Reasons for the Low Profile of Intranets
There are two basic reasons we do not hear more about intranets and their potential benefits for individuals and organizations. The first derives strictly from terminology: the term “intranet,” though both accurate and descriptive, is ill-chosen in that it is extremely difficult to distinguish from “Internet” when spoken, and almost equally difficult when written. The second is that, because of their inherently private nature, the myriad organizational intranets presently in operation are “invisible” to the world at large, and, unlike “dot-coms,” their successes and failures are seldom widely known.
Features Specific to Intranets
The usual goal in establishing an intranet is to improve communications and efficiency within an organization by linking up computers. For this reason, though frequently basically a private Web site, an intranet typically provides some features not found on familiar public Web sites. Falling under the categories of groupware, workflow, and collaboration software, these features generally include an organization's internal notices and documents for reference, a repository for electronic documents in preparation and a way of uploading draft versions to a server, probably some sort of calendar for use in scheduling meetings, and perhaps a communications mechanism such as an electronic forum for internal discussions. High-level managers may have custom pages accessible only to them providing immediate reference to critical documents such as disaster plans (the importance of which has been highlighted by recent terrorist incidents) and sensitive financial information.
Pros and Cons of Intranets
A major advantage of an intranet is that it can increase productivity by providing quick, easy access to voluminous internal documents, even when several different types of computers are in use within an organization. As Bigus and Bigus (1998) express it in the lexicon of information technology, “Intranets allow a wide variety of client computers to connect to centralized servers, without the cost and complexity of developing client/server applications.” According to an article in July 20, 1998, issue of The Wall Street Journal, the most significant returns from intranets may lie in increased efficiency. Mike James, a vice president at Federal Express, is quoted as observing with regard to corporate investment in Web sites at that time, “...cost savings is where all the immediate return on investment is.” Another advantage is that, because the technology is basically the same as that of a publicly-accessible Web site, an organization can leverage on experience gained in setting up and operating its Web site in creating an intranet. In fact, as a quick glance at Bremner and Servati (1997), or Hinrichs (1997) will confirm, setting up an intranet would be daunting indeed if an organization did not already have a Web site to leverage on.
A corresponding disadvantage is that greater attention must be paid to the intricacies of computer security than with a public Web site, which can be set up on a separate computer. A further disadvantage is that mechanisms must be established to keep information current if it is to be of maximum value. Although an intranet can be set up as a Web site, it can also be enhanced with custom computer programs, especially to provide access to legacy database systems, as described in Ablan (1996).
Proprietary Alternatives to Intranets
The functionality of an intranet can also be provided satisfactorily by a proprietary system such as Lotus Notes (see Sinclair and Hale, 1997) or Microsoft Exchange, but the trend seems to be away from strictly proprietary systems of this nature, perhaps because they typically require that all users have computers of the same general type.
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