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The Wall Street Journal: THE JOURNAL REPORT: TECHNOLOGY

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EXTRACT: At oil giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the main issue faced by intranet manager Andrew Fix was not that information was missing, but that there was simply too much of it. With more than 140,000 users, the things people needed to find had become scattered across too many separate sites and lost among all the duplicated or out-of-date information. Even something as simple as lists of preferred hotels for traveling executives became impossible to find.His solution was to centralize, consolidating the separate country sites into regional ones and then finally into a single global intranet using a single software program, Intranet Dashboard, provided by Adweb Agency Pty. Ltd. of Melbourne, Australia.

The initial consolidation of just the Asia-Pacific intranet reduced the amount of content to 20 sites and 30,000 pages from more than 1,000 sites and 212,000 pages. Duplicated and out-of-date material was weeded first by simply not allowing a mass migration of content from the old site to the new one. People in the various business units were required to repost what they wanted to transfer with the new software, which was easier to use. Then Mr. Fix made sure there was much more coordination between the site’s administrators, and he added processes for deleting old information, so that the sprawl didn’t start building up again.

“We saw savings of more than $1 million” for the Asia-Pacific effort, says Mr. Fix, “purely through less need for infrastructure and expensive IT resources.”

Shell has since replicated this model for the rest of its businesses, seeing additional benefits beyond dollars and cents — mainly, being able to find useful information more quickly.

THE ARTICLE

Dated and Confused
Corporate intranets should be invaluable
employee tools. Too bad they often aren’t.
By ANDREW BLACKMAN
May 14, 2007; Page R5

Like most new hires, Frank Braski had a lot of questions when he started his new job at insurance firm Aflac Inc. just over a year ago: how to set up voice mail, for example, how to request new software, what the company holidays were.

“My first instinct was to turn to the intranet,” says Mr. Braski, which only makes sense, since his job at Aflac is to manage the company intranet. But Mr. Braski’s searches often ended in frustration as he found that much of what he was looking for simply wasn’t in the system. “It was in someone’s head, or on a drive somewhere I didn’t have access to.”
 
Corporate intranets are often works in progress, but for all too many, the biggest problems are the same: A lot of information is not available, and much of what does exist is out of date and hard to find. Only 44% of 2,000 business users surveyed in 2005 by Forrester Research Inc., of Cambridge, Mass., said they could easily find what they were looking for on their intranet.

And in a survey of 1,000 middle managers of large companies in the U.S. and U.K. released by Bermuda-based Accenture Ltd. in January 2007, 59% said that they miss information that might be valuable to their jobs almost every day because it exists somewhere else in the company and they just cannot find it.

That’s why companies are now turning to a variety of new strategies for making the intranet more useful, from improving search functions and deleting old or duplicated content to using some of the social-networking tools now so popular on the Internet. Technology giants such as Microsoft Corp., International Business Machines Corp., BEA Systems Inc. and Google Inc. are bringing new software to market that promises to address the problems of traditional intranets.

What ties a lot of these disparate initiatives together is the idea of making it easier for people to use the intranet for their day-to-day tasks. As with public Web sites, building up a solid base of users who return to the site every day is important. Without that, it can be difficult to demonstrate the value of the site and therefore hard to get people to contribute to it.

“The value of any network is dependent on participation, on the numbers involved,” says David Gootzit, research director at Gartner Inc., of Stamford, Conn. “If you only have 100 people using it, you’re not going to get the business-transforming benefits.”

At Aflac, Mr. Braski addressed the problem of the missing information not by scouring the company for what he thought should be posted, but by making it easier for employees themselves to contribute. Using AquaLogic software from BEA of San Jose, Calif., people can upload information to the intranet without much technical knowledge.
 
Aflac employees use the intranet to post action items, or to-do lists, from meetings, for example, or to create lists of frequently asked questions about a particular project. Other uses can be as informal as posting items for sale, or as formal as departments sharing their targets for the year and performance data. Employees also use wikis — a kind of Web page which can be added to and edited by many different users — to share definitions and tips. One page is devoted to translating acronyms used at the Columbus, Ga., insurer.

“Some of it’s as simple as creating a table in Excel, saving it as a Web page and linking it to the portal,” says Mr. Braski. This, however, can make it difficult to monitor the look and feel of the site: “Sometimes you have to work a little on people’s aesthetics,” Mr. Braski says. “We’re working on a style sheet to get rid of some of the more garish things people put out there. In some respects it’s a bit of the Wild, Wild West.”

However, he says, it’s worth it because he and the 12 employees in his department could never keep up with everything that needed to be posted by the 4,800 Aflac employees. And he believes employees are more likely to be able to find things on the intranet if they’ve been able to organize the information in a way that makes sense to them.

Taming the Jungle

At oil giant Royal Dutch Shell PLC, the main issue faced by intranet manager Andrew Fix was not that information was missing, but that there was simply too much of it. With more than 140,000 users, the things people needed to find had become scattered across too many separate sites and lost among all the duplicated or out-of-date information. Even something as simple as lists of preferred hotels for traveling executives became impossible to find.

His solution was to centralize, consolidating the separate country sites into regional ones and then finally into a single global intranet using a single software program, Intranet Dashboard, provided by Adweb Agency Pty. Ltd. of Melbourne, Australia.

The initial consolidation of just the Asia-Pacific intranet reduced the amount of content to 20 sites and 30,000 pages from more than 1,000 sites and 212,000 pages. Duplicated and out-of-date material was weeded first by simply not allowing a mass migration of content from the old site to the new one. People in the various business units were required to repost what they wanted to transfer with the new software, which was easier to use. Then Mr. Fix made sure there was much more coordination between the site’s administrators, and he added processes for deleting old information, so that the sprawl didn’t start building up again.

“We saw savings of more than $1 million” for the Asia-Pacific effort, says Mr. Fix, “purely through less need for infrastructure and expensive IT resources.”

Shell has since replicated this model for the rest of its businesses, seeing additional benefits beyond dollars and cents — mainly, being able to find useful information more quickly.

Social Functions

The search function is a problem being addressed by many of the new software offerings. For example, when users of Microsoft’s intranet product, SharePoint Server 2007, type in a query, they receive not only a list of relevant documents and articles, but also a list of people who are experts on the subject. The people are presented in order of “social distance,” with people you’ve named as your colleagues appearing at the top, followed by your colleagues’ colleagues and finally everyone else.

The new offerings from Microsoft, IBM and others also incorporate “presence awareness” features. This means that when you come across a name on the intranet — for example, the author of a document, a contributor to a forum or a listed “expert” in a certain topic — an icon tells you that person’s availability: in the office or working from home, in a meeting, at lunch, on the phone and so on. You can view that person’s contact details or send him or her an email or instant message.

Google, meanwhile, is taking various bits of software long used by consumers and packaging them into a bundle meant to deliver intranet services. Google Apps includes a customizable home page, email accounts, the Internet-calling and instant-messaging product Google Talk, and the ability to work on word-processing documents and spreadsheets online and share them with other users.

The idea of collaboration is central to many of the new offerings, in some cases extending the traditional scope of an intranet. IBM’s Lotus Connections, for instance, which is due for general release next month, allows users to set up a special page on the intranet for a particular project, and then upload anything that is relevant to that project: word-processing documents, spreadsheets, presentations, emails and the like. They can then invite colleagues to visit the page, share the information and post their own comments.

For Jennifer Ahn, director of the Los Angeles-based nonprofit Film Foundation, the need for a collaborative work space was becoming critical. Her organization has spent the past few years creating a curriculum for schools to teach children about classic films. With dozens of people around the country working on producing hundreds of pages of material, traditional methods were increasingly unworkable.

“There were a lot of really large files being constantly emailed back and forth,” says Ms. Ahn. “Nobody quite knew which version we were working on. It started getting really confusing.” Delays ensued, deadlines slipped, and some of the 21,000 teachers who were waiting for the new curriculum units started to become impatient. After several years of working like this, says Ms. Ahn, “you don’t feel like you’re an active participant in a project anymore. All you’re ever really doing is searching for files.”

Earlier this year, the foundation started using a test version of Lotus Connections, and now Ms. Ahn says everyone is working from the same page. On conference calls, everyone can use the intranet site to access the same file and there’s no doubt which version is which. They can each work on the file and see when it was last modified and by whom. They can post their ideas in the activity space, instead of creating long email chains. When emails are sent, they can be easily recorded on the intranet so that they become part of the project. Files can be tagged so that they can be found later.

“It just makes collaborating a lot easier,” she says. “People now communicate with each other a lot more. And nobody can say, ‘Oh, I never got that file.’ ”

–Mr. Blackman is a writer living in London.

Write to Andrew Blackman at [email protected]

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