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Publishing for internal information needs using Web technology

From "Integration",  Access to Wang, October 1996
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Many organizations have a large amount of information intended for use by its employees. Much of this is locked away in binders, file cabinets, folders - somewhat inaccessible from those who might need it. Worse, it is unlikely that the readers are using the most recent version available.

The technology underlying the World Wide Web (WWW) was developed to meet similar needs of scientists and others who needed access to the most current information - regardless of where the information was located and the capabilities of the local computer system. This design philosophy makes it possible to provide reasonable access to information throughout your organization even if you use several different computer systems.

Intranets - the use of Internet technologies for internal communications - often focus on web publishing as one of the most important technologies to borrow from the Internet. Web applications can meet a large number of organization needs for information distribution and they are relatively easy to develop. Advanced use of web technology can supplement or even replace traditional applications for data base access, reporting, forms, calendars, and many other purposes.

Let's take a look at how a simple application of web technology can provide cost-effective information retrieval for your organization.

Getting started

What does it take to use Web technology to distribute information in your organization? Initial requirements can be modest: browser software, a network, and a means of generating the source material.

A web browser is a software tool that displays information - typically, information formatted using the Hypertext Markup Language (HTML). Several serviceable browsers are available for free, including Microsoft's Internet Explorer and classic products like Mosaic. Most browsers run on personal computers, but there is also a product (Lynx) designed for text-based terminals that runs on Unix or Digital Equipment host systems. (At this writing, I know of no version of this software that works with Wang VS systems, though it certainly would be possible to port the application.)

Next, you must have a means of distributing material to the browsers. If you're familiar with WWW technology as used on the Internet, you have seen one form of this distribution using the Universal Resource Locator (URL) addressing scheme to provide an address for a document that is unique throughout the world. If your goals for information distribution lie within your own organization, this need can be satisfied through shared file access across a network or similar approaches that are probably already available to you. For example, most local area networks provide a way to view the data within a common drive as if it were a local disk on a personal computer; this shared disk could be used to store the documents you wish to distribute.

Finally, you need content - documents you would like to display electronically. In its simplest form, this content can be the results of simple conversions of documents, text files, and other existing media. Better results are available when you exploit the capabilities of WWW technology (hypertext, searchable documents, graphics, sound, etc.) during conversion or when authoring original material; more on this below.

That's all you need to get started. More advanced information requirements may require dedicated servers, additional network capacity, database access tools, or other costly items, but a large amount of the benefit of Intranet development can be seen by simply making your existing information available in electronic form.

First steps in web content development

Web publishing ties together elements of programming, writing, user interface design, information access design, and network administration. It is helpful to have some background in all of these subjects, though it is not necessary to be an expert in any. As the popularity of the World Wide Web grows, an increasing number of people have experience in web development that can be used to develop content in their daytime work.

A reasonable understanding of HTML is always helpful in understanding the issues of web development, and there are many good books and on-line resources to help; some of these resources are listed below (see Figure 1). A brief sample of how HTML documents are constructed is shown in the listing for SAMPLE.HTM (see Figure 2). This example produces a short page with a headline, a smaller subheading, and a few of many possible typographic elements (bold, italic, etc.).

This example also shows a link to another document, allowing the user to click the highlighted word ("link") and jump immediately to the next document file, NEXTDOC.HTM. This is where creating content in HTML begins to diverge from other authorship: the writer should be aware of the informational context of the material and other information that might be of interest to the reader, then provide appropriate links to that material.

As you can see, the essential elements of HTML are text: tags to control typographic elements and jumps to other material, section names that define areas of the document, and the text content itself. The simplicity of these controlling elements is part of the power of the medium.

Creating content

Many HTML authors start out using simple text editors to create documents, but these techniques are seldom sufficient for intermediate and advanced uses. While the underlying syntax of HTML is relatively simple, its application usually results in a confusing display of codes and content that becomes difficult to work with. Fortunately, there are a growing number of development tools to help with this task. these tools include everything from full site management tools like Microsoft's FrontPage and Adobe's SiteMill to extensions to existing simple editors that provide an easy way to add HTML tags to text.

Since most organizations use word processing on personal computers to generate their primary information (policies, benefit summaries, contracts, etc.), it is fitting to look into applications that convert this information to web format. One popular item in this category is Microsoft's Internet Assistant for Word, a free extension now available for most versions of Word on PC and Macintosh computers. Internet Assistant is a Word Basic macro that adds new items to the Word tool bar and allows you to save information in HTML format in addition to native Word, text, and other output forms. While not the most sophisticated tool, it does a credible job with original content authorship and can be used to convert existing documents into HTML. (Microsoft has recently expanded this concept to similar add-in products for Excel, PowerPoint, and Schedule+; see Figure 1 for details on getting copies of these products.)

There are many other ways to get yours organization's information onto your web, including these:

In many cases, the best benefit of web access to your material can only be seen if the content is reworked to fit the medium - particularly if there are references between documents that make links desirable.

Planning your internal web

As you can see, there are many possibilities for the web medium to provide cost-effective information access and the initial development cost is low. The cost and effort rises quickly, though, with the complexity of the needs and the amount of material to be maintained. Nonetheless, the technology of the web will become one of the most important developments in business information science in the next few years. If you haven't already considering exploiting the web for your organization's gain, now is a good time to begin your planning and development.

Figure 1: Additional Sources for Web Information

About Lynx

Information on the Lynx text browser offered by the University of Kansas. The source code is available at ftp://ftp2.cc.ukans.edu/pub/lynx/.

Microsoft Small Business Resource: Business and the Internet

Discussion of the use of the Web for small business purposes, including site planning and development techniques.

Microsoft Free Download Area

Provides links to selected free products from Microsoft, including Internet Assistant add-ins for Word, Excel, PowerPoint, Access, and Schedule+ and Microsoft's web browser software, the Internet Explorer.

A Beginner's Guild to HTML

Information on HTML syntax and some style guidelines.

WWW & HTML Developer's JumpStation

A good selection of links to other resources about web publishing.

Teach Yourself Web Publishing with HTML in a Week

Promotes the book by Laura Lemay, but also provides information on HTML publishing.

World Wide Web FAQ

A good general discussion of HTML and its use. Maintained by Thomas Boutell.

Figure 2: Sample HTML Document

<TITLE>This line appears at the screen top</TITLE>


<H1>This is a large header</H1>
<H3>This is a medium header.</H3>

<P>This is a <A HREF="nextdoc.htm">link</A>
to another document within the same web.

<P><B>This is bold text.</B>  This is plain text.
<P>This is more text.  A horizontal rule follows.

<ADDRESS>8/8/97 - Dennis Barnes</ADDRESS>


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Copyright © 1996 Dennis S. Barnes
Reprints of this article are permitted without notification if the source of the information is clearly identified