Intranet Standards Were Key For Growth


Posted on 25th October 2015 by admin in Tech

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iswkWhen separate groups started laying intranet foundations at the global construction and engineering giant, a corporate group took charge of defining the specs

With architectural and engineering wonders like the San Francisco Bay Bridge and the Hoover Dam to its name, Bechtel Group Inc. knows one thing above all else: If you want to build something that lasts, you’ve got to lay a good foundation–and that means planning. So it was fitting that as soon as employees at the $7.9 billion construction, architecture and engineering company began expressing interest in building a corporate intranet in late 1994, the company quickly formed its Web Advisory Board to step in and define the guidelines for the job.

The board’s main mission: to encourage the use and development of World Wide Web technology among the company’s 20,000 worldwide employees. More important, the group defines important technology and style standards for its intranet–dubbed BecWeb–such as guidelines on HTML authoring, Web interface design and complying with systems architecture.

Getting it right–before the fact–is a good approach, says one observer. “Imposing structure [on your intranet] after the fact is much harder than setting standards in advance,” says Jakob Nielsen, Web design guru and engineer at SunSoft Inc., the Mountain View, Calif., software division of Sun Microsystems Inc. Nielsen says Bechtel has the right idea by developing design standards early, because people developing pages for an intranet won’t waste their time creating sites that eventually have to be redone. Also, establishing a consistent look and feel across the intranet makes it much easier for employees to find and use information.

Establishing standards for BecWeb was paramount. Although it began as an ad hoc initiative, Bechtel’s intranet has evolved into one of two key components in the company’s Global Knowledge Network. Bechtel is developing the GKN so company employees can get important information faster. The reason: In order to stay ahead, Bechtel needs to build more structures and do it faster. “We can save our customers money and give them a high-quality facility in a shorter period of time if we can find information and use it more readily,” says Neil Howard, principal engineer with Bechtel’s IT AIM (automation integration management) group, in Gaithersburg, Md.

The project also calls for BecWeb to be integrated with Documentum Inc.’s InfoWorks, a document management system that currently houses data such as human resources information. Bechtel is beta-testing Accelera, an Internet utility from Documentum, in Pleasanton, Calif., as a tool to connect the two systems.

Standards will do more than make it easier for Bechtel to create and leverage the GKN. By defining the guidelines early, the Web Advisory Board hopes to make it easier to maintain the intranet down the road. Just to make sure, the group has put another check in place: It has “divided” the intranet into two tiers. (The sections will be seamlessly integrated, however.) The first tier, or enterprise level, consists of five intranet servers running Netscape Communications Corp.’s Enterprise. The Web Advisory Group will be responsible for supporting and maintaining this section of the intranet, which will include mission-critical and companywide information such as engineering standards, internal guidelines and documentation and design specs. The enterprise portion of the intranet also will have the benefit of 24-by-7 support by the in-house IT group and backup from an uninterruptible power supply.

Any department that wants to contribute information to the enterprise tier will have to adhere to the guidelines the Web Advisory Board lays out. But in order to encourage everyone to experiment and find new intranet applications, the board decided to allow a second local tier, where departments won’t necessarily be required to comply with all of the standards.

Building excitement

Howard has spent the past six months traveling around to departments throughout Bechtel rallying support for BecWeb and compiling the information that needs to be part of the intranet. His task also includes touting the benefits of sticking to the Web Advisory Board’s standards even on the local level. “We expect them to move [a lot of the information] onto the corporate servers over time,” so there’s a clear payoff if the information is already in the approved format, says Howard. Meanwhile, he is helping departments “catalog” the knowledge and information they have to contribute to the intranet and to determine what kind of information they hope to get from the intranet.

Therein lies one of the major challenges in building BecWeb. “It takes a lot of talking, having to explain the architecture and the philosophy behind the intranet,” says Howard. Getting people excited about how they might benefit from using the intranet is the easy part, he adds. Convincing them that they should put in the effort to contribute information to the system–knowledge they sometimes aren’t willing to share–is another story.

And even in a company where specs and guidelines are generally valued, enforcing standards for BecWeb isn’t always easy. Initially, for example, Howard had hoped the company would standardize on the Netscape browser. In fact, the majority of the company has. But Bechtel has had a strong relationship with Microsoft Corp. in the past–the company is currently migrating from Windows 3.1 to Windows 95 and Windows NT servers–so a large contingent was in favor of using Explorer. The result of the browser wars: Both can be found throughout the Bechtel enterprise.

Since Bechtel employees will be using both the Explorer and Netscape browsers, departments developing Web pages will have to take some extra details into consideration. Explorer, for example, doesn’t support Java, while Netscape does. But Howard says the conflict is not as much of a problem as it is a small nuisance–fortunately one that will likely disappear as the browser vendors release new versions of their products with more compatible features.

Meanwhile, development for BecWeb is moving ahead full steam. Several information resources are already available via the intranet, such as a site published by the financial transaction processing center in Phoenix that allows employees to get information on expense accounts and health insurance payments. Another financial system uses Nomad Development Corp.’s WebDBC to tie image map graphics to an Oracle Corp. database with regional financial information. Managers can click on a graphical map to get the latest financial stats for that area.

But perhaps one of Bechtel’s most unique intranet applications–one that clearly ties right back to the company’s business–is still to come. Mike Albert, chairman of the Web Advisory Board and automation coordinator for Bechtel’s civil engineering department in Houston, is overseeing a small group of developers that is using VRML (Virtual Reality Modeling Language) to create Web-accessible three-dimensional models of several of Bechtel’s plant designs. The language is still young, and there are currently problems with bandwidth and storage. But as VRML matures, Albert expects his group will be able to develop a 3D catalog portfolio of Bechtel’s stock designs that can be put on the company’s intranet and even its public Internet Web pages. It could even become a new company standard.

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