Had a good day at the intranet?

The days of inter-departmental memos, in-house newsletters and lists of staff vacancies are numbered. The paperless office is here, says Rachelle Thackray
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THE days of constantly updated bundles of internal phone numbers and hastily-trashed office newsletters are drawing to a close. In the vanguard of the newest technology is the company intranet: computer screens brimming with custom-made details of everything from share prices to the latest office gossip.

Getting rid of that office institution, the memo, is first on the hit- list of intranet aims, says Paul Pickup, whose research on their use in UK companies is released this week in a report, Intranets.

"It saves having to run around with photocopied lists and stick them up on the wall. British Telecom, one of the first to introduce an intranet, had their costs evaluated by an external IT consultancy. It was pounds 10m, but they also said the return on their investment would be 250 per cent. It means decreased publications and policy documents, and the general orientation of staff so that two people don't end up doing the same thing," says Mr Pickup.

Sounds great; but what exactly is an "intranet"? Isn't it just an offshoot of that great hydra, the Internet? "It's quite confusing for people who don't know technology too well. When people talk about intranets, they invariably mean the web-browsing parts, which enables people to go out and find information. You don't need Internet pages to tell employees what wonderful products you make, but intranets aid communications in disparate organisations," explains Mr Pickup. Companies can also use electronic mail on the intranet system.

He adds that before the British Council installed an intranet, employees had no recourse but to use the Internet to look up information from their own web-site.

His survey focused on eight companies, including the BBC and magazine giant IPC. While it was recently estimated that 60 per cent of the UK's top 500 companies were in the process of developing their own intranet systems, most are at a basic or pilot stage, Mr Pickup discovered. "It's like the fashion pages in a magazine: what they talk about bears little resemblance to what you see in the high street."

Nevertheless, when a system is up and running, it can be used for multiple functions. You can post the company newsletter and staff vacancy lists, provide a tailored press cuttings service (via Reuters, for example), and access specialist marketing and brand information, for starters.

Naturally, if companies create sites containing sensitive information, they need to build a sufficiently strong "firewall" to protect their intranet from interested outside parties, and should be methodical about installing a system. The first obstacle to overcome may be internal resistance to the idea - but Mr Pickup has some ideas for intranet enthusiasts.

"One thing I picked up on was that in quite a lot of cases, they tried to avoid arguing the business case because the hardware and software is quite cheap. Some said: 'We don't want to go to the board and say that we need pounds 10m', so they have sneaked it under the financial radar. The trouble is that you need to ensure that people use it, as compared to

other media, and to do that you need senior backing."

He argues: "Even if it does come under the financial radar, it forces the issue at the right level. Most senior executives will see the arguments for passing information around, particularly when half the employees are on the other side of the world: they can get their mission statements across a lot faster."

He cites the case of IPC, where a new chief executive was dismayed to find, on arrival, a slowness of internal communication. "The chief executive officer said: 'We have got to enable people to talk in an effective way', and asked the IT department to go away and look at an intranet system. He said: 'I want it up and running in nine months', so they outsourced it to BT and were able to get things moving very quickly."

Executives can also be won over, he discovered, by advantages such as tailored share price information. "It ensures that they use the intranet when they look to see how much their share option schemes are worth that day. One company was actually developing a share option evaluation scheme."

For companies tempted to set up an intranet on the cheap, he has a few words of caution. "A lot of the components cost nothing, and some companies have done it with very little money; you can use bits from the web. But for businesses, that doesn't make much sense, and you may have some maintenance problems. My advice is to go to an organisation that is able to give you more than just technical support."

Those who have already set up intranets are already reaping the benefits of a comprehensive, integrated system - as long as they can cajole their employees into using it properly.

Grace Tasker of the Industrial Society, which commissioned the survey, says: "The intranet was a big investment risk for us, but it has quickly turned into a major success story, already saving thousands of pounds just by more efficient, paperless messaging and reports."

Mr Pickup, who is presently managing the conversion from manual to electronic trading at the Oslo stock exchange, predicts that once big companies take the idea of the intranet on board, others will follow suit. "Companies which have them established are large on the whole, and technically innovative. I think over the years, the knowledge of how to use it and improve it will increase, and smaller companies will take the initiative. It's great for being able to get information to the masses."

'Intranets - Best Practice in Planning, Implementation and Use', by Paul Pickup, is published by the Industrial Society at pounds 85, and is available from 0121 410 3040.