Intranets: A World of Possibilities

  • Written By: Lynn Koller
  • Published On: June 27 2000



Introduction

Most banks have plans for the Internet. Even though few derive a quantifiable profit from investing in an Internet program, inertia in this electronic era may equal eventual extinction. The Internet is one of the most ballyhooed innovations of the past couple of decades, and has spawned hundreds of new technologies for the banking industry. One of these is a practical tool that few banks have seized onto: an intranet.

Paper-based documents lie at the root of the problem. From them, stems inefficient, duplicitous work processes. These documents can multiply like weeds and impede the growth of productivity in a bank. Even if a bank wants to clear its garden, reengineering work processes can perplex the most methodical individuals. The challenge is to think differently, and avoid simply turning an inefficient process into an inefficient electronic process. For some institutions, an intranet will help untangle the jungle of document management activities carried out by their staffs.

Mike Parry, Director of Web Development at Brintech, a bank technology firm, provides an example. "Say a bank wants to redefine the way that loan documents are transferred between the branch and main office, and right now they're delivered by courier or mail. The bank could decide to electronically scan the loan application and e-mail it back and forth between offices, but that really just mirrors the same old process. Or, they could store the information in one place and have the necessary parties view and signoff on it." An intranet provides a mechanism to streamline this process.

The popularity of intranets in U.S. industry is growing steadily. An intranet is roughly a microcosm of the Internet. It functions on a browser-based platform that manages many of internal functions and work processes of an organization. The difference is access-the owner holds the key. Generally, access is limited to employees within an organization, but can be extended to vendors, clients, or anyone else authorized by the intranet's administrator. Controlling access and ensuring security become important issues, particularly for a financial institution.

An intranet precisely built can thoroughly simplify work processes and provide a repository of all internal, electronic data. It empowers employees and reduces the waste that paper-based documents create. The decision to implement an intranet requires that people in each bank department progressively rethink the way that they do business. Everyone should thoroughly review workflow processes and the trail that each document travels in the bank.

Evaluating the Situation

Decision-makers first need to determine whether to invest in an intranet. To evaluate whether an intranet program would fit into a bank, a bank should address the following questions:

  • Does the organization significantly produce, distribute, and update paper-based documents?

  • Do employees often need to consolidate information from different places or sources?

  • Does the organization require communication between people who are geographically dispersed?

  • Are employees often required to research information to complete a task?

  • Is the organization committed to a comprehensive reengineering project?

  • Does the organization have the resources to implement and manage a significant technological project?

Commitment and resources are key components of a successful project. The intranet needs sufficient resources to complete the project judiciously and maintain its integrity. The bank must answer affirmatively to the above questions related to these factors for a successful intranet project. Decision makers should consider that some results are intangible and difficult to quantify.

Cost and Return

There are obvious costs, such as buying a server, if necessary, and hiring an intranet development firm to establish the system. Other costs include training, initial input of forms and data, work process reengineering, and work time reallocated to the project during its initial phase. Gauging the returns on an intranet investment can also be complex, particularly as they multiply based on how well utilized the system becomes within the bank. If used effectively, work productivity increases into the foreseeable future. Many paper-based processes will be eliminated or condensed, which eventually allows the bank to reallocate resources into sales and customer-related activities. And, the bank will have enhanced internal communications and centralized operations.

"The interest spread for banks is continually shrinking with increased competition, thus the banks' profits are being squeezed meaning that they all will have to look hard at their internal efficiency to remain viable," states David Koto, Executive Vice President at Brintech. "The intranet is a vehicle that will allow them to operate more efficiently with less personnel."

Functions

What can an intranet do for a bank? An intranet adapts to handle future applications and work processes. The intranet can change as the bank grows. Some examples of practical functions are to:

  • Accelerate the loan review process

  • Store sales and marketing materials

  • Provide an online platform for product demonstrations, training, and sales presentations

  • Maintain a central repository for product information

  • Disseminate sales goals and performance data

  • Sustain a sales contact management system

  • Provide news groups and online conferences for geographically dispersed sales people and branch managers

  • Publish a variety of schedules and calendars

  • Help generate customer profitability information

  • Store all human resources documents, including personnel policies, benefits information with online enrollment and change forms, and 401(k) material with a calculator and link to the Social Security Administration

  • Maintain a storehouse of online forms

  • Provide employee contact information

  • Post internal job notices

  • Distribute and manage employee performance reviews

  • Publish current project plans and timelines

  • Store Help desk scripts

  • Post frequently asked customer service questions

  • Maintain a problem-tracking system

  • Publish financial reports and the updated budget

  • Circulate online expense reports

The potential of an intranet relies heavily on the bank's ability to identify work processes for an electronic format. A good developer will help the bank with this process, and suggest functions that may have gone unnoticed. The real boon for the bank is easily distributed, centralized information. An intranet streamlines multifaceted work processes.

A Work Process Redefined

With an intranet, a bank can improve on scores of standard procedures. One example: a current hiring process may be for a prospective employee to enter the bank, complete an application, and have an interview with one or more supervisors. She is hired, and then fills out several more forms. She may provide her name, address, and birth date repeatedly. Perhaps the bank takes a photograph of her. She must then read the employee guidelines and undergo training. Administrative employees funnel various forms between the branch and Human Resources department, leaving room for oversight and lost documents. Someone tracks that the new employee accomplishes required tasks.

With an intranet, a prospective employee can enter the bank and complete an application online. She has her interview, and is hired. An HR clerk accesses an electronic task list that delineates each task the new employee must accomplish with due dates. The data from her application transfers to HR's benefits forms, branch forms, a calendar, and an employee directory. Her photo is scanned in or digitally taken, and it is temporarily posted to the main page in a new employee section, and stored for later use. She accesses the employee handbook and online training program, and certifies when both have been reviewed. HR and authorized branch management can readily access all documentation. When the employee undergoes a name change or moves to a new address, she can complete an online form that will replace the information everywhere necessary, eliminating redundant processes.

Technological Requirements

What technology is required to operate an intranet? The technology is relatively modest compared to other endeavors if the bank is already connected by a local or wide area network. Since an intranet is basically an internal web site, it requires a web server, browser software, and enough bandwidth to sustain the system. Each user needs a workstation - a bank's current workstations may be sufficient.

The entire system will probably run on one of the two most popular web browsers, Netscape or Microsoft Explorer. If the bank currently accesses the Internet, installed browser software is probably adequate. The browser concurrently provides access to the intranet and Internet.

The thorny aspect of the technical side to the project is customizing the intranet for the bank. Accomplishing this is not so difficult, but its engineers must do it in a way that invites use by bank employees. The intranet needs to be user-friendly, and accomplish its goals without intimidating technically challenged staff. A qualified intranet developer spends a great deal of time accounting for usability when crafting the blueprints for the system.

Design and Appearance

What does an intranet look like? An intranet site looks like an Internet site. The owner completely controls the appearance of the site, within the capabilities of web sites as they exist at that moment. (Web site capabilities seem to change at the rate of warp speed.) Since the intranet serves so many functions for people at different levels of technological savvy, consistency in appearance is crucial.

Regardless of the specific page layout, Internet users will find some comfort in the intranet's appearance, easing transition to the new system. Management should carefully evaluate how they want users to interface with the system. Many decisions will need assessment, such as the appearance of the page that users see immediately upon logging onto the system. The home page can be customizable by user or fixed so that the same screen appears before all users, secured areas notwithstanding.

Training and Incentives

What kind of staff training is required? The ease with which an entire staff is trained on a new system relies heavily upon their previous exposure to technology and attitudes toward it. Training is critical, whether or not a bank's staff readily accepts the new system. The bank can heed counsel by Aristotle, "The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet." Sufficient training will make an intranet program successful, and conversely, deficient training will cause discontent and dissatisfaction. The training strategy for the intranet involves several steps.

  • Using the Internet. The bank should provide its employees access to the Internet. Using the browser is perfect training for the intranet. Many people have at least some online experience, and sanctioned access may motivate some to learn more. The bank should establish guidelines about when and how long employees may engage in web surfing, and consequences for abuse of the privilege. Providing employees with instruction on using web sites for job-related purposes (they do exist) would be a plus for the bank.

  • Interest-free loan programs for PC purchases. This would be a good time to establish an interest-free loan program for employees to make PC purchases. It encourages computer use and means that employees train themselves on their own time.

  • Incremented implementation. A bank should implement an intranet in steps. The intranet team can establish a timeline (and post it on the intranet). Each department can gain initial access to the intranet at different points, so that the Help Desk fields questions from a segment of the population at one time. In support of these efforts, the intranet can support a Frequently Asked Questions component that will reduce the call traffic for common questions.

  • Formal user training. The bank should have formal training sessions for each department, specifically on the functions of the intranet. The intranet developer can provide details and a logistical plan for executing the sessions. The number and length of the sessions depends on the level of technological expertise of the staff.

  • Continuing education. Technology changes interminably. The structure of a bank's intranet will remain fairly constant until a sanctioned change by the bank and developer, but people will continue to find new uses for it. An intranet grows with the organization, and gradually transforms as new uses for it arise. The bank should keep its training program continually active. Fortunately, users can accomplish much of their continuing education on the intranet itself. It can run training programs online for employees, and confirm the appropriate employees are accessing the programs when required.

And Finally . . .

Charles Kettering, inventor of the electric cash register motor, said, "The world hates change, yet it is the only thing that has brought progress." Implementing an intranet certainly brings change, and progress is indeed the goal. It provides banks with a formidable tool to combat inefficiency. Even a financial institution with admirable work systems can reduce paper-based documents and associated waste many times over. If the bank has the wherewithal to endure changing the way it functions, an intranet can improve its work environment. As a consequence, more resources can go to customer service and sales, and increasing the value of the institution.

About The Author

Lynn Koller is a writer for Brintech, a technology management firm based in New Smyrna Beach, Florida. Brintech serves clients across the country, helping them find ways to profit from their technology investments. Lynn reports on general technology issues like Internet trends, e-commerce, and network design for business publications. Before joining Brintech, she worked in the legal field, and designed and taught computer classes at the college level. Through Stetson University and a community college, she instructed DOT and other government employees about the use of the Internet and various office applications.

Lynn has a B.A. degree from the University of Central Florida in Orlando, Florida. She is just inches away from her Master of Arts degree in writing.


For more information on Brintech go to their website:
www.brintech.com or call 904-427-6772.

 
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