Intranets: Quantum Effectiveness Leaps, Baby Technology Steps
By Paul A. Reardon, Westin Engineering
In a recent press release a southern California utility announced it was embarking on a program to implement a multimedia-based operations and maintenance (O&M) manual using the latest information technology. It turns out it will use an Intranet system, a simple browser technique, common enough in most homes and businesses now. What is happening here? In a nutshell, utility managers are now seeing that the combination of new competitive forces and available technology is enabling them to (finally!) realize new levels of efficiency and customer service.
This particular utility had a need to organize the increasing volume of paper it takes to operate and maintain its control system. It decided that an electronic version, with all the required information available on computers, would be attractive. But how do you present all that data in an intuitive, exciting manner that encourages your staff to use it? Why not organize the files so the user can “browse” the files, just like on the Internet? This allows the easy use of point-and-click links (hyperlinks in Web-talk) between files, the incorporation of graphics to amplify the text and even the use of audio and video clips to further highlight the manuals. With access to the complete set of information available to each user from his PC, no longer would he have to carry around, and into the field, bulky sets of manuals and drawings. How many times has a technician arrived in the field only to find the one drawing that is required is back in the office, or not current. Well, no more!
So how can this be achieved? With an Intranet system developed specifically for the utility and its particular requirements. Intranets (private web systems) are implemented very much like the World Wide Web, only their boundaries are restricted to and determined by, the utility`s functional and geographic requirements. Most Intranets will use the utility`s existing communications networks (LANs and WANs) for connecting users to the variety of information available. They are easy to set up and maintain, requiring, in the simplest structure, only a text processor and a browser, both of which come standard these days on any PC you buy. I would certainly suggest Netscape or Explorer, as they are effectively free and come closest to meeting the latest HTML specifications. Web page development tools are certainly helpful, especially in the manipulation of graphic images, but by no means essential. As most of us have found, browser use is very intuitive and easy to learn and master.
There has been a lot of hyperbole written about the Internet, the Web and their performance. But an Intranet will come a lot closer to meeting those expectations. It will always be as fast as the processors and communications network you decide upon. Even Bill Gates, in his best selling book, The Road Ahead, acknowledges that Intranets are the wave of the future. So why stop at just O&M manuals or similar materials? An enterprise-wide Intranet has the potential to provide many other services–current news and other items of interest, a means for users to provide feedback (a simple bulletin board), employment opportunities and training materials.
An Intranet can become, if this is the goal, a means of sharing information with everybody in the organization. It democratizes the information and provides the potential for all employees to impact the quality of that information. It will generate a far greater sense of community, just as the Internet is trying to do. But don`t let us confuse the two. With an Intranet, you have the choice of how far the “Web” extends and who can access it.
So, looking to present your information to your staff in a new and exciting way? An Intranet-based system offers many advantages, not the least of which is that these systems bring the people in the organization much closer to the technology. In this competitive time, when we are all being asked to be more efficient and reduce costs, giving employees the flexibility to just browse for the information they need could well be your best idea yet!
Paul Reardon is a senior engineer with Westin Engineering Inc, of San Jose, Calif. He has more than 25 years` experience in SCADA and related projects. Questions and comments may be directed to Westin at (206) 854-9924 or to Paul.Reardon@we-inc.com (e-mail).