Internet gives documents a new dimension

It is such a natural that, under Al Gore’s National Performance Review and, later,
Access America initiative, the Net became more than popular; it became policy. The
government has decided to use the Internet as its preferred distribution channel. Beyond
the Internet, agencies have widely adopted Internet technical standards as their own.

Forms and paper haven’t disappeared. Recipients merely print them
locally—that is, when agencies haven’t yet developed applications to gather
information with online forms. Either way, agencies still deal in documents, albeit
electronic ones. That in itself is nothing new.

What is new is the nature of electronic documents themselves—they are online,
subject to near-instant updates, easily coupled with legacy data and interactive. The
Internet has changed electronic documents from mere analogs of paper documents to
something new and different.

If we continue to think of documents as we have since the printing press was invented,
we limit our potential to re-engineer information distribution processes and the programs
the processes support. The Internet brings government an unprecedented level of presence
while cutting distribution time and costs.

If the norms of the Internet are new and different, so too are the suppliers the
agencies will use to exploit it.

A community of small companies has sprung up around the Internet. Such companies take
software tools, even whole applications, developed by established software
companies—Sun Microsystems Inc., Microsoft Corp., Oracle Corp. and Netscape
Communications Corp. to name a few—and apply them in new, Net-savvy ways. The
small companies re-engineer traditional processes to take advantage of the Internet.

Re-engineered processes no longer face the limitations of forms design. They enable
agencies to deal at the transaction level at near real time. The new vendors’ focus
is business improvement. Forms design may continue to be a necessary practice for some,
but for most, business transactions will operate interactively, one data element at a

You might have expected such applications to come from large companies such as IBM
Corp., Andersen Consulting of Chicago or even from the big systems integrators. The
biggies are certainly in the electronic commerce and online transaction game but they
often don’t operate as quickly or efficiently as the new generation of electronic
value-added providers.

Nor can the large players attract the young, motivated, fire-in-the-belly generation of
programmers who live to build something innovative with whatever commercial tools come off
the production line—collecting big start-up stock options along the way. They thrive
in an environment that showcases their talents.

Best-of-breed suppliers are responding. They are experts in designing and building
systems using industry’s panoply of middleware and Internet software development

Their think tank environments are created for the purpose of fostering innovation and
creativity. The result is typically a different way to process information and to present
the results.

Even the requirement to post legacy databases on the Internet or an intranet is routine
for these companies. They tend to develop expertise in a vertical industry, such as health
care, environment or manufacturing. They develop rapid prototypes and modular systems
based on reusable components. They are fast, and their solutions can be seductive.

But agencies looking for system providers should understand that such companies
aren’t perfect. One concern potential clients should have is that although innovation
can result in better systems, the systems may not be based on standards. They can lack
control in enterprisewide deployments. These companies may not perform as effectively on
large applications such as tax system modernization or food stamp delivery re-engineering.

Large applications tend to require integration with existing large systems and the
existing technology and processing infrastructure. The solution to one application may not
be acceptable when it doesn’t fit with the data definitions of a related application.
Nevertheless, with well-designed functional requirements and a modicum of project
management skill, an agency can avoid these problems.

As organizations get big, so does their management overhead, and the tendency to go
with established, name-brand vendors gains momentum. Small agencies, or those with small,
relatively manageable projects, can benefit first from the new breed of Internet-savvy
developers. Yet all program managers ultimately want best-of-breed suppliers. Developing
partnerships with them will give them a stake in your success, so they’ll be there
for the post-implementation, support phase of your Internet project.

The requirements are clear. Get your applications—whether they be grants
management or employee training—online. The Internet as a medium of mass
communication is here. The tools for developing Internet applications are here. And now,
the new breed of suppliers is here, as close as the next application development seminar
or conference. Don’t overlook them. n

Robert Deller is president of Markess International Inc., an information technology
market research, sales and support company in Chevy Chase, Md. His e-mail address is

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