machine," people may argue. "That would be impossible. Everybody needs those tools to do their job."

My point exactly! You don't mind employees wasting money to print all this paper and hand-deliver it to locations worldwide. They can do that without restriction. But if someone wants to use the network to bypass these archaic information distribution systems, they have to ask for permission first. Does that really make sense?

The control issue is a vestigial part of the old information systems models. In traditional computing environments, you start with the idea that everything is prohibited unless someone in power enables it. Thus, people who want access to computer resources are typically given access only if they request it.

With web systems, on the other hand, access is automatically granted unless it is specifically denied. In other words, everyone starts with full access to the system, and they are restricted from key applications only where that type of control is absolutely necessary (such as with highly confidential product designs, personnel records-that sort of thing). The new paradigm is that you let the system grow free at the grass roots, then you take a little time to manicure the lawn.

Understanding the Web Control Model

That's not to say that control is not a legitimate issue. There must always be some amount of access control, even in an open system like a web. It's just that the control model has changed; almost inverted. On its face, a web server is the epitome of control. With web, however, the controls are non-intrusive, built-in, and decentralized.

Can anyone access just any information on a web server? No... People who are looking at my web site are seeing only the information the author or webmaster wants them to see. In other words, the individual author or provider of information exercises control over who sees what by moving it into the web server document folders. No one (unless they are a somewhat bored and very talented hacker) can see any other information on the server platform unless it is physically moved into the server folders.

In a web system, therefore, there are two levels of control involved, that can be called author versus viewer control, or server-side control versus client-side control.

Think of the web server as sort of neutral territory being visited from both sides by two opposing camps. On one side are the authors of the information, who are mainly responsible for publishing it and keeping it up-to-date. On the other side are the users of the information, who are mainly responsible for browsing through it, learning from it, and occasionally interacting with it. Here's how the control systems work on both sides of the equation:

Author/Server Control

On the author/server side, we have the issue of who will be able to create new information and deposit it inside the web server directories, who will be able to update the information, and who will be able to tamper with the configuration of the file systems or other aspects of the server host computer. In this case, the server may be controlled by the people who contribute the information to it, which may be an individual, a workgroup, a department, or a division.

In these situations, the traditional control models are more likely to apply: The web server could be installed with server directories mounted as a local file system on each contributor's machine. That way, each author could directly access and edit the information just as though it were stored on a local hard drive.

In this case, permissions would be set on the server side to make sure that only members of the group could access the directories to change their content. Or an automated process could be used to transfer and convert web content in a shared workgroup directory to a set of production server directories controlled by a webmaster.

Workgroup server model.

On a wide area network with built-in Internet software, access to the server directories could be provided in other ways: including FTP and telnet either through the network or through dial-up SLIP or PPP connections. Thus, for example, authors might create and manage the content on their own local computers, then use FTP to transfer the completed files over to the web server. A time-triggered "cron" job could be set up as an batch process to automatically do this on a regular schedule.

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