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Intranet Challenges: Online Work and Communication
A Knowledge Ability White Paper
Dr. John Gundry
Published at www.knowab.co.uk/wbwintra.html
A PDF version of this paper is available on request.
One reason for having an intranet is that it greatly increases people's access to an organization's information assets. But a more significant aspect of intranets, we argue, is to increase the amount of work and communication which people do online rather than face-to-face. We describe some of the new challenges that people who are working and communicating online, remote from their colleagues, encounter daily. To meet these challenges, people and organizations must develop specific skills, insights and knowledge if they are to operate effectively in the age of intranets.
Most of today's interest in intranets surrounds the capabilities of this technology for the widespread internal publishing of rich, well-structured organizational information. For example, research data, product libraries, sales packs, development plans, organization charts, departmental profiles and corporate information and procedures can be published widely and in depth in a range of appropriate and attractive media: text, graphics, images, animation, sound and movies. Intranets make this corporate information available through user-friendly interfaces across a variety of platforms throughout the organization. Surely this is the answer to what people in the late 80's were calling the challenge of informating?
Indeed, intranet technology does offer enormous potential to put the information that people need at their fingertips, and to lighten the load in publishing and maintaining that information. But that is not the point of this paper. Here we present another aspect of intranets. We describe the way that intranets will affect the way that people communicate and work with each other. To do that, we need to take a brief look at the first-level and second-level effects of communications technology.
First and Second-Level Effects of Communications Technology
Psychologists Lee Sproull and Sara Kiesler wrote about the phenomenon of first-level and second-level effects of communications technology in their 1991 book 'Connections' . Their argument is as follows:
Second-level effects can indeed defeat the intended first-level effect. Neil Postman writes  that Gutenberg, the inventor of printing, was a devoted Christian, and thought that the printing press would advance the cause of the Holy Roman See. In fact it brought about a knowledge revolution which destroyed the monopoly of the Church.
Postman also writes that the Benedictine monks who invented the mechanical clock believed it would regularize their seven periods of daily devotion, which it did (first-level effect). But the clock also brought regularity to life outside the monastery. It enabled regular production, regular working hours, and standardized product. Without the clock, capitalism (a second-level effect, and rather a significant one) would have been impossible. So the clock, which was invented by men who wanted to devote themselves more rigorously to God, ended up as the technology of greatest use to men who wished to devote themselves to money.
Sproull and Kiesler explain that second-level effects occur because the technology changes what people attend to, and how they depend on and relate to other people. They also explain, and we can see from the above examples, that second-level effects are also more significant and long-lasting than first-level effects.
First and Second-Level Effects of Intranets
If we return now to intranets, we observe that the first-level effect of intranets is to enable corporate information to be published more cost-effectively. We argue that the second-level effect of intranets is to lead to new patterns of online communication and the emergence of the online, virtual workplace.
Our argument is reinforced by the personal communication tools (email and web / computer conferencing) now included in web browsers, and by the emergence of the 'network' computers. These technology developments and the phenomenon of second-level effects will accelerate virtual, online working through intranets, both within and between organizations. We can see now the ways in which this is already happening:
Intranets, then, display exactly the characteristics needed to create the second-level effect of accelerating online work and communication. They change what people attend to (the intranet, not the physical office). The ready interpersonal communication they enable (through distributed information and exhibition of knowledge, together with 'one click away' communication tools) creates new patterns of relationships within the organization. After corporate networking in the late 1980's, and groupware in the early / mid 1990's, intranets are the third, and on account of the widespread acceptance of the underlying internet protocols, the most decisive technology to fuel the emergence of the online workplace.
The Intranet Challenge - Competency in Working Online
Given that intranets will accelerate the pace and scope of online work and communication, how will people cope? Will they have the skills to make full and best use of this technology? Intranet publishing has its own skills and challenges, particularly those of presenting continually-accurate information in a well-structured and accessible manner. However, while not underestimating these skills, they are technical in nature and not very different from the well-understood skills of producing a good report or brochure. Publishing on an intranet is not a deeply personal matter of communication, working in new ways, and forming relationships that enable team work.
If, as we predict, a second-level effect of intranets is to accelerate migration to the online workplace, we can also predict very confidently that people will need to be prepared for that online workplace. We know that non face-to-face communication, and online work with remote colleagues, creates completely new challenges, stresses and opportunities for which the Mark I human being is not evolutionarily prepared. Existing communication and work skills, developed over years of face-to-face, collocated work, do not transfer to and sustain high performance online work. In the remainder of the paper we look at some of the challenges of communicating and working online and at strategies to meeting these challenges.
The impact of intranets on organizational life goes far beyond the first level of publishing and access to rich, up to date information. The second-level, less predicted, and more significant effect of intranets is to dramatically increase personal and group messaging, and to create a climate in which work moves online ('the network is the workplace') and in which virtual remote working  is regarded as an obvious solution for an increasingly global business environment. The issues raised here about competency in working and communicating online are addressed by the WORKING BY WIRE  portfolio of skill development modules offered by the authors. By describing some of the issues we all face in working effectively online, we hope to stimulate readers to reflect on their own situations; and to consider the skills, knowledge and insights they need to gain full value from the promise of intranets.
1. Sproull, Lee, and Kiesler, Sara. Connections: new ways of working in the networked organization. The MIT Press, Cambridge MA. 1991
2. Postman, Neil. Informing ourselves to death. Speech to a meeting of the German Informatics Society, October 11, 1990, Stuttgart, Germany http://www.eff.org/pub/Net_culture/Criticisms/informing_ourselves_to_death.paper
3. Grenier, Ray, and Metes, George. Going virtual: moving your organization into the 21st century. Prentice Hall PTR, New Jersey, 1995
4. WORKING BY WIRE web pages published at www.knowab.co.uk/wbw
Please cite this paper as:
Gundry, John, and Metes, George, "Intranet Challenges: Online Work and Communication". A Working by Wire White Paper from Knowledge Ability Ltd, Malmesbury UK and Virtual Learning Systems, Inc., Manchester NH USA. Published at www.knowab.co.uk/wbwintra.html. June 1997.
About the authors
Comments and inquires regarding this paper are welcomed. Please contact either of us.
Dr John Gundry is Director of Knowledge Ability Ltd, a UK-based company that provides international training and consulting on virtual teams, remote working and flexible working. Contact: www.knowab.co.uk - firstname.lastname@example.org - +44 (0)1666 824644
Dr George Metes is retired Director and Principal Consultant North America for Agility International, a company that provides education and consulting in the Agility / Business Agility paradigm for organisational adaptability. Previously George was President of Virtual Learning Systems, Inc.
Knowledge Ability Ltd offers the WORKING BY WIRE training and consulting services on virtual teams, remote working and flexible working, viewable at www.knowab.co.uk/wbw.html
Working by Wire is a trademark of Knowledge Ability Ltd.
This paper is copyright © Knowledge Ability Ltd 1997, 1998, 2001 and copyright © Virtual Learning Systems Inc., 1997, 1998, 2001. All Rights Reserved.
Permission is granted to copy and distribute this paper provided that it is copied and distributed unaltered and entire, including this entire Section 'Notices'. No permission is granted to exploit the information in this paper for any commercial purpose whatsoever.
The information in this paper may contain errors. This paper does not constitute an offer or sample. Neither Knowledge Ability Ltd or Virtual Learning Systems Inc. warrant the accuracy of the information in this paper. This paper is provided "as is" without express or implied warranty.
Version 2.4 affiliation revisions June 2002 and October 2013