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Case Study: Preventing Intranet Info Overload

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What do you do when your intranet simply has too much information? When it contains research and reports from experts all around the world, and quick access to every page is crucial? That was the problem faced by William Dykes, director of communications and Web development for Occidental Petroleum.

Dykes oversees the intranet for Occidental’s oil and gas division, which includes the health, environment, and safety (HES) department. And HES is blessed, or cursed, with too much information — reams of drilling reports, research from hundreds of projects, scads of contracts.

At any moment, employees around the globe might need access to documents that could save the company time and money. Knowledge management and knowledge sharing — that is, making sure that information is not only organized, but easy to find — is no simple chore.

“I think that’s probably our biggest struggle,” says Dykes, “keeping our arms around all the information, making sure that the pertinent information doesn’t get away from us as we go forward.”

Founded in 1920 and based in Los Angeles, Occidental Petroleum is in the parlance of oil and gas known as an “upstream” company, meaning it discovers, drills for, and barrels crude oil and gas, then sells it to refineries for consumer use. Occidental has discovered over 12 billion barrels of oil over the years and is the largest gas producer in California. It has drilling operations around the globe, but mostly in the U.S., Latin America, and the Middle East.

“These are very good times to be in oil,” says Dykes. But he notes that business cycles change quickly in oil and gas. “It’s only been two or three years since we were in a very down cycle.”

Paper, Paper Everywhere
Occidental’s first flirtations with an intranet came in 1995. Dykes spearheaded a small site within the company’s multimedia and Web services group. It was purely a grass-roots effort, he says.

“It was very difficult in those days to get management buy in,” says Dykes. “It was something different; they hadn’t seen it before.”

Besides that, remote workers rarely had a way to access the site. As Dykes explains, “The thing about oil and gas is that it isn’t always found in places that have the best connectivity.”

So the site languished for a few years before management got behind it. When it was time to get serious, Dykes hired a third-party company, Digital Pilot, to build portal-based intranet sites for the main company and several departments.

One of the goals for the fledgling intranet was to help the HES department organize and disseminate its volumes of drilling information.

“In the past, everything was stuck in binders,” says Dykes. “It was almost impossible to keep it up to date and get it to all of the people who needed the information.”

Those binders were published once a year and comprised hundreds of pages. Copies needed to be sent to HES people in 21 different countries. Creating updates between the yearly publishing dates was too costly and cumbersome, so information that wasn’t ready for one publishing had to wait an entire year for release.

“It was awful,” Dykes says with a laugh.

Roxanne Algra, the HES intranet’s Web administrator and graphic artist, started her career years ago in the Occidental file room. That room was as overdue for an overhaul as the outdated binder system, she explains. When people requested information from her, it could take from a day to several weeks to track down the needed pages.

Turning the Tide
The solution to HES’s paper problem came three years ago, when Dykes was at a business conference and learned that a Chicago bank was using a product called Net-It Central to organize its own voluminous data.

Net-It works by taking documents created with common programs, like Microsoft’s Office suite, and converting them for Web use. Users place their documents in an offline directory, then program Net-It to check the directory’s contents at predetermined intervals. Besides converting the documents, Net-It posts then on the intranet and creates the appropriate links.

“I thought, well this is great,” says Dykes. “The users don’t have to learn any Web publishing; all they have to do is save their documents.”

Algra is one of the employees who uses Net-It Central in her day-to-day duties. Because she is now a contract employee and works from home, she dials up her ISP, then uploads the day’s files to an NT 4 server in Occidental’s Tulsa, Okla., office. Net-It runs on its own server. While Algra also uses Microsoft FrontPage and Macromedia Dreamweaver to work on the intranet, she doesn’t need them to convert documents. Net-It Central does it all.

Knowledge management and knowledge sharing can be tricky, even overwhelming, for an information-heavy company. But using the right tool helped Occidental conquer its paper tiger.

Troy Dreier writes for Intranet Journal, an site where this story first appeared.

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