Intranets blurring: Outside marketers allowed in to reach employees

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Leave it to the Web to blur distinctions made only months ago.

Under the standard Web lexicon, companies once created intranet sites for internal company use only, extranet sites for their customers and suppliers, and Internet sites for the rest of the world. But things have changed in the past year or so, which, after all, is practically an eternity in Internet time.

"The distinction between Web sites and intranets is blurring," said Peter Morville, a principal at Argus Associates, an Ann Arbor, Mich., Web site design consultant.

These days, corporate intranets can contain links to suppliers or other sites on the public Internet that the intranet administrator figures will be handy for the company and its employees.

From HR to e-commerce

Most companies start an intranet out of the human resources department, then marketing gets involved, said several new-media consultants.

"Mostly the clients we're working with still use it to reduce overhead and increase productivity," said Mark Logan, a managing partner at Look-and-feel New Media, a Kansas City, Mo.-based Web site and intranet developer.

The first things online are usually the employee handbook and corporate telephone directory. But intranets quickly are moving beyond brochures into electronic commerce. Companies have discovered that outside vendors are happy to manage many business tasks on intranets, from travel to publications to news content to office supplies.

One such company is L.L.C., started last year by former Detroit Piston Isiah Thomas to act as a Web intermediary for shopping center gift certificates. The company sells directly to corporate human resources departments and shopping center owners under the name i-gift.

It has arrangements with several corporations, including the big public accounting firm PriceWaterhouseCoopers L.L.P., Detroit, to be the official corporate provider of shopping center gift certificates. Richard Stiennon, president of Birmingham, Mich.-based, said, "We have a portal and a secure link to their [PriceWaterhouse's] intranet site where individuals with user names and IDs can initiate and control the sending of gift certificates to employees and customers."

Controlled content

Other large companies -- from Corning, N.Y.-based Corning Corp. to Pittsburgh-based Bayer Corp., the U.S. unit of the German pharmaceutical giant -- are using a Web-based service called RoweCom, Cambridge, Mass., to manage corporate purchases of books and magazines.

"Rowe provides an interface on an intranet to allow employees to order books and magazines, and manages the approval and budgeting process," said Mr. Morville, who worked with Corning on the project. "You can say, `OK, this level of employee is allowed to spend this much on books and magazines a year.' "

Mr. Logan, meanwhile, said he's working with several companies he can't yet name on corporate intranet news services.

"There's been a real move the last six months or so where companies say they want their employees to have the latest Internet news on their industry, but they don't want employees on the Internet buying toys at eToys or doing stock trades at eTrade on company time," Mr. Logan said. "We're linking with publishers and just giving them news on specific industries."

Employee services

iClick considers its role on others' intranets a service to their employees. The Ardsley, N.Y.-based company offers a product called clickHR, which provides an employee intranet interface for HR functions such as benefits programs, attendance and vacation time.

"Let's say you request a vacation, and your manager approves it," said iClick President Rosalia Bacarella. "You then might get something on the screen for, say, discount air travel or Disney tickets. All this content we're in the process of aggregating."

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