E-business Convergence: The Melding of Internet and Intranet

by Toby Ward — The drive to reduce costs is prompting a convergence between the corporate intranet, extranet and Internet.

One website, multiple audiences. E-business convergence promises to meld Internet, extranet and intranet platforms into a single ubiquitous platform that serves up content and data based upon the user’s profile. Sounds glorious, doesn’t it?

Since the launch of the first intranets in the early 1990s and the extranets that followed, most organizations have employed different platforms, teams, design, applications and content for their respective website. Yet most sites use the same IP technology, require the same or similar infrastructure and software, and provide similar information to the various user groups (with some obvious exceptions). A rational planner will point out that there are valuable scales of economy to be garnered with a rationalization of these resources. Of course, this might make the hair of an IT security officer stand on-end.

Premier, Inc. is a leading U. S. healthcare alliance of more than 200 of the nation’s leading hospital and healthcare systems. Premier has developed a Web-based system that does blur the lines between the intranet, extranet and Web, providing access to a single system that recognizes the user’s identify and serves up information based on that user's privileges – be they a Premier employee, an employee of a member hospital, or an anonymous Web surfer. In other words, Premier has consolidated its e-business resources in an effort to reduce costs, increase efficiency and deliver tools and information based on the user and the nature of their requirements. Cool stuff, but most IT security pros aren’t willing to take such a glorious leap.

"The challenge in the next decade will be to leverage the Internet and existing IT investments to move beyond the isolated intranet, surrounded by its moat-like firewall," says Hewlett-Packard's William Murphy in Don Tapscott's best-selling book Blueprint for the Digital Economy.

"In this new era of e-business on the Internet, an isolated, centrally managed intranet is not sufficient. The same decentralized business models that have enabled the rapid adoption of intranet technology must be inter-networked beyond the firewall through the use of secure authorized access by authenticated individuals." In other words, intrusive barriers such as firewalls will be altered or torn down in order to facilitate enhanced collaboration between internal and external groups while allowing for more seamless navigation between an organization's intranet, extranet and Internet sites.

"In this new era of e-business on the Internet, an isolated, centrally managed intranet is not sufficient.”

-Hewlett-Packard’s William Murphy

No doubt about it, the single biggest obstacle impeding convergence is security. Shel Holtz, Principal of Holtz Communications & Technology and author of Public Relations on the Net says Premier’s system is “impressive”, but is also realist about the adoption rate and practicality of such systems for the average company.

"Distinctly different audiences create distinctly separate security needs,” says Holtz. Although a corporate intranet has a much higher level of security than both Internet sites and extranets, Holtz points out that the latter two are “generally not combined with the intranet because the hole through the firewall diminishes the security – better to run the risk that hackers will gain access to only the information on the extranet than to run the risk that they will gain access to all the company's information assets.”

When I first talked convergence in 1999 with renowned usability expert Dr. Jakob Nielsen, he highlighted the obvious need for collaboration beyond the firewall. “Collaborative teams need shared information spaces which need to cross firewalls. So they may in fact be part of 'both' companies' intranets from a design perspective. The point being that workspaces would be differently designed than customer spaces, even if the workspace encompassed employees of two or three companies."

Dr. Nielsen, a partner in the Nielsen Norman Group, isn’t necessarily an e-business convergence cheerleader though. Nielsen believes that the user is king and that convergence doesn’t necessarily benefit the user.“Different types of sites should be kept separate… for two reasons: first, the ground rule of usability is to design to support the users and their tasks. This means that the optimal design will be different for different types of users and for the support of different kinds of tasks,” states Nielsen. “Second, intranet designs should *look* different than public websites in order to emphasize to the employees when they are seeing confidential, internal information and when they are seeing publicly available information that they can feel free to share with outsiders.”

“Different types of sites should be kept separate… the ground rule of usability is to design to support the users and their tasks. This means that the optimal design will be different for different types of users..”-Dr. Jakob Nielsen, Ph.D., web 'guru ' and author of a number of books web usability and design books.

While Holtz recognizes the need to reduce costs and maximize profit, he argues that fully integrating Internet and intranet sites is not a palatable solution. "The suggestion that the same tools should be leveraged for economies makes as much sense as having the marketing department handle employee communications and investor relations."

"A Web site is designed to address a particular audience, such as a customer: Buy our product, use our service, recognize our brand, and trust our institution. Intranets are designed to facilitate the conduct of business within the organization such as addressing an employee audience. Eventually, we will see a seamless integration of the sites -- that is, it may be for an employee to move seamlessly between the intranet and the Web."

While Premier is undoubtedly ahead of the curve in the convergence arena, other companies are taking a measured approach that is more aligned with Holtz’s thoughts. Manulife Financial is one firm that is taking the incremental approach to convergence.

Toronto-based Manulife Financial is a global financial services and insurance firm that has more than 28,000 employees and agents and operates dozens of Internet, intranet and extranet sites. Recently they got smart and started to ‘reuse’ resources across platforms. While all sites are still operating separately, Manulife is preparing to launch a new enterprise intranet portal reusing the same navigation architecture, search engine and content management system deployed on the global Internet website. While the sites are distinctly different, with different designs (look-and-feel) and information architectures (how information is structured, labeled and organized), major underlying elements and applications are being reused in order to save money. Most content is also being managed centrally from the same department. 

Manulife is also examining the deployment of a single enterprise application and content management platform for use across the intranet, extranet and Internet next year.

While a consensus is building for better integration of e-business technology, people and expertise across Internet, extranet and intranet platforms, there is no convergence blueprint forthcoming. Corporate demand for efficiency, savings and scales of economy will encourage further integration of traditionally separate platforms, but complete integration will continue to face barriers from those that emphasize security and usability. 

A former journalist and a regular e-business columnist and speaker, Toby Ward is a senior intranet consultant and the founder of Prescient Digital Media. For more information on our One Day Consultation  © 2002 or a copy of the free white paper, Intranet ROI, contact us.