Column: Councils show how intranets can be put to work

One of the most difficult jobs for a large, dynamic organisation like a local council is to keep staff and management up-to-date with the latest rules and regulations, events, policies and staff directories.

One of the most difficult jobs for a large, dynamic organisation like a local council is to keep staff and management up-to-date with the latest rules and regulations, events, policies and staff directories. Two New Zealand councils, Dunedin and Auckland, have implemented intranets to address this and other information challenges.

Dunedin City Council IT manager Mike Harte says the city's intranet program, christened KnowledgeBase, grew out of its use of the Internet. "We had been using the Internet for a long time, but for finding, not providing, information. We had evolved into a series of 'fortresses of knowledge' where people's power base was the information that they held.

"Information was like currency. It was something to be held closely and spent wisely. We wanted to change that so that power is measured in the amount of information disseminated, not held. KnowledgeBase has helped us achieve this goal."

Harte says the council's main use of the intranet is to support customer service projects. "After all, we are in the customer service business. One of the beauties of using an intranet is that all of the information across the network is uniform. Everyone is reading from the same book, so we are reducing the amount of conflicting information that goes out."

Harte's sentiment is echoed by Mark Scott, user education manager at Auckland City. "We are basing our city-wide call centre operation on our intranet. Our goal is to have all public phone inquiries go to an operator sitting at an intranet terminal. They will log the call and then use the intranet, as well as other online resources, to satisfy the request, hopefully in the first instance.

"If everyone is using the same information, we hope to reduce confusion that can arise from different interpretations. Right now, 10 operators are using the system full-time, with 50 more seats planned in the upcoming months.

"We have also placed a large amount of less detailed information on our organisation-wide intranet for staff in general. We already have at least 110 regular users who log on to get information on events, news and announcements. We'd like to expand our information content, update the information daily and then put the whole system online for public consumption, but that is still a way off."

The costs of implementing these projects have been relatively modest. Dunedin has more or less piggy-backed the project on top of existing hardware and software. Auckland, on the other hand, has built much of the infrastructure from scratch and has also invested a lot of resources in creating the online information base.

"Though we have put a lot of time and effort into the project, the work needed to be done, regardless of whether or not the information was distributed via a net or by print," says Auckland IT manager Doug Elder. "In fact, we probably are saving money in printing and distribution."

Both Dunedin and Auckland are using intranet technology to further organisational goals. They are doing it neatly, quickly, and successfully.

Mark Scott says that "training is almost a non-issue. The intranet interface is intuitive. We give people a little bit of 'show-and-tell' and they are off using it as designed. It's really quite rewarding to see how well it has been accepted."

Intranets, in spite of all the hype and hoopla, really do work as promised. Auckland and Dunedin are proving it.

(Phil Parent is Computerworld's internet editor and a consultant at Auckland company Creative Data. Email him at pjp@iprolink.co.nz or visit Creative Data's Web site at http://www.cd.co.nz/cd.)

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