itmWEB TechWeekly

May 5, 1997

The Web's Impact on IS Departments

This column examines some of the important issues and decisions now facing IS departments regarding internet deployment and support.

A summary of recent strategic overview meetings held a Dell Computer's Austin Headquarters.

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 day.

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.

Web Presence

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 yellow pages.

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 support?

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 engine.

  • Use an Internet Service Provider (ISP) for an internet address and space on the web.

    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.

    Taking 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.

Technology Selection

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 requirements.

  • 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 responsibilities.

  • 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.

Content Ownership

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.

Strategic Impact

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!