Reinvent your intranet

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Reinvent your intranet

Second-generation intranets are becoming mission-critical tools. Their interactivity can change the very nature of your business, boosting collaboration and improving the bottom line.

By Joe Mullich

June 1999

In this article:

RR Donnelley & Sons
Lessons learned about next-generation intranets
How Sunny shines

Picture this: You have just debuted a new corporate intranet, and yet less than 3% of the company’s 37,000 employees actually use it. That’s what Mike Riley faced back in 1997.

Reinvent your intranet
Mike Riley, of RR Donnelley & Sons

Riley, director of Internet application development for RR Donnelley & Sons, built an intranet called RRDnet, that was populated mostly with static content dissemination. However, in the past two years, the $4.9 billion Chicago-based printer has become something of a poster child for next-generation intranets. Riley has seen usage skyrocket as Donnelley has added cutting-edge applications, including streaming video, online training, and backend database integration for inventory.

AT A GLANCE: RR Donnelley & Sons
The company: Based in Chicago, RR Donnelley is a $4.9 billion printer with 37,000 employees.

The problem: How to make all information on the intranet accessible within a single mouse click.

The solution: Attention to design and daily sit-downs with users at all levels to see how they actually use the intranet.

The IT infrastructure: Ultimately the solution will be AI/agent-based personalization technology, which is a database-centric facility that maintains a “memory footprint” of a person’s usage. The artificial intelligence (AI) analyzes the usage/request patterns and facilitates detection of highly relevant incoming information as well as predicts outgoing requests. In other words, the system knows who you are, what you’re purpose is, and where you need to go to find what you’re looking for. There are small steps being taken every day toward achieving that goal, says Mike Riley, the firm’s director of Internet application development, “but it’s at least another five years before the world will see something really successfully address this problem.”

Today, most intranets are still little more than static repositories of information with some e-mail connectivity. But a handful of cutting-edge firms like RR Donnelley are turning their intranets into mission-critical tools to boost collaboration and improve the bottom line. These next-generation intranets are being used for education, internal recruiting, human-resources applications, and revamping workflow while using new technology, like streaming video, to reinvent the very nature of how they do business.

“Companies won’t truly enjoy the benefits of intranet technology until they turn them into interaction entities that affect every aspect of their business,” says Greg Howard, principle analyst with the HTRC Group, a consulting firm in San Jose, Calif.

At Donnelley, the most popular aspect of RRDnet has been human resource applications, such as internal job postings, which have evolved into a more dynamic system on the intranet. “Employees can be notified when a particular subset of data for a job meets their needs, such as a particular location or title,” Riley says, making it more of a push model. “The intranet should give them the information they need without having to spend hours tracking it down.” RRDnet provides the job and contact information that employees can follow up with via telephone or e-mail, but doesn’t yet have a “post your resume to the jobs database” option.

Keep it simple

Riley has learned that a next-generation intranet brings greater demands in how information and applications are organized and presented. “You need to make it so insanely intuitive that a four-year-old could use it, but have the backend complexity that requires your best people,” he says. Donnelley’s intranet group has 15 members, composed of application developers, graphics designers, and project managers.

The company’s intranet contains numerous Java-scripted rollovers that provide images to accompany the printed word. These are icons that display subtle text on top of them when users roll over the graphic–kind of like a tool tip built into the graphic.

Lessons learned about next-generation intranets

Make the intranet “insanely intuitive,” through good organization and presentation arrangements.

Meet with users often to see first hand how they use the intranet.

Search for hidden costs, like training and employee tours, that the intranet can cut to justify new applications.

Use tools, such as avatars, to guide less technologically savvy users through the intranet.

Try e-commerce apps on less important internal projects before rolling them out to mission-critical uses.

Donnelley is now searching for the best ways to make all information accessible within a single mouse click. Riley is pondering whether the information is best organized by business units, by initiatives, or according to the needs of newcomers to the organization. “Ultimately, we are looking for how the information can be categorized according to each individual end user’s needs,” he says.

Riley schedules meetings with end users, from administration assistants to senior vice presidents, at least two afternoons a week quizzing them about future applications. Mostly, though, he’s trying to discern how they use RRDnet by observing how they work at their keyboards. “It keeps me attuned to the needs of end users who don’t live in this stuff everyday,” he says. “What I’ve learned so far is reinforcement of the KISS principle–keep it simple, stupid.”

He is also finding what applications don’t work well on an intranet. “A form that requires 100 fields is not effective on an online browser because it has such a long scroll,” Riley says. “It’s pretty painful if the user has to fill in 150 variables and after all that, the server kicks it back because he filled out one wrong.” For instance, Donnelley created a few prototypes from several paper-based forms that just didn’t work well with a testing group. “We determined that over time, most users would enter the absolute minimum amount of data into the fields, which came as no surprise,” Riley says. “Since then, our most field-intensive online form consists of less than 10 required fields, with most of the fields preloaded with default values.”

ROI shines in many directions

Sun Healthcare, a $2.1 billion chain of nursing and long-term care facilities headquartered in Albuquerque, N.M., is also embracing the principles of next-generation intranets. Its year-old intranet, called Sunweb, is being used for education, employee orientation, and communications, and will soon expand to e-commerce uses. “A next-generation intranet requires an artificial intelligence that allows users to interact with the page,” says Ron Nolan, Sun’s manager of global Web services. “They are dynamic entities that, based on what I put in, I’m going to get a different results set back.”

How Sunny shines

Sun Healthcare’s online avatar “Sunny,” which guides employees through intranet pages, was first sketched in Albuquerque, N.M. Sunny’s animations were then drawn in California. The 3-D skin was added in Dallas. “While that was being done we wrote all of Sunny’s scripts and then took them to a recording studio to be professionally recorded by a voice actor,” says Ron Nolan, Sun’s manager of global Web services, in Albuquerque.

Once that was completed, Nolan took the sound files and converted them to a .wav and Real Video format. Time stamps were assigned to the script and the script was handed to Sun’s programmers. Nolan’s team then programmed all of Sunny’s movements with Java script to match the sound animations. Several programming algorithms were used to give Sunny a sense of reality.

“Sunny is like a toy that holds the users’ interest and makes the intranet a lot less intimidating,” Nolan says. “You have 69,000 employees at different levels of PC literacy. There are some people who have never been on an Internet browser. Sonny prompts them through the section, like an online tutor.” Sonny, Nolan believes, has stemmed off potentially thousands of users support calls. –J.M.

Where Sunweb has truly shined is in its use of video and audio. This started in August 1998 when Nolan bought a 360-degree camera and photographed every inch of the 3.5-block campus at the behest of the human resources training center, and posted the photos online. The ability to offer online virtual tours eliminated up to 1,000 man hours per year the human resources department was spending on personalized tours to new hires–anywhere from five to 20 people a week go through new employee indoctrination.

Nolan found another important use for streaming video in online education and training courses for employees. Nurses and physicians, for instance, have to take continuing education to maintain their certification and general skill levels. But all 69,000 employees require some degree of training, he says. So Nolan deployed an online avatar–a three-dimensional cartoon figure in the form of a little character called “Sunny”–that guides employees through intranet pages (see sidebar below, “How Sunny shines”). When employees go into a section, the avatar explains the types of courses that are available.

Part of the continuing education curriculum also involves video that the nurses can now watch online. The streaming video system uses Real Video G2 technology and DHTML (dynamic HTML), a general term for Web pages that are customized for each user. Before developing the intranet, Sun Healthcare had to produce videos and mail them to hundreds of locations worldwide–a large expense, not to mention the time and cost of gathering employees in one spot to watch the tapes. With Sunweb, nurses can complete their entire CE credit online. “We don’t have to bring five people together at one time to watch a video; they can choose a time that’s convenient for them,” Nolan says. “There is a large dollar value to that in the amount of time saved by allowing employees to control their own schedule.”

Nolan is continually peppered with questions about the return-on-investment for using streaming video and other cutting-edge applications on Sun Healthcare’s intranet. He says vendor contracts prevent him from giving details on the amount the cutting-edge technology cost, though he notes he couldn’t afford not to spend the money on the intranet. “Healthcare is the second most heavily regulated industry after the nuclear power industry,” he says. “In a heavily regulated industry, it is difficult to make profits, so to be more competitive you have to maximize the dollars you spend” in such areas as video training.

Some of Sunweb’s direct ROI results are impressive. Putting the corporate newsletter–which goes to 69,000 employees across 49 states and six countries–on the intranet in January slashed $400,000 in printing and mailing costs.

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

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