Cyber Entrepreneurship

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Internal processing for Enhanced Performance, Albert A. Angehrn

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Internal Web sites, known as intranets, offer businesses most of the same functions as groupware at a lower price, and without the need to tie themselves in to a single groupware vendor. They make it easier for employees to access and share internal information.

Intranets are protected from outside users by establishing physical filters between networks, known as fire walls. The level of access to the intranet can be adjusted in function of the user's status, so that members of the "extended enterprise family" (suppliers and other partners) have more restrictions than members of the "nuclear family" (employees) - and access may be further differentiated depending on position with the firm.

The ICDT model can be used to in this context to describe the new space of opportunities available to companies for increasing the efficiency and effectiveness of organizational agents through the set-up of appropriate Intranet/groupware platforms [Gow 1996]. Again, this spaced of opportunities can be divided into four separate "Virtual Spaces" as illustrated in figure 2.

Figure 2: The extension of the traditional interaction space in which organizational agents operate.

Information space: In contrast with the widespread use of the VIS externally, internally it is pretty much neglected. Companies do not tend to go to much trouble to let employees know who is who or who does what, beyond providing up-to-date phone directories. One can advance two explanations for this: first, there is a readily accessible informal system which can supply this information; second, internal relationships are formally structured, so there are accepted channels to be respected - it is presumed, that there is no need for people to start contacting other people out of the blue.

But there are other ways of exploiting this information channel. One is to use it to post up internal jobs offers, to provide lists of available reports. Another is to use it to highlight people's achievements in various parts of the company - to make activities and results more visible - we are here, we are doing this, in this way, and this well).

According to Hewlett-Packard its own intranet links 35,000 users around the world, who achieve 700,000 hits a day on more than 800,000 pages of content. All their information is there, from product files and prices, to people information and spreadsheets [Wheatley 1996].

Communication space: here again, we see a marked contrast with what companies are trying to do in the external environment. Internally, companies are investing heavily in creating communication spaces in the hope that it will improve information sharing.

For example, Silicon Graphics, the US computer company, has an internal web site known as Silicon Junction. Everyday, about half the employees call up the site and it is reported to be the preferred method of disseminating and accessing information company wide [Houlder 1996].

This is also the objective of many of the consulting firms - the idea being that this virtual space will serve as a repository for the knowledge within the firm. They hope that this will help to leverage the knowledge capital of the firm, both intentionally and unintentionally - by providing a place where people can "bump into" each other. But there are two problems with this: the first is that much of the knowledge in people's heads is tacit, and therefore difficult to articulate. The second problem is behavioural. People are not used to sharing, especially in highly competitive cultures like consultancy - and without a tangible payoff at the end. Some of the consultancies are trying to remedy this by changing their reward systems to encourage cooperation. But it may take time for mindsets to change.

Besides using the VCS to set up knowledge bases, it can also be used to support remote teams. For example, a US car manufacturer is now engaging in product development using advanced groupware - bringing "together" managerial talent from around the world to collaborate in virtual teams. Car prototypes are built and tested in a simulated environment and designs and data are shared with colleagues over a computer network, 24 hours a day, around the world. It is even possible to engage suppliers and customers in the process, thus collapsing the lead times for bringing a product to market.

One can also conceive that companies might want to create virtual communication spaces of a less instrumental nature - designed to foster a sense of belonging between remote team members, or even "stakeholder communities" which might encourage communication employees, suppliers, independent contractors and distributors.

Distribution space: The intranet can be used to distribute services and materials which employees need to be informed about - product or market news, communicating corporate policies, the new structure of a particular division, the budget guidelines for the year, software packages and upgrades, or customer support information for the salespeople.

For example, Eli Lilly & Co uses its intranet to manage clinical trials and drug approcal processes in more than 120 countries - the network enables employees worldwide to access data bases detailing the complex requirements for drug testing and approval in each country, facilitating the process of moving drugs through trials [Gross 1996].

The VDS can also be used to deliver in-house training to multiple users in different locations and at different times.

Transaction space: The workflow applications are considerable. All internal interactions which are formal and can be captured in a form can be automatised. Typically, this will relate to the processing of expense claims, budget requests and the like.

AT&T recently introduced digital transaction technology across divisions that buy and sell goods from one another. This provides an opportunity to test out the feasibility of money transfers in a protected environment - before extending this facility to external transactions [Rayport & Sviokla 1995].

While this requires considerable investment, the real implications are human rather than technical. These investments result in disintermediation - in other words, redundancies.

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