Blogger: Larry Cannell
While keeping the driveway clear of snow and battling slippery roads to finish some last minute holiday shopping I’ve also been thinking about a report I am working on (to be published in the February/March time frame). The topic is intranets and the role they play in an enterprise. It seems to me the intranet is something many of us take for granted but its importance has changed dramatically over the 10-15 years they have been around.
Most definitions of intranets describe intranets in terms of technology. For example, the Wikipedia entry for intranet starts out this way:
An intranet is a private computer network….
In my opinion, saying intranets are just technology is similar to Henry Ford saying “Any customer can have a car painted any colour he wants so long as it is black.” At the time Ford said this he was only looking at cars as technology, but they mean so much more to us. Perhaps our prevailing view of intranets is as mature as cars were in 1909 (when Ford said this).
We discount the importance of intranets because, at one time, they were simply a bunch of technologies. They were pieces of infrastructure. Just deploy a few intranet technologies (like maybe a portal, a web content management system, or even collaborative workspaces), similar to how we might install a router, and they will simply pay for themselves.
This is where we got it wrong. In my opinion, intranets should not be treated as infrastructure. They should be treated like a suite of applications which support the most important processes used within the enterprises. Intranets support how we work online, and this is something we all should feel strongly about since it impacts our personal and organizational effectiveness more than any other set of tools we use.
When NCSA launched Mosaic browser in 1993 it was a rudimentary client, just good enough to get us thinking about the potential of an interconnected web. A couple of years later the Apache web server project was born out of another NCSA project and we were off making websites and demonstrating how easy it is to connect everyone to the same information.
Also taking place in the late 1990s was the rise in use of client/server e-mail systems, like Microsoft Exchange (version 5.0 was released in 1997). In many cases, Microsoft Exchange or Lotus Notes became the standard e-mail system providing the first reliable peer to peer enterprise communication system.
Deploying these e-mail systems was fairly straightforward and success soon followed since most everyone already knew, or were quickly learning, how to send and receive e-mail. The first experiments in using the web were similarly, although more narrowly, successful. These private applications of popular Internet technologies demonstrated to us that this stuff worked.
However, for many enterprises these early successes came from the IT infrastructure group. This may be the source of the problems we have today, with intranets that don’t seem to add any value (other than being technologies which connect our office computers to the Internet). Since these efforts grew out of IT infrastructure groups many of our intranet efforts stayed within them and were also considered IT infrastructure.
I’m not blaming IT infrastructure groups (I worked in one for ten years). But, intranets should no longer be treated as infrastructure. Infrastructure is technology that is well understood and could be considered a commodity (paint it black, who cares?). Intranet technologies are far from commodities. E-mail, yes, might be considered a commodity. But, for example, the use of collaborative workspaces is still quite immature and not at all close to being commoditized.
Rather, intranets should be treated as a portfolio of applications that are owned and funded by an organization and has a roadmap for improvements based on real, documented needs. Intranet technologies are used by people and understanding how people work is a touchy-feely sort of thing that infrastructure groups aren’t good at doing (for that matter, it’s one reason why some people work in an infrastructure group, to get away from the touchy-feely).
What do you think? Are intranets infrastructure or applications?