The Virtual Briefcase: a case study


Although many companies are doing this today, in February, 1996, when Open Market, Inc. asked me to solve an expensive and administratively complex problem using an extranet, we were breaking new ground. The problem: how to support a small number (around 50) of sales reps whose territories circled the globe? Although we were a small company, we had big plans, and big customers. Small as we were, this was a world class operation. The sales force needed to be in touch and up-to-date. An extranet was the obvious answer.

The extranet is the great equalizer: employees who live and work outside the firewall have just as ready and free access as those inside. And no matter where you are on the Internet, you can gain access to the data 24 hours a day. Controlled access meant that we prevented prying eyes from reading the confidential material, (including ex-employees who could be removed from the registry) and it gave unique opportunities for tracking who looked at what.

Once we started the service, three things rapidly become apparent: if you want people to use it, it has to be useful, up-to-date, relevant information—and lots of it. Once people started to use it, they complained when something else wasn't there. The more information you provide, the more people will come back. More often. So the goal for the Virtual Briefcase became to provide everything the sales rep needed. Not just the marketing materials. Not just the things you thought of. Anything and everything that a sales rep asked for. By definition. If they needed to see the internal phone list then why would we not want to make that accessible? The byline for the Virtual Briefcase became "Everything but the apple."

We learned a lot. This was no small undertaking. It required a shift in company thinking. We suffered from responses like "you can copy it from my hard drive." Well, no actually I can't if I'm outside the firewall, or (an increasingly common occurrence) you disconnected the hard drive from the network when you took your laptop home with you. So we had to convince people to move their material to more reliable places, and make it easy for the material to be published from there.

In some cases, people had to be encouraged online—pricing, for example, was a spreadsheet process. We published it on the Web instead, but it took several months of the pricing folks saying "don't call me, this information is available here..." Of course, once the sales folks got over the hump of finding the lists on the Web, they rapidly came to appreciate that it was there all the time, and it was guaranteed to be accurate.

Many internal processes struggle along quite happily as a paper-driven process until someone in London or Sydney needs to do it, too. And once you've set up a simple form—to order business cards say--it is amazing how quickly people forget what an effort it used to be until it breaks. It is hard to separate internal and external, Internet and extranet. Internal processes need to be accessible to external people, external documents need to be accessed by internal people, things which start out as internal become external as they become old, or polished, material is internal in one format, but external in another. Rather, you need to create a body of information from which you can develop different views, with different levels of access control for the different groups of people who need access to it.

Like a library, the strength of the extranet is in the variety and volume of the available information. 99% of the population may only be using 1% of the information on a daily basis. But the other 1% of the time you have no idea what they'll want, and being able to answer that question is what gives people confidence in the system. It is critical that the system is up-to-date, and is seen to be up-to-date. If you called a mail-order catalog company and they said "well, it was in stock as of last Friday" you would be reluctant to place an order. If the Web site is where people are supposed to go for price lists or phone lists, then the information must be current. Always. You can lead a horse to water, but you cannot make it drink. However, if the water is cool and fresh, not only will the horse drink, you will not have to lead it again.

Companies tend to start intra- and extranets for economic reasons. But cheap is no incentive for employees to drink from this information font. Our experience has shown that you need to make sure the information is cool and fresh, both by making sure it is accurate and up-to-date, and in terms of providing services that exploit the medium.

Copyright 1999 Richard Thomson