Business in Vancouver: News that works for you

    Fletcher Challenge's Intranet uses information to pull the company together

    by Alan Zisman (c) 1996 First published in Business in Vancouver ,  Issue #368 November 12, 1996   High Tech Office  column

    Take a company that wants to improve the way information is shared among its employees, add easy-to-use Internet browsers, and what do you get? An Intranet--an internal version of the Internet, and a technology that's becoming increasingly popular for business networks.

    For Vancouver-based pulp-and-paper company Fletcher Challenge Canada, building an Intranet seemed to mesh with a shift in business focus from being an integrated forest-products company to devoting itself solely to the manufacture of printing papers. To achieve this, it needed to have all employees actively involved, and for that to happen, employees had to understand the company's strategy.

    Today, FletcherNet has been up and running for over a year, connecting the Vancouver head office with mills in Crofton, Elk Falls, and Mackenzie as well as a sales office in San Francisco. Most of the content, including a newspaper-style front page, is created by the company's communications department, but each worksite is responsible for its own local content.

    FletcherNet has proven popular with employees, at least in part because it's easy to navigate, using standard tools like Netscape Navigator. Favourite pages include news summaries from the world outside the pulp-and-paper industry, along with more focused industry news flashes. Jobs postings are more easily accessed than on often-messy bulletin boards, and lively discussion forums provide a way for workers to comment on company issues, including recently announced plans to restructure the company.

    Each site posts its own job listings, along with local management notes, departmental issues, and even union news. In addition, there's a library of company information where employees can easily find what they need. They can start with a brief summary of a topic, and quickly move to further detail as needed.

    This also makes it possible to quickly update changing information. Each day's production statistics are immediately available so that supervisors always have access to current data. When president Doug Whitehead spoke to shareholders recently at 2 p.m., his speech was available on FletcherNet by 4 p.m.: it's easy to convert a standard word-processing document into a plain-looking but functional Web page, ready for posting.

    Much of the information resides in standard company databases, and Netscape and FletcherNet make it easy for employees to get access to it. This quick access to accurate information helps to calm the rumours that can spread through companies. Similarly, the forums and discussion groups give employees a chance to vent while allowing the company a chance to monitor gossip and correct inaccuracies. Erin Driscoll, of the company's communications department, oversees FletcherNet, and can insert editorial comments or factual responses into the forums when needed, and eliminate mean-spirited comments aimed at specific individuals.

    Browsers like Netscape are easy to use, even for employees who aren't very comfortable with computers. Mill supervisors were won over when they saw how useful it could be to have immediate access to current information, and not have to wait for a printed report to make the rounds. And it didn't hurt that the company president found he could use it to directly monitor the company's share prices.

    There were management fears that employees would waste company time "surfing," but as an internal network, FletcherNet isn't connected to the Internet, and it's impossible for users to log onto Internet sites (and equally impossible for outside hackers to use FletcherNet via the Internet to get into the company's computers). Beyond a Dilbert cartoon, there's no entertainment content on the system. Users typically stay on for about 20 minutes on their first visit, and on subsequent visits quickly find what they need within two to 10 minutes. A "What's New" page, updated weekly, helps ensure that they're made aware of new features and content.

    Despite the intentions of the company, not all employees have access to FletcherNet. It's available to those who have a computer on their desk, but unionized employees have to get access via a PC in a control room, a lab, or through their supervisor. Even with this limitation, FletcherNet has played a role in taking the layers out of the communications hierarchy within the company.

    This well-implemented example of an Intranet lets employees at all levels of the enterprise have access to as much information as they need, when they need it. And by providing a forum for employee interaction and discussion, it is helping the company through a sometimes difficult reorganization period.

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Alan Zisman is a Vancouver educator, writer, and computer specialist. He can be reached at E-mail Alan