|Intranets and digital organizational information resources: Towards a portable methodology for design and development|
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Use this table to navigate through the paper:
|Abstract||Introduction||Intranets and Digital Organizational Information Resources||The Problem|
Information as a Resource
|Towards a Portable Methodology for the Design and Prototyping of Intranets||Notes||Bibliography|
|Appendix 1: Interview Instrument (Final version)|
According to recent estimates, approximately 150 new business web sites are being established each day (Bournellis, 1995). Although impressive, these estimates miss an important source of significant growth in web use and development - the Intranet: an internal organizational web, providing secure communication and accessibility to a wide variety of digital organizational information resources. The intranet is becoming an integral feature of many organizations' communication and information technology infrastructures, and many organizations are committing time, money, and resources to the rapid development of this latest trend in organizational computing. What are the problems involved in designing and protoyping an intranet for a large organization?
This paper begins with a discussion of the concept of the intranet, comparing and contrasting it with groupware (JSB, 1996), and presents an argument for its value based on a technical and information management considerations (Microsoft, 1996; Strom, 1995). An intranet development project for an academic organization is presented in some detail, after which the paper concludes with a description of a portable, user-centered and team-based methodology for the design and development of organizational intranets.
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According to recent estimates, approximately 150 new business web sites are being established each day (Bournellis, 1995). Although impressive, these estimates miss an important source of significant growth in web use and development - the Intranet: an internal organizational web, providing secure communication and accessibility to a wide variety of digital organizational information resources. According to Bickel (1996), the number of intranets is increasing rapidly because:
Companies [can] use internal Webs for a variety of purposes--such as making their marketing, personnel, benefits, and corporate policy information available to its workers. Companies also are beginning to use intranets to collaborate on projects and share data. Universities use them to make available curricula, scheduling, and other information campuswide. Indeed, the uses of intranets are accelerating as fast as companies are introducing the technology.
Intranets allow organizations to make effective use of their digital organizational information resources, offering interoperability, ease of use, security, and cost-effectiveness (Netscape Communications, 1996). For the purposes of this paper, a digital organizational resource is defined as "any social and contextually complete semantic unit of communication - including text, video, audio, hypermedia, multimedia, and computer mediated communication - which is created, stored, and transmitted via digital media" (Yates and Sumner, 1997; 3). Examples include, but are not limited to, email, web pages, spreadsheets, accounting records, invoices, newsletters, reports and databases. Starting from the assertion that intranets provide an effective strategy for the management of digital organizational information resources, this paper begins with a discussion of the concept of the intranet, comparing and contrasting it with groupware (JSB, 1996) and presents an argument for its value. An intranet development project for an academic organization is presented in some detail, after which the paper concludes with a discussion of a number of the issues that should be considered by intranet developers and a description of a portable, user- centered and team-based methodology for the design and development of organizational intranets.
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II. Intranets and Digital organizational Information Resources
Since the emergence of the World Wide Web, the Internet has tripled in size (Bournellis, 1995), with over 18 million North American users (Netday News, 1996). Business uses of the web, including sales, advertising, the provision of customer support, and the gathering of marketing information and competitive intelligence, also have affected on Web growth; approximately 150 new business Web sites are being established each day (Bournellis, 1995). However, these estimates only take account globally accessible sites and are missing an important domain of significant web use - the Intranet. Several statistics capture the potential impact of Intranets. For example, by the end of 1997, 80 percent of Web servers will be used for internal sites (Netscape Communications, 1996) and, "by the year 2000, annual shipments of Internet servers will approximate 450,000, while the shipments of Intranet servers will approximate 4,500,000" (LPI Software Funding Group, Inc., 1996). A survey of 170 decision makers at large- and medium-size companies found that 23% of these sites have implemented or plan to implement an intranet, with an additional 20% studying the option (CIO Communications, 1996). In addition, "internal web, or intranet, usage is predicted to overwhelm external Internet usage before the turn of the century" (Netscape Communications, 1996).
Definitions of intranets vary, but they seem to converge on several factors. An intranet is "an internal information system based on Internet technology, web services, TCP/IP and HTTP communication protocols, and HTML publishing" (Hinrichs, 1997). It is a "private corporate network that uses Internet products and technologies ... Intranets are either shielded from external Internet users by firewalls or simply not connected to the outside world at all" (Novell Corp., 1997) and are therefore not accessible to Internet users (or collectors of internet statistics) (Strom, 1995). An intranet is composed of a (May, 1996):
The optimistic view of an intranet portrays it as a means for leveraging business intelligence and managing digital organizational information resources. A well designed system can present a single front end allowing access to a range of digital information resources including mission and goal statements, projects, reports, memos, schedules, and budgets. An intranet can be used to "organize each individual's desktop with minimal cost, time and effort to be more productive, more cost efficient, more timely, and more competitive" (Hinrichs, 1997). It can support collaborative work and can extend the ability to produce and publish information throughout the organization. Intranets can provide information in a way that is "immediate, cost-effective, easy to use, rich in format, versatile, and, secure" (Netscape Communications, 1996). In addition, the "true value of an intranet ... lies in the relevance and quality of the information" (Microsoft, 1996) that flows across it. Intranets are intriguing additions to organizational communication infrastructures because they provide "compelling economics," meaning that there are low per-user implementation and maintenance costs, interoperability, or "access from heterogeneous desktops," and secure access to the information resources in the organization (Open Market, Inc., 1997)
Collection of computers and networks within an organisation (it may span the globe), connecting the organisation's members and/or employees to a range of computer services, resources, and information. A set of network conventions and common tools are employed to give the appearance of a single large network, even though the computers that are linked together use many different hardware and software platforms.
Intranets have not been in place long enough for researchers to gather sound evidence about their costs and benefits, but some information is beginning to surface. A recent study of the return on investment (ROI) for intranets at several large corporations found that (Campbell, 1997):
There are also data comparing intranets to groupware products that are competing for the same market. A recent report claims that "groupware products have become the established solution for creating a collaborative working environment in which users can communicate and share information" and they are being directly challenged by the rise of intranets (JSB Computer Systems Ltd.,1996). Intranets can provide the same opportunities for online collaboration, and, when compared to groupware, cost can be a compelling argument for adopting an intranet based solution. According to Bruno (1996), "Putting Notes on a small network would cost about $15,000. Netscape Communications Server from Netscape Communications Corp....sells for less than $1,500; Netscape Navigator retails for roughly $40." Another estimate finds that the total costs of implementing an intranet are ~$10,000, compared to ~$245,000 for groupware (JSB Computer Systems, Ltd., 1996). These estimates indicate that there is a significant difference in cost. Perhaps the most noticeable disparity exists in the final figure, the overall estimated monetary investment for complete implementation of either system; groupware represents a much larger investment, an order of magnitude 25 times larger than that needed to implement a web-based intranet.
The preliminary results from IDC's return on investment study of Netscape intranets found the typical ROI well over 1000%--far higher than usually found with any technology investment. Adding to the benefit, with payback periods ranging from six to twelve weeks, the cost of an Intranet is quickly recovered--making the risk associated with an Intranet project low. The results to date clearly show that for any company, not just those already contemplating an Intranet, the best strategy is to begin an Intranet deployment today. The sooner an Intranet becomes a core component of the corporate technology infrastructure, the sooner the company can reap the benefits.
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III. The Problem
Given that intranets are a becoming a useful tool for managing and disseminating digital organizational information resources, the problem, simply stated, was to develop a prototype intranet for an academic organization that operates on three campuses that would be able to meet the needs of four separate but interrelated constituencies, administrators, staff, faculty, and students. Preliminary interviews indicated that a prototype of an intranet would be useful for three reasons. First, it would serve as a proof of concept, demonstrating that an internal communications and information system could be based on internet technologies and protocols and be useful for the collection, management, and dissemination of digital organizational information resources. Second, it would be a useful "hands- on" exercise for students in the Masters of Information Science (MIS) program, who are learning about the social, intellectual, and technological challenges of designing different types of information environments for a variety of organizational settings. The first group worked on the development of the intranet and subsequent groups will improve, modify, and maintain it. Finally, having a working intranet would be a useful marketing tool for the institution.
The setting for the development and prototyping effort was a eight week, summer session graduate course, "The Organizational Information Resource,"  being taught at the School of Library and Information Science at Indiana University. Seven students an d one faculty member formed the development team , which was responsible for the entire project.
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IV. The Methodology
In this section, the procedures used to develop the prototype intranet are described. The emphasis in this project was on user-based design and development, and not on the technical configuration of the intranet; using a web based interface allowed the intranet to be "overlaid" onto the existing organizational network. The problems of installing the technical infrastructure, while important, will not be discussed here. There were nine steps to the design and development methodology, ranging from initial discussions to the final public demonstration of the prototype (see Figure 1: Project Timeline):
The discussion of the project (Step 1) took place over a three week period, using class time and a closed electronic discussion list. The purposes of this procedure were threefold. First, the team needed to come to a common understanding about the nature of the project, learning about the background of the development effort and beginning to think about the various tasks that would be involved and how they could be accomplished. Second, they had to begin a stakeholder analysis to determine the constituencies that would be served by an intranet, the key decision makers, and the important technical staff members who would maintain the intranet. Third, they had to develop a team identity through intensive interactions with each other, in order to establish a basis for their collaborative work, which would begin shortly after dividing the labor for the various tasks.
Concurrent with the discussion phase was an extensive review of the literature on intranets (Step 2). Team members were responsible for locating books, articles, and online publications from the academic and trade literatures that focused on intranets. The tasks here were to develop a working definition of an intranet, analyze the structure of existing intranets to determine their technical components and major content categories, and to explore issues of implementation, maintenance and management. This led to an understanding of intranets as socio-technical phenomena which could bring about major changes in the structure and functioning of organizations. This approach was useful because of the assumption that information technology (IT) has an "underlying duality," a "constituted nature...as...the social product of subjective human action within specific structural and cultural contexts" and a "constitutive role ...as an objective set of rules and resources involved in mediating ...human action;" IT creates, recreates, and transforms the contexts in which it is used and is therefore "both an antecedent and a consequence of organizational action" (Orlikowski and Robey, 1991; 152).
The literature review was a springboard allowing the team to create an interview instrument (Step 3). A set of questions was developed during the first two weeks, based on an instrument used to collect similar information from managers (Rosenbaum, 1996) and the team's understanding of the literature. The questions were sent to the discussion list and team members responded to the list with additions, deletions, and wording changes. Based on the stakeholder analysis, questions were written that were appropriate to administrators, faculty, staff (all considered "staff" on the interview instrument), and students. One objective of the interview was gather data about the ways in which organizational members found, evaluated, used and disseminated the information needed in their work. A second was to gather data about their perceptions of the current organizational web site and proposed intranet.
The instrument was divided into three parts. The first contained questions about information based activities in the organization and time spent using a computer, specifically the amount of time spent using the Web, as opposed to other Internet services such as E-mail. There were also questions about the strengths and weaknesses of the current organizational web site; this information would be useful in decisions about design and content of the intranet. The second part contained questions about typical methods of seeking and evaluating organizational information. The final section was designed to gather information about what respondents would like to see on an intranet, how it could be organized, and perceptions of the strengths and weaknesses of intranets as internal organizational information systems. Once developed, the instrument was pretested with one person from each stakeholder group; changes were made in response to their feedback (See Appendix 1: Interview instrument: Final version).
Next, the team selected the interview sample (Step 4), which consisted of all administrators, faculty members and staff at the three sites and approximately 20% of the students. An email version was sent out to student distribution lists at one of the remote sites, and a packet of 40 interviews was sent to the other. Data collection (Step 5) was primed with two messages sent out on the organization's distribution list two weeks and one week before administering the instrument explaining the project and requesting cooperation. All interviews were completed and the email and paper versions had a 60% response rate. In all, usable data were collected from everyone in the first three groups and from 120 students (n = 135).
Data were collated and recorded digitally in sequential fashion as team members entered the results of their interviews into a file that began as a blank interview template. The first member keyed in the responses she had collected and then emailed the file to the next person. The second and additional similar responses for a given question were marked with <*>, providing a simple frequency measure as the file circulated among the group. As additional data came back from the emailed and paper instruments, they were entered by a single team member who had been assigned the task of collecting responses from remote sites.
Content analysis (Step 6) was used to organize and reduce the data into manageable categories (Patton, 1990; Berg, 1989; Holsti, 1968). When each team member had completed and entered half of their interviews, work stopped and a 10% sample of the responses was selected from the file for initial coding; each team member received a copy of the sample file and developed categories and corresponding codes for the data which were posted to the discussion list. A meeting was held in the fourth week to arrive at a common set of categories, which included (See Table 1: Final coding categories and content areas):
|Table 1: Final coding categories and content areas|
Using this common set of categories the data were entered and analysis began. The data were organized into three main sections: information seeking and use practices, the use and perceptions of the existing organizational web site, and perceptions of the potential organization and strengths and weaknesses of the proposed intranet.
Information seeking and use behaviors. The types of information people sought and used included course scheduling, course syllabi, e-mail addresses, event information, job information, and phone numbers. The important qualities used to evaluate this information included accuracy, currency, perceptions of the source of the information, and appropriateness of the level of detail. Three common ways of seeking information were to ask the "right person," to search the organizational web site, and to attend to organizational email. Problems during information seeking included not finding the right person to ask, inability to come to the main office or faculty offices during business hours, and finding "fragmented" or out-of- date information.
The use and perceptions of the existing organizational web site. Respondents reported moderate use of the organizational web site, accessing it two to three times a week for 10-15 minutes at a time.  The sections of the web site that were frequently accessed contained career information and job listings, course descriptions, scheduling, "official" faculty home pages, information about events, and faculty research interests. There was a common perception that much of the information on the site was not very current. Respondents also commented that some section, particularly help information current and course syllabi, should be easier to access.
Perceptions of the potential organization and strengths and weaknesses of the proposed intranet. Reflecting the predominance of students in the sample, the two types of information that respondents wanted to find on an intranet were part-time and professional job listings and detailed course descriptions. Other suggestions included: minutes of faculty and committee meetings and memos, a directory of email addresses, information about software and hardware available in the computer labs, a departmental event calendar, student records for advising and grades, class rosters, student evaluations of classes and faculty members, information on funding, and internship opportunities. Respondents' ideal organizational scheme for the intranet emphasized speed, ease of access, and a lack of graphics, with clear topical headings that would quickly lead them to the appropriate sections.
The design and development of the prototype intranet (Step 7) began during the fourth week, while the data analysis continued. The basic principle that guided this stage is clearly stated by December and Ginsburg, who argue that (1995; 158):
First, a consensus was reached in team meetings on the structure and look of the intranet, and then the labor was divided; teams of two were responsible for marking up the various sections. The team used a common workspace on a server in the organization, with a single account and password; this workspace could be accessed remotely, so each group's work could be viewed at any time by any team member. Also, a consensus was reached that only the creators of a section could change it and, once demonstrated to the team, the section could only be changed by unanimous agreement of the team, which ensured that there would be consistency among the sections as development proceeded. Meetings thereafter involved group presentation of sections and team critiques.
A web designer's overall goal is to create guidelines for implementing a web that has the 'right stuff' for its users: information at the right level of detail and an arrangement of pages that efficiently guides users to needed information ... Good web design is not easy, though: all webs must balance user needs with tradeoffs in performance, aesthetics, and usability.
The design procedure began with storyboards based on the data analysis and the categories presented in Table 1. Three hierarchical levels were established; starting from the top level home page, eight main sections could be accessed on the second level, six of which led to between three and seven sections on the third level; the search and subject index pages were only available on the second level (See Figure 2: Structure of the Intranet):
Two other sets of issues were settled before the team split into groups to develop their sections. The first was aesthetic; one graphic was used throughout the site, a small (4K) banner logo that was as a header on each page, and all pages had the same general appearance. After much deliberation, the team agreed that pages were white, the logo was on the top left side of the page, and the sections were separated on the page with a solid back line (<HR NOSHADE>). After a heading identifying the section, a 1X2 table with no border was used o place the third and subsequent subsections in the left cell and a single descriptor phrases in the right cell. This table was set off by a solid line, below which was the navigation table, a sentence providing the URL of the current page, and a date indicating when the page had been last modified.
The second set of issues involved navigation. To maximize ease of use, full navigation was provided on the top three levels of the intranet. Second level navigation was indicated by a 9X1 table, with borders, listing all of the sections above and the home page. The table remained consistent across every second level page, except that the cell containing the name of the current page was text and not a link, so it appeared black. Third level navigation allowed movement to any page within that section and was indicated by a line of text with page titles enclosed in brackets ([Calendar] [Events] [Faculty Office Hrs.]...). Again, title of the current page was plain text and not a link. Also, the second level table was repeated at this level, allowing easy movement from any third level page to any second level page and the home page.
The design of the intranet was completed early in the eighth week. The report was written during the seventh and eighth weeks and the site was demonstrated (Step 8) publicly at the end of the eighth week .
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V. Towards a Portable Methodology for the Design and Prototyping of Intranets
This project made effective use of a procedure that can be ported to other organizational settings when the goal is to use user-centered and team based-design to develop an intranet. The key elements of this procedure involved:
Before the team ever sets foot in the organization, there must be some support for the project within the organization. Assuming this exists, there must develop a cohesive view of the project among the design and development team where team members understand the business of organization and range of people who will use the intranet. As the project proceeds, this cohesive view must expand to accomodate a shared vision of the basic structure and "look" of the intranet. This allows the team to divide the labor and work efficiently on design and development tasks. An understanding of the literature on intranets is useful to have a grasp of the range of possibilities that can be brought into design and development decisions. The team should document its work, saving old versions of pages and developing documentation of the work as it proceeds.
The team should assume that the most important information will be gathered from the potential users of the intranet. A user-based approach (a combination of interviews and surveys) is essential and must be used to conduct a stakeholder analysis and gather information about the user population. The team must be sensitive to the range of information needs and behaviors in the organization, which can be expected to be different at different levels of the organization. It is critical to understand how organizational members could use the web during the course of their routine work activities. For example, in the project reported here, users were more than willing to sacrifice graphic enhancements for speed and ease of use. Gathering this information necessitates having a carefully drawn sample that includes as many members throughout the organization as time and budget allow. The interview/survey instrument (a template is provided in Appendix A) should be adapted to the particular organization, pretested in the organization, and consistently administered. If appropriate, the categories used in Table 3 can form the basis of a scheme for organizing, and analyzing data.
Once the data begin to indicate the types of information and other resources imporetant too users, the team should work to create a common vision about the structure and aesthetics of the intranet; typically this will involve designing a broad structure, coming to an agreement about navigation through the structure, and some aesthetic decisions. This agreement marks the beginning of the actual design process. If possible, the team should reach a consensus on a procedure for collaborative design work and should use a shared digital work space, which will allow members to view each others work. The team should also meet regularly to demonstrate their work to each other and engage in constructive critiques of various components of the intranet.
One step not taken in the project described above but which is essential to the success of intranet development is usability testing, which reveals the capability of a system to be "used easily and effectively by the specified range of users, given specified training and support, to fulfill a specified range of tasks" (Shackel, 1991; 24)
This leads to an nine step methodology for intranet design and development (see Figure 1: Project Timeline):
While not discussed in this paper, additional recommendations to strengthen this methodology would be to develop benchmarks and other means by which the intranet could be regularly evaluated, either by the team or the organization. After time has passed, has the information flow in the organization been improved? Do users judge the information they access through the intranet to be of higher quality? Of more immediacy? More useful? Is there a linkage between this type of information dissemnination and improvements in organiqtional productivity?
Also not discussed in this paper are policy issues centering on publishing, maintenance, and security of the intranet. The organization must develop a range of policies to support the intranet. For example, an intranet can quickly become a jungle of tangled information, with endless winding links, and large bandwidth devouring media files. To resolve this many organizations are creating publishing and usage policies (Sarna, 1996). There is a need for publishing standards; who can publish information on the intranet and what are their responsibilities? Should all information published on the intranet have a consistent look and feel? Who has control over this process? Control? How often will there be updating of the structure and look and feel of the intranet? By the establishment of these policies an organization can authorize certain design styles, tools, and applications, including browsers, to insure a degree of civility and order in an intranet's development and use. Fortunately, as intranet technology matures, many of the more tedious and time consuming tasks of systems administrators, such as code generation and validation, URL updating, version control, and file structure management will become automated (McCarthy, 1996).
While intriguing, these questions are clearly beyond the scope of this paper and will be the topics of future research.
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1. The syllabus for this course is available at:
Information about the Masters in Information Science is available at:
2. The members of the team were: David Austgen, Jeff Blackmore, Ewa Callahan, Doug Harper, Jim Hurd, Ja-Young Kim, and Mona Masood. The author acknowledges their hard work in the research and development effort and their assistance in drafting an early version of the report.
3. This finding must be tempered by the realization that the organizational web site's home page is the default page on all public access and many faculty and staff computers in the organization, so people routinely see this page when they use a web browser. Respondents reported that they would quickly bypass this page unless they had were searching for organizational information.
4. The URL for the prototype intranet is:
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Appendix 1. Interview Instrument (Final version)
Interview Protocol for SLIS: Information use, information behaviors, and the SLIS Intranet Version 1.2 6/96
|Date/Time: ________________________||Years in position or semesters in residence ___________________|
[With students, check first to make sure that they have not yet been interviewed]
Thank you for agreeing to participate in this research. I am part of a class (L 547) conducting research on the use of information in SLIS, and I want to ask you some questions about how you find, evaluate, use, and disseminate information as a routine part of your job. During this interview, I would like you to think about the ways in which you gather and use information during the course of your routine activities and on the role of various information resources in your work. The results of these interviews will help us develop and prototype an intranet for SLIS. I will ensure that the data that are produced during our conversation remain confidential and will be destroyed at the end of the project.
[When interviewing faculty, skip to Question #3; when interviewing students who have no other role in SLIS other than student), skip to Question #3]
1.Staff: Could you please describe your role in SLIS (not in terms of the "official job description," but in terms of what you actually do)? [I am a _______________]
2. Students: Do you have another role here at SLIS (GA, RA, Technology Support Staff, Library employee)
3. How much time do you spend using a computer each day (estimate in hours)? __________
4. Do you use the SLISweb site? ___Yes ___ No
B. Information (types):
5.What are the major types/kinds of departmental information that you require and seek out during the course of a typical week?
6. What kinds of departmental information would you like to receive that you are currently not receiving?
7. What kinds of departmental information are you currently receiving that you would like to get less of?
8. In general terms, what are your main methods of seeking and gathering departmental information?
We are interviewing people in SLIS in order to gather information that will help us design and build an internal information system for SLIS. This will be a web-based intranet with access restricted to current faculty, staff, and students, and we are interested in finding out your opinions about what information, resources, and services should be offered on this intranet and how the information should be organized and presented.
9. What types of information would you like to see on a SLIS intranet (that would only be for internal use by faculty, staff and current students)?
10. How would you like to see this information organized?
11. Do you think you will benefit from having a SLIS intranet? ___Yes ___ No
12. What are some of the potential problems you see with having a SLIS intranet? Please be as specific as possible.
Closing: Thank you very much for participating.
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|This document was prepared by Howard Rosenbaum.
Comments are welcome.
|Obligatory disclaimer: At the time this paper was marked
all links used in the bibliography were working.
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