Making A Home for Your Intranet

By Paul Chin

A few months ago, while jogging down a local park, I noticed an empty plot of land off to my far right that had a large “For Sale” sign driven into the earth. It seemed like a perfect location to put a house; it was quiet and faced the park.

A week later, that formerly peaceful corner was teeming with the sounds of construction. People scurried about like those tiny Doozers from Fraggle Rock. Day-after-day, as I jogged by, I began to see that huge hole in the ground take the shape of a house. I remembered thinking to myself, “What effort it must take to actually build something that big.” You have to lay out the foundation, construct a multi-level frame, put in the insulation, install the windows and doors-I got a headache just thinking about it.

An intranet follows a very similar process and, much like the construction of a house, you have three main options:

  • You can build your own
  • You can contract the job to professionals
  • You can buy an existing house

Building Your Own Home
Building a house is not for everyone. Back in the Old West everyone considered himself a carpenter; that would explain all the slanted floorboards and broken windows. It takes a lot more than a hammer and a pile of lumber to build a sturdy home; it requires skill and knowledge. If you have neither, beware the leaky roof! On the other hand, if you’re able to fashion a decorative archway out of discarded Popsicle sticks, then watch out, you just might have what it takes to put Bob Vila to shame.

Opting to build an intranet internally-that is, using company employees-grants you the highest level of freedom. You have total control over the decision-making process, project management, scheduling, funding, future growth, and all of the minute details related to the specifics of your business’ operations.

Let’s face it; no one knows your company’s business more than those immersed in it on a daily basis. External consultants may come in and get an overall impression of how things work, but that’s only skimming the surface. Every company has those subtle intangibles, those idiosyncrasies that are not written in any formal manual. Consultants often lack the intimate knowledge of these qualities required to tailor-fit an intranet to the more subjective requirements of the company.

In addition to the advantage of having a more company tailored intranet, building internally also allows you to keep the talent and knowledge of your developers in-house. Let’s say 8-months down the line, you want to add a feature that would enable content owners to store searchable customer profiles on your site; it would be so much easier you tap into the knowledge of those who originally worked on the project rather than having to recall your consultants.

Now, I’d like to offer a friendly word of caution to the aspiring carpenters and architects out there. We’ve gotten to a point where many software companies are trying to develop Web site authoring tools so simple to use (I’m saying “simple to use” as a relative term) that little-to-no technical expertise is required. While this may be a positive thing for casual Web designers building small sites, it can turn into a nightmare for those relying on them for large scale, corporate sites.

This ease of use can lull intranet developers into a false sense of security. Having fallen prey to “eyes-wide-shut syndrome”, they may come to realize that they knocked down a load-bearing wall and the house is no longer able to support itself. Is that a piano coming down the stairs?

Hiring Contractors to Build Your Home
You have a vision of your dream home and can picture yourself sipping wine by a warm fireplace on a rainy Sunday afternoon.OK, so you can’t draw a straight line or use a circular saw without accidentally cutting off one of your fingers, but all is not lost.

You might not have the practical skills to pull off such a big project, but there are professionals out there who can help you. These professionals make a living at doing this type of work. Depending on the size and complexity of your soon-to-be home, you can hire an architect to draw up the blueprints for you, carpenters to build the house, interior decorators to design the look you’re after, and security experts to install the alarm system.

Some mid- to small-sized companies may not have a dedicated IT department with enough technical expertise to build an intranet internally. In some cases, even large companies who do have an existing IT department can’t commit the time and resources to an intranet project due to conflicting priorities or schedules. In these circumstances, building internally may not be a viable option.

Professional developers, or ASPs (Application Service Providers), are a huge benefit to those who are relatively new to the intranet scene. As with everything new, there’s a learning curve that must be overcome before you’re confident enough to be proficient. Unfortunately, this isn’t a perfect world and you’re often dealing with tight schedules that don’t always permit the breathing space required to get over the curve.

Often, management could care less about the road leading up to the end-product; they only care about the end-product itself. For all they care, you could have prayed to a red-bellied baboon in order to accomplish your mandate (granted they’ll probably want to leave that part out of the press release). Suffice it to say, you may not have the time to factor any learning curve into the project schedule.

Outsourcing may be what you’re looking for. Web professionals build sites and applications for a living. They can provide you with their knowledge and guidance in untested waters, allowing you to focus more on the project itself. They can also provide your in-house staff with the necessary training to maintain the site after the production phase. Web developers know what they’re doing and they have all the necessary tools to accomplish it; they even have tools to fix their tools!

Aside from the expertise issue, you might not even have the proper equipment or network/security infrastructure to support an intranet in-house. For example, a small law firm may be looking to build a shareable knowledge network within their office but may not have the proper set-up to do so. In this case, the hypothetical law firm can have the ASP host the intranet on their servers. Issues of infrastructure, security, data redundancy, backups, and disaster recover procedures will be handled by the ASP, allowing you to concentrate on the content.

There’s a catch, though. With this expertise comes a price tag. If you want to hire the services of professional Web developers, you’ll have to pay for it. These expenses will not only include the costs of initial development, but may also include the costs of technical support or any future enhancements to your solution. These fees, however, can be worked out during your contract negotiations with the ASP.

If you’re outsourcing your intranet solution, there’s another important issue that must be addressed: security. Dealing with projects revolving around highly sensitive information that can’t be disclosed to outsiders can be tricky. You must have enough trust in your developers’ abilities to handle this information with the care that it warrants and ensure that they all agree to, and sign, confidentiality agreements.

Your choice of an ASP needs to involve more than picking a name out of a hat. Finding the right team to work on your project is crucial to the success of your project. There are many, what I call, “hit-and-run” developers out there who rush through a project, grab their money and run, leaving you with little support afterwards.

Buying a Home
If it already exists, why reinvent the wheel? There are times when building a house is overkill. You’ve just started a family and are looking for some extra space for baby “Timmy” or “Dorothy” to run around, maybe a backyard where you can have the occasional barbeque for family and friends. You spot a nice little townhouse down the street that suits you, why bother to build something from scratch when it’s already there?

Okay, granted, it may not be exactly what you’re looking for; perhaps the Feng Shui is a little bit off, but that’s why we have renovation. You could always re-paint, re-patch, add something, or tear something down-whatever you need to do to get the proper fit. In the IT world, we call this tweaking.

Many software companies offer tools ranging from off-the-shelf packages (sometimes referred to as an “intranet-in-a-box”) to full-scale, turnkey intranet solutions. If you’re not familiar with these types of tools, let’s take a quick look at your options.

An intranet-in-a-box could be as simple as document management software that enables you to organize, index, and search large stores of information. Turnkey intranets, at the other end of the spectrum, could be considered equivalent to prefabricated houses. A turnkey solution contains everything you need to get up and running in one happy bundle: a Web server, Web server software, development tools, and firewall/proxy software. Of course, different turnkey solutions will contain different components depending on your specific requirements. I’m just listing these as the more common components.

Packaged solutions, regardless of size, provide you with one key thing: an intranet framework. Not everyone has special requirements; something “off-the-shelf” may be just what you’re looking for. If you don’t have the expertise to build in-house or the budget to hire (or your requirements don’t justify building something), this is your best option.

With the market catering more-and-more to the non-techies, packaged solutions are boasting user-friendliness and ease of implementations with little-to-no programming skills required. Of course, a tool can’t be everything to everyone so a certain amount of tweaking may be involved to get the solution to fit your needs. The amount of customizability depends on the package you choose though.

Packaged solutions can help you sidestep many of the issues encountered when building from scratch, reducing implementation time. However, with this, you loose a little bit of flexibility. You may be confined within the abilities and features of the software.

Okay, you knew this was coming, right? It’s warning time. As with the selection of an appropriate ASP, similar care should be taken before committing to any particular packaged solution. You need to look deeper than what the package can do in terms of features, but also at the company that developed the package. If this company were to go belly-up a year after you implement your intranet will you be stuck with “orphaned” software using proprietary technology? What will you do then?

A Word Before You Go House Hunting
Unfortunately, the issue of whether to build, hire, or buy is decided upon more by consequence than by choice. Lack of expertise, lack of budget, lack of time; these will affect your decision. You will then be forced to compromise between what you would like to do and what you are able to do.

Reprinted from

Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing Staff
Small Business Computing addresses the technology needs of small businesses, which are defined as businesses with fewer than 500 employees and/or less than $7 million in annual sales.

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