Turn on to intranets

As the Internet enjoys explosive growth, it comes as something of a shock to find that the take up of intranets is estimated to be 10 times larger. But what is an intranet, how does it fit in with the Internet and your PC, and how do you use it?

An intranet is the use of Internet technology within an organisation. Technically, it is a computer network which uses Internet standards (primarily TCP/IP) and tools (such as browsers).

Although its first purpose is effective communication, it is used quite differently from the Net. Many legal sites on the Internet are computer equivalents of marketing brochures – a 'presence'.

An intranet, on the other hand, is only seen inside the organisation. It should be assessed like any other computer project, on costs and benefits and on how well it does its job.

You could almost certainly create an intranet on your existing computer network. Doing this would not prevent you from running other programs. The main requirement is TCP/IP, which is included in Windows 95 and is readily available for use with most other systems.

Perhaps surprisingly, many of the other requirements for an intranet are either free or cost very little. The program that you run on your PC to look at web pages on an intranet and the Internet is called a browser. Of the leading browsers, Microsoft Internet Explorer is free, while Netscape Navigator costs about £50 a copy. If you have Internet access, you will have a browser already.

The other requirements are server software and authoring software. Server software sends out the information to the browsers. Microsoft NT includes a excellent server and the company also offers a Windows 95 'Personal' server which is adequate for a small department and again costs nothing. There are low cost or free alternatives on other operating systems.

Authoring software is used to make up the pages of information and need cost no more than about £100. And the latest versions of your familiar word processing and spreadsheet programs can be used as well.

As the initial costs are so low, it is perhaps not surprising that organisations have been reporting high returns from introducing intranets.

Most organisations go through three stages of development of their intranets, but you should be aware that there will be at least one more to follow.

The first stage is to replace with an intranet much of the tedious passing back and forth of static information such as phone lists, meeting schedules, announcements, appointments and the like.

The second stage is to reshape the channels of communication in the firm using an intranet. There is an opportunity at this point to change the communication culture of the organisation, if you wish to do so. You can build up awareness of the organisation, improve professional development by passing information about legal developments to staff, or make the work of individual lawyers and teams more visible to others in the firm.

These different approaches imply different teams being involved, including those in the marketing and information services departments and clerical staff. The technology used is different as well, with more emphasis on unstructured searches and less on the clerical operations of indexing and filing.

The third stage is to unify the professional and business processes of the firm through an intranet, in time including time recording, billing and accounts. Very few professional or commercial organisations have achieved this yet.

The fourth stage involves future developments. Lord Woolf's Access to Justice report envisaged the application of information technology, especially the Internet, to the law.

Drawing on the plans of other professions, it is suggested that when these plans are fully developed they will be closer to a large-scale intranet.