FOCUS INTERNET: Sending workers to Cyberia’

As companies become more globalised internal communications departments are turning to Intranets to ensure that employees get company information in an instant. Danny Rogers reports

As companies become more globalised internal communications departments

are turning to Intranets to ensure that employees get company

information in an instant. Danny Rogers reports



Let’s face it net surfing is no longer new. Although one is still

unlikely to hear the Internet being discussed down at the local

grocer’s, the novelty factor is lessening. Consequently organisations

are taking steps to control the new electronic media for their own use.



While the public Internet continues to be an essentially open and

chaotic medium and the growing number of corporate Web sites represent

largely passive communications tools, Intranets have the benefit of

distributing and sharing information in a secure environment.



Intranets are effectively Web sites where access is restricted to an

internal network. Information is held centrally so the audience does not

have to track down documents which can often be scattered across an

organisation. They can use browser software developed for the Internet.



Indeed, the public Internet may be the means of accessing this

information.



‘The Internet is effective because it uses standardised language, tools

are widely available and telecoms companies are upgrading the bandwidth

enabling the transfer of larger files,’ explains Mark Mellor, managing

director of hi-tech agency Firefly.



Those responsible for internal communications are waking up to the

opportunities, ensuring that PR agencies and in-house communications

teams are increasingly involved in the development of these company-wide

information networks.



Neil Melvin, consultant at Smythe Dorward Lambert, believes Intranets

will revolutionise internal communications. ‘They cannot replace face-

to-face contact, but the attractions are speed and directness of

communication at low cost,’ he says.



SDL client Microsoft has been using an Intranet since the beginning of

the year. ‘Not only for internal communications, but also for specific

departments to promote themselves within the organisation,’ explains

Melvin.



Last year British firm Inchcape, one of the world’s largest distribution

firms, decided to restructure its employee communications strategy.



‘Staff were frustrated at time it took to receive important

information,’ says Paul Barber, Inchcape’s group corporate affairs

director.



‘We already had a sophisticated e-mail system but decided to take this a

step further.’ Barber and his team subsequently developed the Inchnet -

a network of information that sits on the company’s e-mail platform.



It includes company announcements, advice on using company software,

staff news, an ideas exchange, classified advertisements and sports and

social events.



‘The benefit is to provide employees with constantly available and

constantly updated information,’ explains Barber.



Inchnet is still at trial stage and presently only available to a couple

of hundred staff in its London office, but there are plans to extend the

service to the Middle East and Hong Kong in the New Year. Eventually

Barber hopes to roll it out to Inchcape offices in 64 countries around

the world.



He points out that there is also an interface with external PR: ‘We will

be able to share facts and figures with our PR agencies electronically.

At the same time we can alert employees to news releases or

announcements that are issued.’



Andrew Rodaway, partner at hi-tech agency Oast, is already enjoying such

operational transparency with client Lawson Software - a US company

specialising in client server business software.



Lawson has an established Intranet, which it makes available to its 800

staff worldwide. Oast enjoys access to this network.



‘The Intranet is Lawson’s only means of internal communications, and it

contains all sorts of information. We learn about big deals and case

studies. Meanwhile its employees are kept informed of our PR

initiatives,’ says Rodaway.



A number of larger public relations consultancies are developing their

own Intranets. Last year Shandwick announced that it was investing

pounds 10 million in a three-year technology project which includes

Shandnet: a private network which will see all 90 Shandwick offices

around the world linked via the Internet. And Firefly is developing its

Fireworks Intranet, which it claims is an effective and inexpensive way

of linking European partner firms and clients alike.



Large US consultancy the Weber Group has used a corporate Intranet for

five years, and the UK office has been on-line for the past 18 months.



‘Whereas anyone can log into the Weber home page on the Internet, only

employees can dial up to the Intranet server because they have the right

access software,’ explains UK account director Steve Waddington. ‘It

enables staff to share resources and to communicate strategically as a

whole.’



Weber staff across the world are able to share photography, client

backgrounders, media directories and telephone lists.



What about the interface with clients? ‘We generally find e-mail

sufficient for clients. Although we have set up a notes connection with

3Com which enables us to share information and takes the grind out of

liasion,’ says Waddington.



The UK’s largest hi-tech PR agency Text 100 is also investing in

Intranet capability. In September the company brought in ‘cyber PR guru’

Robert Grupe as on-line communications manager.



‘My prime focus was to get the company Web site on-line and we are

deploying the Intranet gradually. It should be complete in the next

couple of weeks,’ says Grupe.



He is putting in place a network enabling Text 100’s seven worldwide

offices to share documentation including marketing guides, templates and

logos. In this way the agency will be able to create international

‘client folders’. ‘Collaboration software will mean that we can share

applications. Staff in different offices will be able to edit

information together in real-time,’ enthuses Grupe.



The network will also provide the capability for audio between two

people, a ‘chat area’ for question and answer exchange and a white board

‘discussion’ facility.



So what are the implications for the PR industry? Does the revolution

in electronic information sound the death knell for the company

newsletter? Will it really reduce the amount of paper we fax and post

between offices?



Despite its investment in Inchnet, Inchcape’s Barber says it will

continue to produce its quarterly magazine Inchcape World. ‘We have many

staff that are not office- based and do not have PCs,’ he explains.



Mellor also recognises that hardware will prove a major factor in the

spread of Intranet.



‘It will depend on the type of organisation. For example in financial

services companies most staff have PCs, other sectors may not.’



He adds: ‘As for PR companies, they must be careful. Because they deal

primarily in information - words and graphics - there can be a huge

volume of traffic, which may create bottlenecks. They should seek

professional advice.’



SDL’s Melvin agrees: ‘Intranets need careful managing in the early

stages. Companies gain Internet access then switch to Intranets without

thinking through their needs. An Intranet must be viewed as an integral

part of the communications mix.



Case study: Improving existing systems with E.News



‘In the past 12 months there has been a surge in the number of companies

and organisations switching to electronic technology to enhance their

communications,’ says David Davis chairman of Ion International. ‘And

demand will accelerate as more companies establish Intranets,’ he

forecasts.



Ion is the European distributor for E.News, on-screen publishing

software which can be delivered by e-mail. E.News is a publishing tool

that can then be distributed via Intranet, e-mail or disk.



E.News automatically turns basic text into newsletters with columns,

headlines, illustrations and turning pages. It can also poll readers for

internal audits, reader surveys and market research.



‘E-mail is not effective for communicating company messages to a broad

audience. It has no priorities, gets clogged with junk mail and it is

difficult to carry graphics and photographs,’ explains Davis.



Worldwide energy company British Petroleum began using E.News a year

agoto create a knowledge network that electronically links the company’s

top executives around the world to provide them with up-to-date

management information.



‘It was important that this network was designed to reinforce the view

of BP as a single organisation,’ says BP project manager Graham

Williams. ‘We needed a tool that could deliver information via our

existing computer networks, reliably and in a way that would encourage

our executives to use it.’



BP is using E.News software to produce E.Brief, a monthly newsletter of

management information that includes graphics. It is distributed through

the company’s global e-mail network from head quarters in London to 350

top executives in 45 of its locations across 25 countries. It has also

set up a pilot Intranet site to provide a more permanent and interactive

information resource.



Other E.News clients include Pfizer Pharmaceuticals, Allied Domecq and

chemical company Olin Corporation.



But what of the future?



‘We’re finalising work on video compression technology that will enable

the introduction of high quality video into E.News. It will mean the



first walking, talking company newsletter,’ says Davis.



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