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Intranets--Inside Connection

March 1998
Your company is going through change—change that requires training—training that requires manuals. So you print out documentation that describes the new procedures and policies. Unfortunately, the moment you distribute the manuals, they become obsolete. Certain documentation in certain departments demands additions.

What do you do? Painstakingly track down the erroneous manuals, fix them, then send them back?

Yeah, right.

"Nobody ever chases down and updates the 100 copies that were distributed," notes Gerry Thornton, director of information services at Lehigh Press in Cherry Hill, NJ.

Now, picture this scenario. Instead of printing and distributing manuals, you post all of the pages electronically in a single area accessible only to your employees. Using a Web browser, they can call up the information on their computers—information that you can update quickly and easily whenever you want. All you need to do is design the pages as you would a Web site—using the same standards and protocols—but, instead of posting the pages to the Internet, you post them to your private network.

Welcome to the convenient world of intranets.

This is the world Lehigh hopes to inhabit by the end of the month. The printer is in the midst of designing an intranet that will give workers access to telephone listings, benefits information and, best of all, policy manuals.

Currently, Lehigh is undergoing BPA (business process analysis) re-engineering. The company has written new software, called Delta, to automate functions like estimating, scheduling and job planning. "We're trying to blur the lines between the automation and the business," Thornton explains.

BPA and Delta are changing the way employees do their jobs. In the past, Lehigh would send out manuals, explaining the changes, to each of its five plants. Not anymore. Lehigh's facilities are tied into a WAN, and, with the intranet, employees at each operation will be able to use a browser to learn how the new procedures affect their work. This should make the transition easier—and quicker.

At press time, 30 percent of Lehigh's intranet was complete, and the design, in general, was moving smoothly. According to Thornton, the company already had the proper infrastructure in place for an intranet. Lehigh has benefited tremendously from the commonality and functionality of Microsoft software. "The same infrastructure that supports all that, you can ride on top of with Web pages," Thornton says. "Our remote access software works that way. It's all bundled together."

Lehigh relies on a Windows NT server, and employees work with Microsoft Office. And since workers were already familiar with Office, they had no trouble adjusting to Microsoft Exchange, which shares a similar interface.

"We took advantage of the Microsoft products and the way they integrate with each other," Thornton says.

Exchange enables e-mail to use forms like those found in Lotus Notes. Employees can collect information through a form embedded in the e-mail system and forward it to the person who needs to work with the data.

And you don't even have to be on-site to take advantage of Lehigh's networked services. Through 4-Sight-supplied ISDN technology, customers can transfer electronic job files. And when on the road, Lehigh's salespeople can use laptops to send vital information via Exchange. The salespeople can also access the intranet—once the intranet is live. They will dial in through Lehigh's remote access server, then get on the WAN.

Internal Information
While this type of connectivity is hardly commonplace, it's hardly the stuff of science fiction, either. To some extent, most printers already disseminate and receive information electronically—and intranets are a logical next step in the electronic evolution. Just as a Web site spreads your corporate message externally, a browser-based intranet shares information internally.

But designing such an intranet is a big step for some companies, which have opted for other ways to connect to local and remote plants and to employees.

A network for digital file transfer is perhaps the most common connection found at companies with multiple sites. Using T-1 or ISDN lines, prepress departments can jockey data to pressrooms across town—or across the country.

Altavista Printing—a commercial offset operation with plants in Altavista, VA, and Charlotte, NC, and sales offices in Roanoke and Vienna, VA—has been testing the waters of digital file transfer, deciding whether to take a cyberswim. With the help of DAX, Altavista recently set up a fractional T-1 line for lowering long-distance rates and delivering customer data. (Altavista, the city, doesn't support ISDN.)

The T-1 connects the main Altavista facility to the Vienna office, which acts as a hub for the printer's strong customer base in the Washington, DC, area. Customers transfer their files via ISDN to the Vienna office, where employees do initial preflighting before letting files fly across the T-1 toward Altavista's awaiting prepress department.

And Altavista is exchanging more than job files. The company has found other ways to take advantage of the direct connection.

"Our estimating department has the ability to quote a job in the plant and print to the sales office," says Todd Shelhorse, of Altavista's electronic prepress department.

Top Line Printing & Graphics, a four-color sheetfed printer in Mississauga, Ontario, also has experience with digital file transfer. Using 4-Sight's ISDN Manager, the company connects to customers and a remote sales office 25 miles away in downtown Toronto.

"In downtown Toronto, there are virtually no printers," explains Marc Belanger, Top Line's prepress manager. "They can't drive a paper truck down those narrow streets, and can't afford the downtown real estate prices for the amount of floor space needed for printing presses."

Although Top Line offers conventional printing, the company also tout its "all-digital workflow." This includes a burgeoning print-on-demand service, CTP production and digital proofing.

When electronic jobs enter the Toronto sales office, technical staff preflight the files before sending them to the Creo Trendsetter, a CTP platesetter, via ISDN. A Polaroid DryJet, located at the Toronto office, provides digital proofing.

Top Line hopes to implement a similar workflow—using either a router system or Wam!Net services—at a recently acquired four-color sheetfed printing company in Palm Beach Gardens, FL. Once in place, the network will allow the Florida facility to transfer preflighted files electronically to the Trendsetter in Mississauga. The Canadian operation will then produce the plates CTP and ship them back to the Sunshine State.

Digital file transfer is just the beginning for Top Line. Eventually, the company plans to design an intranet that connects North and South. Using HTML-coded documents, Top Line will distribute on-line soft proofing. The intranet will also provide documentation that explains procedures, such as how to prepare files for CTP. Employees will also be able to post questions—which the prepress department will only have to answer once. In addition, the intranet will include information about the new and exciting things going on at Top Line.

"It will be an on-line company newsletter," Belanger says.

A corporate newsletter is just one of the things that Quebecor Printing (USA) posts on its new intranet, tentatively named QUE-COM. Quebecor launched the intranet last year. Having passed through the pilot program, QUE-COM is now moving into the advanced stages.

"It is going to evolve into a superior communications tool," says Wayne Hanson, Quebecor's director of corporate communications. "Every day, we have discovered new uses, new applications."

Start Spreading the News
Thus far, QUE-COM contains information about products and services, explanations of employee benefits, training programs, technology updates, and industry news. The intranet also includes discussion and work groups that give employees forums to discuss specific issues or collaborate on projects.

Currently, approximately 1,000 Quebecor (USA) employees have access to QUE-COM—but not to all of its options. Craig Gjerdingen, manager of Web development at Quebecor (USA), notes that the company has incorporated filtering and password systems to personalize the intranet's information for each user. So while all users can read general company press releases and newsletters, some areas will be password-protected, depending on the person's department and location. For example, if department A has put a draft document on the intranet, personnel from department B cannot log on and read it.

"We provide appropriate access to appropriate information," Gjerdingen says.

Although QUE-COM is currently designed for Quebecor (USA) employees, that will not always be the case. Eventually, the intranet, much like Quebecor Printing itself, will spread across the globe.

"We are paving the way for all of Quebecor," Hanson notes. "We identified applications that really work. The Quebecor (USA) initiative will be part of a wider application."

Setting up the infrastructure for QUE-COM proved easy, thanks to QUE-NET, an existing Quebecor network for digital file transfer. With QUE-NET in place, Quebecor (USA) didn't have to start from scratch with QUE-COM.

"We're piggybacking on QUE-NET," Gjerdingen explains.

While QUE-COM is getting closer to completion, Gjerdingen points out that no intranet is ever truly finished. Options are cut, new options are added. In fact, building an intranet is much like a journey without a destination. "An intranet is evolutionary," Gjerdingen says. "Information changes daily. So will our intranet."

—Jerry Janda

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