Intranets link far-flung offices, hike productivity

Intranets link far-flung offices, hike productivity

Phyllis Procton

Agencies see benefits in everything from better training and problem-solving to reduced printing costs

By George V. Hulme

Special to GCN

Federal agencies are developing powerful intranet applications to improve internal communications and training, and launch customer service initiatives.

Several years ago, the Housing and Urban Development Department faced a communications breakdown that often happens in large organizations, said Phyllis Preston, HUD intranet manager.

'We didn't communicate very timely nationwide, and this created friction among the field employees and management. We felt an intranet would be a fast and easy way to communicate with everyone simultaneously,' she said.

The intranet immediately transformed how the 10,000 HUD employees nationwide interacted. During its first month, November 1996, the intranet garnered roughly 21,000 log-ins; in March of this year that figure soared to more than 970,000.

'I didn't anticipate the powerful interactive capability of the chat rooms in the beginning,' Preston said. Almost immediately employees started exchanging ideas and collectively solving problems that had been plaguing offices throughout the agency.

'Before, there was no way to track all of the ideas employees generated in one location,' she said.

Preston attributes that early success in part to the uncertainty sparked by the HUD 2020 Management Reform Plan, which included proposals to handle waste and downsize the department.

In the know

'This gave the entire intranet project a big boost because employees came to our Managing Change chat room to keep up-to-date with what job descriptions would be changed or eliminated. It got them used to using the system,' Preston said.

HUD's intranet is supported by a primary document server and eight application servers. The servers are Compaq 5000s and 6000s that run Microsoft Windows NT 4.0 with either Netscape Enterprise Server or Microsoft Internet Information Server. The platform includes Netscape Compass Server.

Most of the applications are developed with ColdFusion from Allaire Corp. of Cambridge, Mass., or Microsoft Active Server Pages with a Microsoft SQL Server backend.

Training is another powerful intranet application.

'There is so much information available now, especially technical information, that it is extremely time-consuming to find information without an intranet,' said Tony Lester, director of business development for Oak Ridge Associated Universities in Oak Ridge, Tenn. Lester recently developed a series of intranet training modules for the Energy Department.

To help meet Energy's requirements for biennial refresher training in Ethical Standards of Conduct, Oak Ridge Associated Universities developed a Web course, Alice in EthicsLand, that presents scenes for employees to determine whether certain actions would meet established standards.

Energy's intranet runs on a 350-MHz Pentium II and a Compaq 1600 server running Windows NT. The software is Microsoft Internet Information Server.

The General Services Administration has also begun intranet training for its work force of 14,000, many of whom are remote users.

Reach and teach

'It is an excellent way to reach workers who just can't get away from their job to attend formal training on a regular basis,' said Don Heffernan, GSA deputy chief information officer.

GSA OnLine University gives employees access to more than 300 courses in information technology, telecommunications, management and other skills. GSA is also using its intranet to publish and update regulations that used to be printed at great expense, post job openings and manage human resources functions, he said.

Intranet-based courseware does not require a lot of computer power. Most courses can run on a 386 PC with 8M of RAM and Windows 3.1 or higher, making it easy for nearly every employee to access training at will, Heffernan said.

Intranets' usefulness extends beyond interactive newsletters, training and cutting printing costs.

The Postal Service hired MCI WorldCom Inc. to connect 8,000 of its sites via dedicated frame relay, with the remaining satellite sites to be connected by very small aperture terminals, for the transmission of data, video or voice.

The network will connect all 34,000 USPS locations. The 16 million IP addresses on the intranet will do everything from store and distribute internal communications and documents to boost customer service.

Eventually, said Jeff Brooks, MCI WorldCom national accounts spokesman, the intranet will track every piece of mail delivered.

Proponents agree: Intranets are more than an adjunct to the old way of conducting routine tasks. They are becoming a mission-critical part of the agencies deploying them.

'It's no longer a matter of when or how agencies will be implementing intranets,' Lester said. 'It's a matter of when and how quickly. And as bandwidth increases, the applications with audio, video and comprehensive interaction will become even more powerful. It's just beginning.'

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