Intranet Users Tackle Chaos

CHICAGO (07/21/2000) - Merrill Lynch & Co. has about 200 registered intranet sites. That's 40% more than it had a year ago, and that's a source of growing frustration for the users trying to navigate them.

"Coming to a site to find information is like going to a library where all the books are in random piles," said Renata Gorman, director of interactive technology at the company's private client group.

But the New York-based financial services company undertook a pilot project to bring order to the chaos, establishing a taxonomy for its sales force's Learning Network. Plans also call for taxonomies to connect Merrill Lynch's various Internet and intranet sites, said Gorman.

Merrill Lynch isn't alone.

Now that many companies have maturing intranets, they are trying to take them to the next level, making them better organized, easier to search and better equipped to take advantage of back-office data. Several intranet managers at last week's Intranet Content Management Conference, run by the International Quality &Productivity Center, said they were also working on taxonomies - meaningful classifications of content.

Some, like Merrill Lynch's pilot project staffers, took additional painstaking steps to turn content into components, or objects, that are stored in a repository. Then they slapped meta tags onto the components to make the content easier to manage, reuse and categorize. Several staffers at other companies said they're evaluating portal software and content management packages.

"This year we've seen much more awareness of the mess we have on our hands, and we're seeing some initiatives to try to bring sanity to the insanity," said Gene Phifer, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Group Inc.

Hershey Foods Corp.'s 5-year-old intranet has individual sites maintained by various company departments. But when those departments wanted to share their growing pools of information, "it was hard to determine exactly where to go to find it," said Joni Pfautz, Internet/intranet coordinator at the Hershey, Pa., company.

Within the past year, small focus groups have worked on a companywide taxonomy, trying to "name categories the way folks would look for" information, Pfautz said. Adozen or so top-level categories have been implemented on the home page, and Pfautz is trying to coordinate 70-plus "gatekeepers" of intranet sites to use the taxonomy and contribute links to different sites.

But one stumbling block for many companies has been cost, as attention gets focused on their external sites. Abigail Shaw, information master at Fireman's Fund Insurance Co. in Novato, Calif., said she's working to show hard numbers to quantify the benefits so she can make a business case for intranet improvements.

Kelly Thul, intranet coordinator at State Farm Insurance Cos. in Bloomington, Ill., noted that portal and content management packages can be expensive and create the need for fundamental changes to a company's intranet content development approach.

State Farm is planning the first major redesign of its 4-year-old intranet in hope of offering more personalized and flexible content, but the "handcrafted HTML"pages it has been creating won't put his company in position to do that, Thul said, adding, "You've got to start looking at tools.".

To date, many companies have stored monolithic Web pages in servers for delivery to their end users. But in the future, they want to be able to break down those pages into pieces of data that can be pulled together on the fly and presented in Web pages that are more useful to their employees. Those dynamic pages could include data from back-office applications.

"We want a more integrated intranet," said Jeff Thompson, corporate webmaster at Syncrude Canada Ltd. He said the Fort McMurray, Alberta-based company wants to "marry" unstructured information with the structured data from various client/server and back-office applications, such as individualized retirement benefits or vacation time.

A Syncrude team also is working with a consultant on a corporatewide taxonomy to create a more organized intranet for the 3,500 employees and 2,000 contract workers who use it.