INTRA ACTIVE

The Intranet offers numerous communications benefits to companies, but its success relies on careful application.

When it comes to innovation the Internet is ambivalent. It can spread knowledge quickly, but its rapid pace can leave behind all but the fleet of foot. Now, marketing professionals who are committing to interactive initiatives are faced with issues raised by the Intranet.

Is it simply reinventing the network or does its rise herald further cultural change in marketing organisations?

While the concept of the Internet is easy to comprehend – interconnected networks – an Intranet is more difficult to define. At simplest, it’s using online technology to link employees within a closed organisation.

Matthew Treagus, director of technology at new media communications agency AKQA, is developing Intranet concepts for clients including the recently merged Scottish Amicable and Prudential. For him, Intranets are not new. He says: “IT departments have been putting information on people’s desktops for years. It’s just that we now have a de facto standard that brings together disparate systems.”

That standard uses both Internet protocols, to allow systems to talk, and Web-based languages, such as HTML and Java, to create applications and to display documents that can be accessed by everyone.

But an Intranet is more than hardware and software. “The perfect Intranet should replace all internal communications common to two people or more,” says Mark Wilson, creative and technical director at The Wire Station, a business communications company that is developing two Intranet projects for clients in the pharmaceutical and electronics industry. Wilson is adamant that Intranets are more than fancy e-mail networks: “When logging in, an employee should get a message with their name and information focused to their needs.”

In fact, an Intranet can be used to build and reflect culture and brand values to an organisation’s internal and external markets. Treagus cites AKQA’s current project as a good example of this: “It’s bringing together information in a more structured way.” Within financial services, the flow of internal information is complex – employees must access customer information, and make sure there is regulatory compliance.

While Treagus hopes that the Intranet will benefit these areas, the ultimate goal reflects the far ranging change that Intranets can deliver. He says: “We want the client to access data directly – it’s about accountability.”

So what type of marketing organisations are developing Intranets? While technology companies – which face the challenge of communicating to markets about rapidly evolving products and services – can be expected to adopt Intranets, packaged goods giant Unilever is also among those setting the pace in Intranet developments.

Simon Darling, Unilever’s interactive marketing and electronic commerce manager, says: “Any company worth its salt seeks aggressively to keep its eye on what’s happening in the outside world and to find ways of turning these changes to profitable advantage. The possibilities that we see on the Internet today – such as search engines, online chat, sound and video delivery – are all ones that can be applied internally on an Intranet to deliver bottom-line benefits. The challenge is to develop ideas, implement them rapidly and ensure that you get value for money from both the new and existing applications.”

One service developed on the Unilever Intranet is HotWorld, which is aimed at providing a continuous flow of information among those involved within the organisation of the Internet, interactive marketing and electronic commerce initiatives. A test site went live last August, and since then has attracted 3,000 users in 20 countries across many disciplines including marketing.

WH Smith-owned Waterstone’s is also about to introduce an Intranet to hone the performance of its book-selling business. The Virgil project will link all the chain’s branches, providing access to a large database of book titles and eventually multimedia information.

At the other end of the book market, publisher Addison Longman Wesley is also likely to benefit from easy access to vital marketing information. Working with identity consultant Bamber Forsyth, it is putting its brand identity guidelines onto an Intranet. The publisher, which has 50 sites in 35 countries, hopes the online gallery of best-practice and a library of brand templates will bring savings in time and effort.

“At present the printed guidelines can take up to 18 months to amend,” says Clare Fuller, director of consulting at Bamber Forsyth. “With the Intranet we hope to be amending once a month.”

Intranets can also be used to deliver customer information to marketers within an organisation. With many external marketing Websites already capturing customer response – BMW’s April Fool site generated 100 responses within an hour of going live – the need to deliver swiftly to analysts is imperative.

Information Hyperlink, the developer of Waterstone’s Virgil project, illustrates this with its own Intranet. All phone calls, including customer inquiries, are logged automatically and can be annotated using e-mail. The records are posted to a central document repository where they are added to an archive that staff can consult when researching a client. “In terms of innovation and product development the company has undoubtedly seen significant benefits,” says Simon Hampton, the company’s director of marketing.

New technology and new ways of working are all part and parcel of an Intranet. So how can they be introduced without causing unnecessary strain within a marketing organisation?

Careful management is required. AKQA’s Treagus cites one of his clients to illustrate this point: “BMW could easily become an Intranet publisher because cost of entry is so low, but there is a danger of straying from core competencies.” Treagus notes that successful Intranets are pushing content that is already maintained internally, in new directions. “It’s a management process, not an editing process.”

But pushing in the right direction is crucial. “Often in paper and e-mail based organisations, information is pushed to a wide distribution list on a just-in-case-they- need-to-know basis. “This can easily result in individuals being swamped,” says James Tarin, managing director of Clarity, the Oxford-based communications agency that is developing an Intranet for Pharmacia, the pharmaceutical company.

He adds: “Intranet Web publishing moves the distribution model to one of “information on demand”, ensuring individuals have access to relevant information when they want it, rather than when it is published.”

Also vital for a successful Intranet is a champion within the organisation. “Get people in authority to put it up themselves,” argues Richard Latham, a director at Blue Wave, the Web design agency that created the National Grid Intranet. “If they have no responsibility, they don’t check it.”

But champions need a little help, just like anyone else contributing to or accessing an Intranet. “Give the users the power to publish without the need to learn any new skills,” advises Clarity’s Tarin.

Unilever has also ensured that the “look and feel” of HotWorld is user-friendly by commissioning an illustrator whose previous clients include Vogue and Cosmopolitan magazines. “The idea is to get across the message that we’re not after ‘techies’ with this service,” explains Stream’s Syrysko. “We wanted to win the hearts and minds of non-techies, the brand managers and customer managers of the organisation, rather than simply those in the IT department.”

Syrysko recognises that there is always resistance to sharing, one of the functions an Intranet encourages. “It’s a huge cultural change. With products like HotWorld we are sowing the new culture by setting the right tools in the right environment – easy-to-use Web technology and friendly useful interfaces.”

But has HotWorld had an effect on the current marketing process within Unilever? Syrysko believes it has. He says: “It takes time for the content and community to build, but there are already examples of managers in corners of the world finding interactive marketing advice and incorporating this into their presentations and proposals. As more people get access to the service and greater depth is added to the content, further benefits will be realised.”

Also experiencing similar Intra-net benefits is pharmaceutical giant Glaxo Wellcome. Its Intranet is used heavily in the research and development process, and plays an important role in integrating research efforts. “Following the merger, there’s a great desire to combine efforts around the world and it lends itself well to this,” comments Philip Connolly, the company’s corporate positioning manager.

So, are Intranets the last word in using technology to improve an organisation? The answer is no. Just when marketers may think they understand it all, Intranets are becoming Extranets.

Some organisations which use the Intranet are allowing selected external organisations to have access to their Intranets and their content – hence the term Extranet. As more and more organisations give Web access to employees, the technical barriers to linking those in regular contact with external clients or preferred suppliers are overcome. Authorised employees can place purchase orders directly on to a suppliers order book, while consultants can update advice held on the Intranet.

Financial services companies such as Gartmore are allowing selected independent financial advisers (IFAs) into closed Web sites, which are part of its presence on the Interactive Investor site. IFAs access product briefings, cost calculators and training materials. “It provides IFAs with routine information more efficiently and cheaply, which will allow our relationship managers to do a better job with IFAs,” says Mark Ward, marketing manager at Gartmore.

While Extranets are a logical extension to Intranets, most developers counsel some caution. Clarity’s James Tarin stresses security concerns, a vital consideration for clients such as Pharmacia. “Companies whose major assets are their intellectual property have to think very carefully before opening their Intranet to the outside world.”

Likewise, a carefully thought-out Intranet will be more than a new way of pushing information out from head office, hopes Stream’s Syrysko. He believes Intranets can help marketers by delivering and organising all their communications and documents on their desktops – helping them understand their role in the organisation and their current workload. “Imagine coming into work and seeing all the files and memos you need for that day already there, neatly organised on your desk – not tucked away on your shelves, in cupboards or in other parts of the building.”

That’s the potential of the Intranet.

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