I remember just a few years ago hearing talk about "the
information superhighway". I also remember thinking "this idea is so big I will
certainly not have to worry about it for a while". I am amazed at how fast the
highway has been built! I now find myself worrying about web developments every
In this column, I will explore the impact this is having on the IS
departments which are faced with this evolving web technology. Once again the IS
departmental paradigm is changing, and this change has surfaced a whole new
group of issues which are demanding resolution. If you look closely within your
organization, you will probably find your staff dealing with these types of
issues already: web presence, technology selection, content ownership, and
strategic impact. Understanding and taking a clear departmental position on each
of these issues is becoming more important every day.
Having a company web presence has quickly gone from "should we?" to "how fast
can we get it!". Even the smallest companies now have the ability to get
on-line. In my city (Austin, Texas, USA), any company can have an "information
page" on the web by simply contacting CitySearch Austin. This on-line web presence is becoming
very important for companies of all sizes. As the web becomes a second
"television appliance" in the home, consumers are using the web to seek out
web-based information about companies just like they used to with paper-based
Companies with supplier/vendor relationships will also demand more
capabilities from web technology. Content such as on-line price lists, product
information, announcements, inventory, technical information, and support will
all be important customer and supplier demands. For an example of this, look at
how sophisticated the Dell Service and Support Center web site has become. How
soon will it be before your customers demand this level of web-based
As the pressure mounts for this company web presence, IS departments are
increasingly faced with these options:
- Use an "information page" service to get on-line.
This type of
service creates the HTML for the company site, and then posts it under their URL
address. This is a cheap, quick option with very little flexibility. It is also
the best choice for small businesses. Citysearch is a great example - to find an
Austin business you go to the mega-site, and then "drill-down" to a business
category. The odds are much greater using this approach for getting qualified
traffic to your site than by trusting your internet fortunes to a giant search
- Use an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for an internet address and space on
This service option allows creativity and flexibility in your
company web site development. The ISP worries about the servers and the web
connections, and you worry about the content. Again, many choices are involved.
Many ISP's have content creation services, or you can find a web content firm to
create your pages, or you can have someone in your own company take this
responsibility. This ISP site hosting option is probably the best choice for
medium sized businesses.
- Establish a direct connection to the web from your company.
this option means that your IS department just got very busy. All technology,
connectivity, and uptime responsibilities are now a corporate responsibility.
This option is taken by large companies who see that the web is clearly
providing competitive advantage and that they want full control. The IS
department must now insure it has adequate technical and administrative
resources for server management, telecommunications management, content
programming, and data connectivity.
The list of options for web technology deployment continues to grow. The
marketplace has now realized that the web represents a huge future investment by
both companies and consumers. Consequently, the battle lines are being drawn,
browser vs. browser, language vs. language, server vs. server, and standard vs.
standard. These decisions represent billions of dollars of revenue for the web
technology companies. This leaves the IS departments with the task of making the
appropriate selections during a time when the ultimate standards can go many
directions. Compounding this task is the fact that two company webs can be
involved: the internet (for external connectivity) and the intranet (for
internal employee use). Both can pose vastly different business
- Internet Technology
The IS department internet implementation
decisions are generally focused on selecting the optimal ISP, specifying the
HTML standards and language imbedding, and choosing the correct backroom
servers, operating systems, routers, and firewalls. The deployment and support
of this internet technology may require the use of consultants, the creation of
new departmental positions, and the implementation of training programs for
current employees. These activities can quickly require a new look at the
overall IS organization and the resulting web support employee
- Intranet Technology
The IS department intranet selection decisions
are generally focused on the client browser tools, the server software, the
database gateways, and the web-based business applications. The IS department
must be sensitive to choosing products which will fit within their current
technology infrastructure. Once deployed, the ongoing intranet support becomes a
new area which requires yet another set of specialized IS skills. For long term
intranet deployment and support, the IS department must review and optimize its
organization and responsibilities.
This is the number one issue which IS departments overlook, but which
eventually pops up and says "surprise - I just became your biggest issue"! In
order to get a web project off the ground, the IS department may "volunteer" its
content creation services for the initial site construction. Then the site is
deployed, traffic picks up, some time passes, the content needs revising, and
guess what? No one in the business area has the time or the skills to maintain
the content. The IS employee who created the page may now be charged with
maintaining it on an on-going basis. This unplanned content maintenance can
consume scarce IS hours quickly! It may also cause an unacknowledged and
unsupported job description change to occur for the affected IS employee.
The lesson here is to set expectations and assign eventual content
maintenance responsibilities before ever building a single web page. The
exception I would make is prototype development. This may be necessary in order
to sell the concept. But when the "live" pages are being created - this should
be done by the ultimate, recognized content maintainer. This may end up being
someone in the IS department who has a passion for web page authoring. Just make
sure that everyone agrees that this will really be his or her recognized job.
This will avoid the "content orphan syndrome" - stale, out of date content in an
internet or intranet site with no assigned maintainer.
Have you been reading the trade magazines lately? Are you getting the sense
that the many application vendors are pouring their resources into web-based
products? I know I have! What seems to be shaping up is another completely new
IS application platform. To me, the model looks something like this:
- The client interface to the business application will be a browser like
Navigator or Explorer.
- The applications will be HTML forms on internet/intranet servers with
imbedded Java processing.
- The data will be contained on a universal SQL database server which can
store data in tables or as multimedia file types. Data acceptance rules will be
a part of the database.
This model is beginning to make me a little uneasy about a huge investment in
another large client server system. However, not to many industrial strength
applications have hit the market yet which meet the model. For now, I'll cover
my bets by deploying browsers, servers, and databases, and then see what the
market comes up with next. The odds are that we will all be reorganizing our
departments and retraining our employees at that time anyway!