Getting Into Intranets

“The intranet allows you to provide a lot of information to a fairly diverse audience easily,” says Tom Shea, vice president of sales and marketing at Logical Design Solutions, an intranet integrator firm in Boston, Mass. “It allows people very intuitive access to information that was previously difficult to get to.” And, he says, it allows you to access information in a way that can be updated rather quickly.

Shea adds, “It’s the ideal solution for a mobile sales force, or a diverse sales force that needs access to a lot of rapidly changing information.” Indeed, such corporate giants as AT&T, Tyson Foods, and Turner Broadcasting have begun using intranets.

A Single Information Source

Cadence Design Systems, a software-solutions company based in San Jose, California, knows the advantages an internal network can provide. As a result of changing from a company that sold software to one that now consults on software, Cadence hired about 50 new salespeople and lost nearly 20 in the first quarter of 1996. Suddenly, says Barry Demak, manager of worldwide sales operations, the company had an urgent communications problem.

“We basically changed our business, and that changed the bag of tricks our salespeople had to work with,” Demak says. “We needed an infrastructure to help them navigate that shift. We had sales reps with notebooks and specific sales software and such, but our most urgent need was to develop a single place where they could go for information.”

Cadence created that place through an intranet system it calls OnTrack. The solution serves as the primary purveyor of information to the company’s worldwide, 200-person sales force. Instead of using weighty manuals and countless photocopied memos, Cadence simply posts its sales data– everything from information about the sales process to news about competitors and product specifications–on its internal intranet server. Salespeople can access the information whenever they need it from wherever they are, straight from their PCs, using a standard Netscape browser. What they see when they log in is similar to a typical Web page, complete with graphics and point-and-click maneuverability.

The advantages over paper manuals are clear. For example, Cadence is trying to get its salespeople to focus on understanding their customers’ business objectives, so they can design a service solution that makes sense. With OnTrack, a rep can go directly to that step in the online sales process and see any suggestions, guidelines, and information that might help him execute the step more quickly–down time. “It’s kind of like having someone with ten to fifteen years of experience embedded in here as a coach, instead of trying to force the district manager to be all things to all people,” says Tim Herbert, Cadence’s director of worldwide sales operations.

That type of one-way publishing application marks the biggest use of intranets today. Dave Rosenlund, vice president of product marketing and strategy at Process Software Corporation, an intranet-software developer in Framingham, Massachusetts, says that most of his clients start with a desire to easily and quickly disseminate information. “Most people are using intranets for distributing information–electronic publishing,” he says. “Sales andmarketing information is perfect for it, because it’s largely static although there are issues associated with dynami content, like when your competitor

“Using the Sales example, our assumption is that there are already a bunch of documents effective intranet application for those, you’re talking about moving them to HTML (hypertext markup language, the language of the Internet), not starting from scratch, which you might be inclined to do if you were creating a glamorous Internet site. That’s not the important consideration when you’re trying to come up with an effective sales tool for your sales organization.”

Cadence has a system in place, for instance, that enables anyone with the right access code to post information; all a sales manager has to do is write a document in his or her word processor, then send it to an editor for approval, and it’s on the intranet that very same day. “In terms of cost, paper versus the intranet, a lot of companies are opting for the intranet because it’s so much more efficient,” adds Kelly Lee, director of client services at Logical Design Systems. “You can provide the latest information very quickly.”

Interactivity

Intranet growth is being spurred by the fact that once a company sees the value of intranet access, it will likely want to move to the next stage—transaction-based applications that are more interactive. Rosenlund of Process Software sees “the folks who have been doing electronic publishing for a year or so moving into more of an interactive application:

‘Tell me the status of customer 123’s order.’ Basically, it’s what everyone’s been talking about for years and years, but has always been difficult for the mobile sales force to actually do. Now that’s happening-people are accessing a database back at the company, entering a simple form, and getting results.”

Another way to increase employee participation is by using a dally news service like the one Cadence has introduced. Through a deal with a licensing company called Paracel, Cadence can offer its salespeople direct and immediate access to almost 2,500 publications–none of which are themselves proprietary, but many of which charge subscription fees for their information. Cadence pays one fee for alt of it–everything from Electronic Engineering Times to The Wall Street Journal. What does that mean for its salespeople? They can get information about their prospective and current customers at the touch of a button.

“For example, we’re trying to get the salespeople to stop calling on technical guys and start calling on executives and business managers,” Demak says. “This lets them get background on the executives they need to see, who they are, and the company. So if I’m preparing to make a call, I can literally go to one screen, enter a guy’s name, and find out every article that’s available on him–in about thirty seconds. Previously, that would have to be done through a costly service like Lexis/Nexis or be funneled through a researcher.”

Intranets aren’t just for internal communications. Some companies are offering intranet access–albeit limited–to select customers and vendors. Vanguard Group, a financialservices company in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, set up an intranet not for its own employees but for its customers’ people instead. For example, when Compaq Computer said it wanted to educate its diverse workforce about the value of investing, Vanguard agreed to develop kiosks at Compaq that link directly to a Vanguard Web server. Once in the Vanguard system, Compaq employees can get information about their own accounts, as well as tips and educational materials on finance in general. Shea of Logical Design Solutions says his company helped Vanguard develop the system. “Originally we talked about a CD-ROM. But we recommended an intranet solution, because it’s more flexible and always up-to-date,” he says. “From a sales perspective it may not be a core offering, but it’s certainly an added value.”

Of course, letting people from outside the company into your server does raise certain security issues, but none of them are insurmountable–or even as big as you might think. “Suffice it to say that the often written-about security issues around the Web are largely hype,” says Rosenlund of Process Software. “Like most security, even physical security, the same rules apply. You have to give it some forethought. Who’s going to walk through the front door–your Web site–unescorted? And what precautions do you need to take to ensure that only people who are authorized can get in? The security mechanisms are there, but they’re only as good as the extent to which you take advantage of them. People can always break into your building, too.”

Intranets also create opportunities for server repair and RAID recovery firms, like Irvine, California’s Hard Drive Recovery Associates, which offer specialized plans for companies with RAID 10 servers running their Intranet. These server hard drive arrays do not fail often, but when they do, companies like HDRA come to the rescue.

Process uses a system that not only checks user names and passwords. but can also be set to allow a user access to certain information oNly if he or she is dialing in from a recognized address–that is, a computer the company knows.

 

Finally, there are those intranet users who are ready to move beyond interactive applications to collaborative computing-the kind of group work people do with Lotus Notes, the leading groupware product. And that, according to those in the know, is where the intranet roads all lead. “Computers have gone through an evolution,” Rosenlund says. “In the sixties, they dealt with bits and bytes. Then in the seventies and early eighties, it was data. In the late eighties and early nineties, information. Now we’re in a paradigm shift from information technology to knowledge networking. People will collaborate on information and create corporate knowledge.”

It’s one road sure to be heavily traveled, even if, at the moment, it’s still the one less taken.

Intranets: Pros and Cons

PROS

* Relatively inexpensive

* Fast access to information

* Easy to learn and navigate

* A streamlined, safe introduction to the Internet

* Enhances productivity

CONS

* Still in development stage

* Some security issues

* Some groupware capabilities not yet available

Net Investment

Okay, you say, this intranet stuff sounds great–but what’s it gonna cost me?

Surprisingly, not as much as you might think. The hardware (computer server) and software add up to very little; a small company—one with a dozen salespeople, for example–could probably get set up for a few thousand dollars. Cadence Design Systems, a software-service company, spent $30,000 on hardware and software, and another $200,000 on consulting fees. Turner Broadcasting Corporation’s worldwide, 4,500-employee system ran about $500,000.

Considering the relatively small up-front cost, the payoff can be immense. Tim Herbert, Cadence’s director of worldwide sales operations, estimates that OnTrack, the company’s intranet system, saves Cadence $2 million each quarter. He credits this savings to the fact that it helps bring new salespeople quickly up to speed. “People ramp up about two months sooner than normal,” he says. That adds up when each rep is carrying $3 million in accounts. Moreover, reps constantly use the intranet to cull information on customers and prospects from Cadence’s daily news service.

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