Case Study: Netobjects Authoring Server Suite

Setting up an intranet for your firm can boost morale and effectiveness

Setting up an intranet for your firm can boost morale and effectiveness

It's tempting to see intranet building as a question of software and hardware tools. But those who have been there and done that are quick to point out that there's a lot more to creating a successful intranet than simply setting up on the servers and churning out the HTML. People like Clare Mapes, for example, intranet service manager at Thomas Cook, who went live with the company's intranet last September, says: "The biggest issue? Change management and taking care of the human side is the largest part of the job and one that can't be underestimated".

You might think that change management and the human angle means getting colleagues to accept, use and benefit from an intranet. But, as Mapes knows well, the first step lies in convincing management of the benefits and winning the confidence required for the all important green light. "On the team we've always known the potential, but we have to prove it. We have to prove it all the time, drawing up justifications for new team members and fighting for resources."

With the intranet (TCNet to its friends) now rolled out to 900 users, with a target of 2000 by the end of the year and another possible 8000 in the offing, it's clear that Mapes's team has managed to deliver the goods to managers and users alike. It hasn't been by thinking small.

Mapes asserts: "Our mission statement is to establish TCNet as the platform for global communications, corporate knowledge, business solutions and the future development of e-business. We'd like all Thomas Cook employees to have access and for it to become the default communication tool for simply everything people need to know."

With the concerns of change management, consistency, clarity and control, the TCNet team looked at other intranets to see how other industry leaders were using web publishing. They were faced with the nightmare task of training business users to use Word and chose Netobjects because they felt that its template facilities allowed users a fast track start to web publishing that would allow even novices to add their own content to precreated page style and layout. This allowed them to create a corporate uniformity for their staff pages.

TCNet uses Netobjects Authoring Server Suite which allowed them to supervise the progress of staff sites in development and offer help and advice as required. "If they call us for help, we can get into their sites from in front of our own screens and help them out directly, so it offers us that control we need with the user friendliness for our clients," explains Mapes.

TCNet came out of a background of mixed products. The staff previously used Front Page while the developers were using HTML. During the six-month changeover to Team Fusion, team members moved on from Fusion 1.0 to Authoring Server Suite to get additional functions (the components and Javascript). They are sticking with the Authoring Suite simply because "we simply wouldn't want to give up our levels of control."

TCNet is designed around three areas; "work, rest and play". Under "work" and "rest" there are a selection of sites aimed at improving internal communications, combating the familiar corporate evils of facelessness and confusion over roles. "We have business sites where individual departments can publicise what they do, explaining their role and who they are - all personalised with photographs," says Mapes.

In addition to putting the human face back into an organisation, this also singles out each department's role with a view to improving its fit within the company: "It's all about telling others what they do in order to improve their own processes. Which in turn helps smooth out the workings of the corporate machinery. For example, we have a global services site which has just implemented an application for logging calls about system problems. Previously, users had to send in details by email but this had to be in strict format, in order to be processed by the call logging system, and users had to remember that set way of working. That approach was fraught with problems but by using the intranet site, a user can fill in the details with the promptings of an online form."

TCNet also has an important role in helping users navigate through the welter of standards and policy statements that abound in a global corporation. "We have a traveller's cheque acceptance site, used by all our call centres, which instantly advises them of the best types of cheques for any particular country along with details of where they can be cashed."

Other business sites include the phone directory, information on millennium bug squashing, internal vacancies and clear explanations of uses of the intranet and Internet. As new sections are added or points of interest emerge, the TCNet team brings it to the attention of those concerned by firing off emails to the appropriate mail lists - this includes a shortcut in the mail to transport them to the site.

There is even a virtual personal assistant taking the confusion and inconvenience out of tasks such as booking meeting rooms, ordering buffet lunches or buying a train ticket. Mapes claims that: "The great thing is that the sites themselves are a showcase demonstrating our value to the business areas - it gives a good impression and it improves the way we work with our internal customers."

"The 'rest' and 'play' sections of TCNet also improve relations with internal customers by helping ease people into the habit of intranet usage. In the 'play' we have non-work related content - news, information and, recently, we launched a sandwich booking form from the canteen so you can book your lunch for the day.

"It's also where we host an individual's home page, something we encourage because it's a great way of learning HTML. Which is a lynchpin of the TCNet approach, spreading the message in every sense by encouraging internal client departments to take part, developing their own sites and actively engaging in the ownership of them. People are seeing our approach to IT and they start to see how it could be applied to their department."

While TCNet is growing as new departments take to it, its development is carefully controlled, with the onus still on justification at every stage.

"All websites have to have proven benefit, so the first step to creating an intranet web site is to complete a concept paper including business benefits, goals and cost - both the cost of creating the site and then of maintaining it. That way we get people to buy into it right from the start, since including their commitment to keep it going which has to be signed off by a line manager. Before the site can go live, they fill out a maintenance agreement in which they sign up to maintain and update, at specified intervals, whether that be daily, quarterly, yearly or whatever is appropriate. They have to let users know how often it will be updated and if the site is not maintained, we simply take it down. Its essential - we had a pilot scheme for one year and one of the things that it was most criticised for was out of date content, or content being buried so you couldn't find it. You just have to have consistency of look and of navigation."

The next challenge for TCNet is expansion across the country. "In the UK, we're aiming to get up to 2000 people by the end of the year and, of course, we are planning quite a few new sites to go with that. In addition, the retail side of the company is looking at access to TCNet as well, which would mean including 800 branches - that's some 8000 people all by September of next year. "

Which suggests that all the hard justifying the TCNet team has been made to do has paid off. "It's great - we've just recruited two new team members to provide a platinum level of service. It's seen as a very sexy activity within the company and we've all had to learn so much after starting off with no experience of intranets. We've still got a long way to go, but we're learning all the time and actually it's fun too."

Or, as TCNet itself might put it, a balance of "work rest and play".

Rachel Hodgkins

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