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Implementing and Managing Intranets
Gary Herman, October 1996
This report is a version of one originally published as an NCC Guideline for IT Management.

Keywords for this document: CORPORATE STRATEGY, INFORMATION SYSTEMS, INTERNET, INTRANET, NETWORKS, WORLD WIDE WEB


1. Management Summary

Most of the commentary on intranets has focused on narrow technological considerations - the necessary infrastructure, suitable networking technologies, the role of groupware, and the development of ‘middleware’ to allow intranets to support conventional business applications, typically involving database access. In fact, these issues present few difficulties for those wishing to implement intranets, particularly since intranet provision is increasingly offered as a managed network service by Internet Service Providers. The fundamental issues for management relate to the content and administration of intranets.

As an extremely powerful and versatile medium for distributing information within an enterprise and for receiving and transmitting information using the Internet, intranets pose a number of problems relating to the nature of the information they carry, the responsibility for creating and retrieving information, and the control of the channels of communication.

The first things that management needs to do are:

 identify who will be responsible for the management and maintenance of an intranet
 establish standards for content creation, quality and acceptable use
 decide on the relationships that individuals and groups of users will have to the intranet in terms of security policies, access control and network utilisation
 devise mappings between organizational priorities and organizational structures and the logical and directory structures of the intranet

Once these things have been done, the specification of infrastructure, protocols, applications, middleware standards, approaches to network management, and content control will follow. The creation of the intranet itself will then depend on developing an enterprise view of how the system will best serve corporate goals. This view can be translated into a model of the intranet itself and its management structure.


2. Introduction

The latest technological development to grip the collective imagination of the IT world is intranets - defined as internal, corporate networks using the same basic architecture, protocols, and applications as the Internet. Specifically, intranets use the applications that have developed around the world wide web and offer seamless integration between corporate networks and the Internet itself.

1) Standards
The standards involved are typically:

 the Internet Protocol Suite (IPS) at the infrastructural level
 web server and browser technology for the communication, retrieval and display of data
 HTML (the hypertext mark-up language) for content creation

Other technologies which are increasingly important are:

 Common Gateway Interface (CGI) scripting
 Java or similar network programming languages (for example, Microsoft ActiveX)
 GIF and JPG image file formats
 Sound and video formats such as those developed for packages like RealAudio and Macromedia

2) Market size
As ever, market research estimates vary wildly, but suggest that the vast majority of larger companies are in the process of introducing intranets or have already done so. The US-based Forrester Research estimates that the intranet server business will be worth $1 billion by the year 2000, with growth outpacing the growth of the Internet by 25 per cent. Zona Research, also in the US, puts sales of intranet server software at $4 billion by 1997 - an eightfold increase since 1995 - rising to $8 billion by 1998. Forrester also claims that around 16 per cent of the largest US companies already have an intranet in place with 50 per cent in the early stages of planning. Another market research company, the Gartner Group, claimed in 1995 that more than 50 per cent of large companies will have ‘enterprise-wide webs’ by 1998.

3) Issues
Most of the comments on intranets in the press and emerging from vendors have concentrated on technical infrastructure and, to a lesser extent, the idea of the intranet as a corporate publishing medium. These involve well-established considerations of systems integration and network administration in relation to infrastructure, and technical authoring and marketing in relation to publishing. The focus has largely been on the generation of content and the relative merits of different infrastructures and applications. Issues connected with organizational impact and the on-going tasks of managing and maintaining the content of an intranet have been largely ignored.

This Guideline concentrates on issues relating to content and management, and explores the conditions for the successful implementation and administration of intranets and corporate messaging systems.


3. Corporate Messaging

The development of corporate messaging has been accompanied by a tendency towards delayering and the disintermediation of enterprises. The result has been an increased reliance on corporate messaging because of its inherent efficiencies. But this ‘spiral of dependency’ can create problems.

1) Organization equals information
We increasingly characterise organizations by their information flows, so that an enterprise can be seen as a collection of communication channels. In the traditional model of an enterprise, information flows up a hierarchy towards top management and decisions - another form of information, of course - flow down. The enterprise supplies services, processes or products as a result of these information flows and IT achieves a well-deserved place as the blood and bones of the endeavour. But IT itself opens channels and facilitates information flow, creating a newer, flatter organization with information and decisions often flowing across the enterprise, thanks largely to the introduction of networking and coporate messaging systems.

2) The need for a gatekeeping function
The downside is that corporate messaging and e-mail multiply the opportunities for communication to such an extent that useful messages may be overwhelmed and lost amid a welter of inappropriate or unwanted information - in another word, 'noise'.

Admittedly, e-mail may make communication more efficient by replacing, where appropriate, time-consuming, inconvenient, and frequently unproductive face-to-face meetings - but it can also waste time by allowing or encouraging people to send unimportant or non-urgent messages. It seems to be a human characteristic that the possibility of communication demands an outlet in acts of communication - hence, the large number of pointless phone calls made by mobile phone users.

Needless to say, it is an iron law of organizations that at least 50 per cent of the information anyone within them receives is irrelevant to the purposes of the organization, trivial, or simply ignored. This is not to say that all information must be overtly functional, since the social relationships within an organization are frequently as important as the operational relationships, but it is to say that organizational efficiency demands the management of information flow, and therefore the management of corporate messaging and the networks that facilitate it. The flatter enterprise and the e-mailed enabled enterprise need gatekeepers to control information flows.


4. Introducing Intranets

Intranets exacerbate the problems inherent in the growth of messaging, for three reasons:

 they allow e-mail and internal messaging to coexist with access to the textual and graphical riches of the wider Internet
 they allow internal users to adopt the new technologies of the World Wide Web and therefore implicitly increase the need for network bandwidth and processing power
 they encourage the shift towards client-side processing, therefor making network management a more complex task

1) Intranets and the Internet
It is, of course, unlikely that any organization would tolerate an intranet which gave uncontrolled and unlimited access to the Internet - at the very least, the probable result would be an unacceptable increase in traffic on the corporate network. On the other hand, it would defeat one of the main purposes of an intranet to preclude any and all access to the Internet.

In practice, organizations will firewall their intranets, allowing the network administrator to control incoming information according to resource type, IP address, or domain name, and to restrict access, if required, to specific users. In this way, not only can traffic volumes be managed, but also the type of traffic can be controlled to a degree.

2) The Internet and organizational communications
No matter how rigorously the intranet is firewalled, its very introduction will undoubtedly increase internal information flows - that is, in a real sense, the only purpose of an intranet. With the uptake of the Internet, organizational communications grow alarmingly:

 users want to access external resources on the Internet
 organizations want to use the Internet to capture information from or about customers
 users exchange information retrieved from outside the organization with other users within the organization
 the volume of e-mail increases with the number of users and their accessibility

These are among the most important reasons why an organization may introduce an intranet in the first place. Despite this, few people seem to plan this introduction with sufficient attention to the need to control information flows.


5. Intranets, Operations and Corporate Strategy

Like many of its predecessors in the ranks of technological fashion items - client/server architecture, the network computer, and data warehousing, for example - the popularity of intranets is largely due to the fact that the technology presents itself as a solution to that perennial problem of the IT professional: how to close the gap between IT and corporate strategy.

If information flows make an organization, so the argument goes, corporate strategy might be reducible to a strategy for the implementation and use of technologies which facilitate such traffic. Interestingly - and unlike other modish technologies - there is very little difference of opinion about the nature of intranets, although we will undoubtedly see an increasing number of proprietary products emerge which will embody similar functionality to intranets and will style themselves ‘intranets’ or ‘intranet enabled’. The big issue revolves around the precise difference between intranets and groupware. This increasingly looks like a metaphysical debate, particularly since groupware vendors are adding intranet functionality and intranet vendors are adding groupware functionality to their respective products.

1) Intranet versus groupware
In the simmering applications war between Lotus Notes and intranet technology, the Notes’ partisans universally argue that ‘Notes is an intranet’ essentially because it is possible to use a world wide web browser with Notes. In fact, the two technologies are differently focused although potentially complementary. Notes is classic groupware - a product designed to facilitate the management of data, documents, and document-centred transactions within a distributed environment - while intranets are focused on less formal communication and the distribution of relatively unstructured information.

Typically, one would use Notes or other groupware for a specific, well-defined application, and an intranet to provide a loose structure to stimulate the creative use of corporate communications and the diffusion of knowledge. Notes is like a board meeting, an intranet is like a cocktail party. A Notes application, like the meeting, obeys strict rules and produces precise types of results. An intranet application, like the party, must allow for accidental encounters and unpredictable outcomes. Accordingly, the application development tools associated with Notes are tightly integrated with the product itself and appear to be more highly developed than those associated with intranets, which are typically generic, open, and unfocused.

Most intranet applications are indeed strategic, in the sense that they are about supporting general organizational processes within the context of increasingly distributed decision-making. Intranets are not typically implemented to support particular operations, although they can often be used in this way. The exception proves the rule: Federal Express reckon to save $2 billion a year thanks to an intranet which allows employees and customers to track the progress of packages towards their destinations. The FedEx intranet involves more than 50 internal web sites as well as the company’s public web site.

2) Reasons to adopt an intranet
Exceptions like FedEx apart, there are three common reasons why organizations might adopt the intranet approach, and these serve to define the concept:

 intranets allow easy integration of internal and external e-mail
 intranets allow the use of simple, powerful and cheap software tools and technologies for storing, retrieving, communicating, and processing corporate information resources
 intranets allow easy access to the substantial resources of the wider Internet - in particular, material published on the world wide web

Any network which displays these three characteristics can safely be described as an intranet. In fact, technological distinctions are generally less important than the management issues surrounding the introduction and use of intranets, which are the same regardless of the exact nature of the intranet.


6. Intranets or Virtual Private Internets

One technological distinction that ought to be considered from the outset is between the implementation of an internal intranet using a private server linked directly (or through a firewall) to the Internet, or a virtual private internet (VPI) utilising a corporate network infrastructure but hosted by an external service provider, possibly using an on-site server. An increasing number of service providers, including UUNet (UUNet Pipex in the UK), Infonet, MCI, AT&T, Sprint and a number of cable companies, are offering managed internet services which appear to the user to be intranets with internet links, typically using an inexpensive router attached to a corporate LAN to create secure closed user groups.

1) Benefits of VPI
a) Easier access to the Internet
The main advantages of the VPI arrangement are that it simplifies Internet access and means that the company can avoid the administrative chores and costs incurred in setting-up their own Internet connection.

b) More secure and efficient access to the Internet
There is no particular advantage when an intranet is intended to be predominantly internal, and VPI vendors tend to stress external features in their promotional material - notably, security, response times, and bandwidth - which present no particular problems within a closed group using technologies such as high-speed Ethernet, LAN switching or frame relay.

c) Cheaper access to the Internet
Cost may also be a factor when considering VPI against the use of dial-up lines to link an intranet into the Internet. US telecommunications operator Sprint calculates that businesses spend around $8 an hour running dial-up lines and modem pools, while they can offer access through a VPI at around $3 an hour. This is not an issue where external traffic volume is likely to be great enough to justify the cost of a leased line, although companies intending to use Web sites to carry customer-focused applications and transaction processing services might consider effectively outsourcing the whole operation - intranet and all - to a carrier or service provider operating a VPI under a tight service level agreement.


7. What Does Managing Mean?

Managing intranets and corporate messaging systems is not network management as the phrase is normally understood. Although the tasks associated with conventional network management are still essential, the management of messaging systems in general, and intranets in particular, is in many ways a new discipline. Most applications display clear characteristics:

 they have identifiable users
 they are designed to accomplish finite tasks
 they fit into job schedules or run on standalone systems

Messaging systems - which include everything from simple e-mail to complex workflow programmes - are by definition distributed. They are at the interface between an organization and a network, involving important aspects of both. As such, they display an entirely different set of characteristics from those associated with conventional applications:

 they have no fixed group of users
 they do not relate to a particular task, but allow interactions to take place between users engaged in a range of tasks
 they involve a dynamic and often unpredictable pattern of use which requires supervision and may demand intervention

Managing a messaging system can be seen as an extension of conventional network management, covering areas variously described as:

 the security and consistency of communications
 the confidentiality and relevance of messages
 accessibility and integrity of information

But these areas are properly the concerns of organizational management and accordingly are similar to those associated with the general management of information systems. In fact, the best model we have for this kind of management is IT security policy which is similarly concerned with the generalised ability of an information system to serve corporate purposes.


8. Managing a Messaging System

1) Security policy and messaging
It is worth recapitulating the goals of security policy, since they ultimately address the same critical issue as managing a messaging system: how do we ensure that useful information keeps flowing within an enterprise.

The UK Department of Trade and Industry's security evaluation criteria, first issued in 1989, established the so-called ‘CIA model’ as the most widely accepted definition of system security. CIA identifies security policy in terms of the preservation of confidentiality, integrity, and availability - these being the three fundamental characteristics of any usable information system.

The three elements of the model are defined as follows:

 confidentiality: ‘the prevention of the unauthorised disclosure of information’
 integrity: ‘the prevention of the unauthorised amendment or deletion of information’
 availability: ‘the prevention of the unauthorised withholding of information or resources’

These three elements can be considered in other terms:

 confidentiality means that the right information is accessible to the right person (and no other), which is as central to e-mail as it is to company trading figures
 integrity means that the right information is right everywhere in the system - in messaging terms, that information is not distorted nor deleted in its passage from sender to receiver or, indeed, receivers. This is equally important to e-mail as to database records.
 availability means that the right information is accessible when required to whoever legitimately requires it. For a messaging system, this is simply to say that a message can be read by whoever it is intended for whenever they wish to read it

2) The concerns of intranet management
While apparently simple, the three ‘CIA’ elements - interpreted as requirements of a messaging system - have a great many ramifications in terms of system performance, storage, the routeing of messages, authorisation levels and procedures, the sharing of information, message authentication, and the consistency, quality and value of information on the system. These things are the necessary concerns of intranet management.

In practice, management tasks might include:

 implementing an adequate technological infrastructure
 creating directories and navigational tools so that information may be requested, sent and received with maximum efficiency
 ensuring that information stored on the system is correct, consistent, useful and regularly updated


9. Infrastructure and Content

1) Management areas
It is clear from the tasks listed above that there are three broad areas of intranets that require management:

a) Technical
This covers the procurement and maintenance of the infrastructure, hardware, and software necessary to support the operation of the intranet.

b) Content
This covers the supervision of content (both internally generated and imported), the establishment - wherever appropriate - of formats, policies, and rules of house style for the creation of web pages, the specification of standards for browsers, HTML and so on, and the development of tools for format conversion, database interfacing, and the use of special features such as reports, clickable maps, CGI scripted forms, Java/ActiveX and Javascript.

c) Administration
This covers the specification and supervision of roles, procedures, and policies addressing the day-to-day running of the intranet - including, for example, the implementation of systems for validating and updating corporate pages, the formulation and implementation of security systems, firewalling strategies, and the operation of user support.

As we’ve already noted, infrastructure management is a well-established discipline. Intranets make no particular or unusual demands in this area regardless of the type of organization they serve. On the other hand, the tasks of content management and administration are newer and less well-understood than infrastructure management.

2) The centrality of content management
Content management, in particular, is critical to the successful use of intranets. It would offer few problems in organizations whose activities were restricted in scope or complexity, where content did not have to change too often, and information and operational data were collected and managed centrally.

Unfortunately, organizations today are less and less like that - on the contrary, they are characterised by a growing need for operational flexibility and versatility, a demand to process large amounts of volatile information gleaned from a wide range of sources, distributed decision-making, and a requirement for the frequent updating of management, employees, and customers. Conventional information management processes within organizations focusing on paper-based systems or file-servers cannot cope with these new conditions and, while intranets address these conditions, content management remains an ill-understood and poorly-exercised discipline.


10. Intranet Content

Content on an intranet can be classified in at least two useful ways - by its function within the enterprise, and by its function within the intranet.

1) Classification by enterprise function
There are three types of content which can be classified according to a broad role within the enterprise. Interestingly, in many ways this classification reflects the structure of the enterprise.

a) Formal
Formal content means official information, for example:

 corporate manuals
 newsletters
 press releases
 discipline codes
 pay scales
 time sheets
 interoffice or interdepartmental memos
 staff announcements

It is usually produced as a result of a formal review and/or approval mechanism to ensure accuracy, currency, and consistency, and may incorporate feedback mechanisms. Formal content is the main concern of general management, and is usually (but not always) openly available to staff or staff and members of the public. It should be listed in web site directories and made accessible to search tools. It will be write-protected. This sort of content may also be communicated using non-subscription mailing lists or read-only bulletin boards.

b) Group
Group content covers information generated by and directed to members of a specific group, often associated with a particular project or programme of activities. This type of content is used:

 to coordinate activities
 to share ideas
 as a type of drafting process designed to generate formal content

Access is typically restricted and pages containing this content may be password protected. Group content is not listed in web site directories and would not usually be available to search tools. It is unlikely to be write-protected, security being ensured by the complete identification of users with access rights to the content. This sort of content may also be communicated using subscription mailing lists or password protected read/write bulletin boards and threaded-mail discussion groups.

c) Informal
Informal content covers:

 personal web pages
 notes
 work-in-progress
 approaches to the development of new ideas and concepts

It is a means to encourage collaboration as well as a way of allowing users a modicum of self-expression. The resources dedicated to this type of content should be strictly controlled, although the content itself should be at the discretion of the users (within the limits of legality and decency). The content will be write-protected but probably not listed in directories or available to search tools. If users wish to communicate this content, they can publicise their URLs by e-mail. In fact, this sort of content is often communicated by ordinary e-mail.

2) Classification by intranet function
The mention of directories and search tools indicates that information on an intranet may also be divided into content and navigational aids. Some commentators talk about content pages and broker pages - the first containing information which may be thought of as having end or exchange value, while the second contains information which is of value only in finding the first kind of information. To avoid confusion (since broker pages are never content free), we shall refer to ‘destination’ and ‘direction’ pages.

a) Destination pages
Destination pages can contain static information or dynamic links or interfaces to other information sources. For example, a destination page may contain a ‘standalone’ document, or information imported from a database, a bulletin board, via a Java programme, or an audio or video feed. Web applications are increasing the multimedia component of destination pages. They may already be rich in hypertext links. These features increase the demand for bandwidth in an intranet.

b) Direction pages
Direction pages are, from the management point-of-view, the most important pages on an intranet, since they effectively control the way in which information is retrieved and distributed. There are two broad types of direction page:

i) Link pages
Direction pages may comprise nothing but hypertext links to other pages or web sites. In these cases (sometimes referred to as ‘index pages’), the pages should be targeted at a specific audience or area of interest: C programmers, potential customers, New Zealand, marketing. The page should have some short description of its purpose and the links, and the links will need to be regularly and frequently tested, updated, and added to. If the page is a guide to the formal content on the site, updating should not be a difficult problem. If it is a guide to external content, updating may take more time and effort. Link pages may also use visual aids (for example, a clickable map of the organization which includes hypertext links to relevant sections of the site).

ii) Search pages
A second type of direction page uses search tools which allow users to specify what they are looking for - a file name or a word or expression, for example - in a database field. The search tool then finds and retrieves URLs fitting the file name or including the word or expression. Typically, these URLs will be returned as hypertext links, allowing the user to call up the relevant pages immediately. Thus a search tool generates a hypertext link page, whose value is dependent on the skill with which the search enquiry has been formulated.

Search pages may be general - to all intents and purposes, allowing the user to search the whole of the Internet - or they may be site-specific - allowing the user to search only the particular web site that hosts them. They are particularly valuable where users are looking for a specific reference or piece of information. Link pages, on the other hand, are valuable when users are looking for whatever information is available within a particular field. It is, of course, possible to combine search tools and hypertext links on the same page (and indeed to include information with ‘end value’ as well).

General search tools are inefficient ways of finding information. Even the use of intelligent agents and similar tools to look for and retrieve types of information cannot cope with the growth and richness of the Internet. Site-specific tools are likely to increase in importance for expanding sites and intranets, but a well-maintained and tested link page is often the most useful navigation tool for users with specific requirements from their intranet - particularly, corporate users.


11. Content Management

Content management of intranets increasingly focuses on the tasks associated with web page design, updating and maintenance. Five roles are commonly identified. These are not mutually exclusive and may be shared among fewer than five individuals (or, indeed, more). All the individuals concerned in managing the intranet - and component parts of it - should meet regularly and maintain routine e-mail contact with each other:

 webmaster
 administrator
 publisher
 editor
 author


1) Webmaster
Webmasters are responsible for the technical infrastructure. Their role may be considered complementary to that of a network manager. They will be concerned with domain name registration, the installation of web servers or the drafting of contracts with service providers, performance monitoring, and the implementation of special scripts and interfaces, including security features, database access, and e-mail interfaces.

2) Administrator
Adminstrators are responsible for the content management processes and policies and for developing and maintaining broker pages on the site and directories or other navigation aids off-site. They are also responsible for specifying firewalls and developing security startegies, and for enforcing policies and procedures relating to group and informal content. Their responsibility extends to the management of e-mail, mailing lists, and other forms of messaging.

3) Publisher
Publishers are responsible for the formal content of the intranet. There are likely to be a number of publishers in any enterprise, each representing one department or business unit. They may, in turn, chair an ‘editorial board’ within their departments or units. The task of these boards is to identify and approve formal content.

4) Editor
Editors are responsible for the creation and maintenance of content associated with individual ‘sections’ of the intranet. For example, an editor may be attached to a project and be responsible for the management of group content, or they may represent a specific corporate function, or product range. They might be compared to marketing executives, focusing on specific activities and campaigns and directly responsible for content creation and updating.

5) Author
Last but not least are the authors who actually create the content. Never underestimate their importance.


12. The Logical Structure of the Intranet

It may be useful to regard an intranet as a distributed web site. A user from outside an organization who accesses that organization’s intranet would simply see a web site with a home page and links to a range of different pages and Internet resources, possibly including news groups, databases and e-mail function`s. There may be some areas of the site which are password protected, and are therefore unavailable to the outside user, and other areas which are not linked to any other areas, but which are available if the URL is known. To all intents and purposes, however, the intranet will appear to be a single web site. The internal user will have the same experience, regardless of the fact that they know they are operating on a network.

That being the case, the logical structure of an intranet may be considered identical to the logical structure of a web site. The popular view is that the logical structure of a web site should in some sense mirror the structure of the organization. This may be, for example:

 a structure of accountability similar to a conventional organization chart
 an activity-oriented structure similar to a management matrix
 a structure reflecting actual information flows

1) Organizational structure and priorities
To a large extent, the structure of an intranet will reflect the priorities of the organization. If these happen to emphasise customer service, for example, the intranet may be based on a hierarchical model with customer communications at the summit.

If the organization prioritises management reporting, the intranet may be structured with a corporate vision at the summit linked to information relating to descending strata of responsibilities.

2) The home page
The home page is always a direction page acting as a map or guide to subsidiary strata - whether these relate to the departments, business units or divisions of the organization, with links to departmental, line of business or divisional home pages, or, for example, to the stages in a supply chain with links to product development home pages, pages giving access to inventory data, or pages carrying supplier information and even order forms.

3) Hybrid structures and many home pages
There may, of course, be ‘hybrid’intranets offering a number of different ‘views’ of an organization. Inevitably, some pages carried on an intranet will be open to the public and others will be confidential.

Particular pages may allow access to the wider Internet through link or search tool direction elements. Others will incorporate e-mail services and interfaces or gateways to corporate databases and bulletin board systems. The administrator is responsible for the enterprise home page and other direction pages and interfaces, while publishers take care of departmental or other lower level home pages and editors look after the pages linked to these.

For example, a company intranet may feature a home page linked to pages belonging to human resources management, marketing, the IT department, product development, R&D, goods inward, goods outward, the accounts department, and so on. Some pages may relate to particular products or services and some to interdepartmental projects.

Some of these pages will be shielded from the public and will not be linked, others will be linked and may appear to be a self-contained site in their own right - a virtual web site within the intranet. The marketing department’s home page may include links to pages containing press releases (current and archived), product information, an e-mail enquiry mechanism, or a customer-satisfaction form. Other departmental home pages will include links to similar clusters of thematic pages for internal or external access.

4) Responsibility for the whole intranet
Just who (or what department) is responsible for the whole intranet may prove problematic - there is frequent argument concerning web sites between IT departments, marketing or communications departments, and R&D departments.

 The organizational model used in developing the intranet will suggest a responsible individual or department, but that may not be enough to allay the territorial suspicions of others. In the end, the intranet may be important enough to be the ultimate responsibility of a chief executive’s office, and this is a critical issue.

5) Day-to-day management
The structure of the intranet itself allows a natural hierarchy to be devised which should facilitate day-to-day management, routine maintenance and any major overhauls due, for example, to corporate restructuring. Informal content can generally be relied on to look after itself, if sufficiently precise guidelines are first established as to what is allowable within this area of the intranet.


13. The Directory Structure of an Intranet

The logical structure of the intranet corresponds a directory structure which should, as far as possible, preserve the relationships between pages seen by the user.

1) Location independence
However, the single most important aspect of intranets is that they allow the seamless linking of documents and files regardless of their physical location - in other words, files can be stored anywhere on the intranet or indeed further afield with no discernible performance degradation, and there is a great temptation to put them wherever they happen to fall, which is usually all in the same directory.

2) Grouping files together
Administration and management are simplified by keeping related files together as far as possible and differentiating them from other groups of files, and intranets are likely to involve the dispersion of files around a network. Under such circumstances, it may be considered important to impose a structure on groups of files. Project-related content, for example, might all be kept in a single directory or even on a separate machine on the network.

Many web sites keep different types of file in different directories - all images in one directory, all word-processed documents in another. This has the advantage of simplifying the uploading and retrieval of files, but it makes HTML authoring more complex and may degrade intranet performance and increase traffic on the network.

 it is important to balance the need to keep track of files with the need for links which are as simple and as short as possible

3) Keeping it simple
It is important to ensure that directory structures and logical (or page) structures preserve as far as possible selected organizational relationships, but the single most important rule in intranet design and management is ‘keep it simple’:

 nothing degrades performance or adds less to the utility of an intranet than megabyte graphics files with no real content
 nothing frustrates users more than having to progress down a long ladder of stages from one list of links to another list of links to yet another list of links - and so on - before reaching real content


14. Informal Content

By definition, informal content has no place in the planned page structure of the intranet. Informal content occupies a space outside that structure.

Of course, it does not exist outside of directory structures and the physical storage space of an intranet, and accordingly must be limited in some way so as to avoid a situation in which it uncontrolled content grows to dominate the intranet. The adminstrator might require informal content to be registered and given a fixed and relatively small amount of storage space allocated to clearly defined directories.

In cases where informal content might attract a great deal of interest, the supervision of the adminstrator may serve to encourage the incorporation of such content into the formal model. This may be important for ‘popular’ pages for two reasons:

 the formal model involves direction pages which can help users find the popular pages
 the formal model enforces a maintenance regime to ensure the currency and validity of content


15. The Future

To date, intranets have been largely concerned with the presentation of content in a dynamically unstructured way. In other words, groupware features such as routeing, tracking, sign-off, and the ability to append comments to a message have been absent or difficult to implement. But intranets have always supported functions like e-mail and access to news groups, and a growing number of tools are now being introduced which integrate groupware features into web products.

Web technology is also increasingly able to support database access, in two ways:

 through CGI-scripts or languages like Java which implement SQL or other querying schema on the web server
 through database tools which convert data into hypertext web pages allowing web browsers to access it

Browser-based data access combined with server querying may, in time, prove a very powerful combination for incorporating databases into intranet technology.


16. Conclusion

Intranet management - specifically with regard to content - has been largely ignored in the understandable wave of enthusiasm which has greeted the idea that web tools and the Internet infrastructure can be used to support a new approach of corporate communications, based on the idea that information flows are effectively what defines an organization.

In fact, there are a number of different ways in which information can be seen to flow within an organization and organizational priorities will largely determine the way in which an intranet is designed and managed. The chief characteristic of intranets is their flexibility, which appears to allow them to meet the needs of corporate strategy whatever those needs might be.

In particular, intranets do not display the rigid structure of enclosed e-mail and messaging systems, but allow communications to adapt easily to the requirements of rapidly changing organizations.

Yet the very versatility of intranet technology implies that there is a real need for management vision and discipline in controlling and coordinating content and the patterns of communication.

Sunday, September 09 2001

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