Now, companies are beginning to take yet another step forward. It's what Jim Barksdale, president and CEO of Mountain View, California-based Netscape Communications Corp. refers to as: "the beginning of a whole new attitude in business about how to communicate-within the business, among employees and managers, as well as between the business and its external constituents: partners, customers and vendors."
It has been dubbed the extranet, and it promises to usher in another wave of productivity and efficiency gains. Quite simply, it means designing virtual private networks so that data can flow freely between companies. A growing number of organizations suddenly are realizing the value of linked databases. For example, Oracle Corp. of Redwood City, California, now conducts open benefits enrollment for more than 8,500 employees in only three weeks. Here's how it works: Oracle's intranet contains a link to pages on Aetna's Web site that have been specially designed for Oracle employees. Using a variety of electronic forms and hyperlinks, employees can step through the entire enrollment process online—even choosing a doctor directly from insurance provider Aetna.
At New York City-based AT&T Corp., employees use an array of decision-support tools to help them understand the company's health-care policies and providers, compare the salary impact of various benefits options and conduct secure benefits transactions online. By querying the database, an employee can model his or her benefits elections in real time. Most employees now have access to this customized data, using desktop computers at work and their PCs at home. Later in 1997, AT&T will open the intranet to the company's retiree population.
Extranets give employees direct access to their 401(k) accounts. Other companies, including Houston-based Compaq Computer Corp., now are allowing employees to access their 401(k) accounts from the corporate intranet. They then can link directly to the financial institution or mutual fund provider's computer, in which it's possible to jump in and out of various funds or reallocate assets. No paperwork, no phone calls-and the end user has the advantage of using online tools to do sophisticated modeling and then immediately view various scenarios on the Web browser. Compaq's intranet links directly to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania-based The Vanguard Group, the company's 401(k) provider. Some industry experts believe that the entire 401(k) industry will be on the Internet within five years.
According to Shellie Unger, a principal at the Vanguard Group, the extranet is allowing employers to better educate workers and get them more involved in their retirement planning. "People are able to view personalized, customized data. They can view balances and fund performance that's current rather than several weeks old. And they can do it from their PC, whether they're at work or at home. It's marrying the educational side with the transactional side, and cutting costs and paperwork in the process."
Extranets make it easy for users to find pertinent information. The linking of databases can provide benefits far beyond retirement and insurance, however. Interactive Corporate Communications, a White Plains, New York software company, now provides the ability to link into The Dependent Care Connection Inc. (DCC) based in Westport, Connecticut using its Java-based intranet software. A company's employees can obtain referrals directly from DCC, a company providing dependent-care counseling, education and other services. The module also will provide users with the ability to participate in e-mail discussion groups, perform financial modeling and receive wellness assessments.
Although security concerns are still holding some companies back, secure socket layer (SSL) encryption and advances in firewalls and corporate security have made it safe to conduct sensitive transactions. "A tremendous array of opportunities exist. We're at the very early stage of the adoption curve," notes Roger Lee, manager of Internet products for Santa Clara, California-based Edify Corp., a company offering workflow automation software for intranets. "If you think about it, tremendous synergies exist by automating transactions within a company and between companies."
Workforce, March 1997, Vol. 76, No. 3, pp. 93-94.