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Building intranets on the fly: welcome to a whole new world of content automation.

Imagine: The media relations department has finally received approval for a new product release. Along with normal channels of distribution, the release is sent, via e-mail, to the company intranet server. Within minutes the release is available internally and externally. Furthermore, when an employee clicks on the company's "Daily News Digest" page, the first paragraph of the release has been turned automatically into a news brief, with a dynamic web link to the full release. No webmaster has had to code the page or update any number of links. All the content and navigation necessary to view the release, whether by an employee or an interested investor browsing the external web site, is dynamically created by the corporate web server.

Now imagine this process is repeated over and over in dozens of different ways for different information - from policy directives to news from world-wide affiliates to create a dynamic, fully automated internal web site, where employees receive information based on who they are, what their interests are and when in the day they might be retrieving it.

Sounds too good to be true, but a new generation of Internet applications for automating content management is making this level of sophistication and page composition a reality, enabling content providers to dramatically reduce the cost of distributing focused messages to targeted users on their web sites.

While these industrial-strength tools for web production are in use primarily in external sites today, they will soon be part of the standard tool kit for intranet development as well. The reason is simple: They are critical to lowering the extraordinary cost of maintaining a content-rich site; a site capable of keeping up with the ebb and flow of corporate change, from information to company demographics, while providing ever-increasing levels of customized information. In fact over the next several years, producing web sites without these tools will be much like trying to produce an annual report using a word processor and spreadsheet instead of professional design tools such as QuarkXpress or PageMaker.

Streamlining Production and Reducing Costs

Research suggests that the high-end content providers on the World Wide Web can spend an average of U.S. $1.2 million in developing a site, nearly a third of which goes to managing content. While many corporate intranets are developed for a fraction of such a budget, the cost of constantly updating and maintaining a site, in terms of money and resources, can severely limit development. What the new applications do is shift the development, from flat and static web pages to dynamically composed pages. The result reduces costs and opens the way for a greater and greater degree of automation in producing the site and customizing its information.

Most corporate sites today follow a fairly traditional model for content production: The company newsletter or magazine, a model most communicators find familiar. Content is created by writers and editors, approved and forwarded to designers for layout, approved again and sent to print. Similarly, most web sites are static enterprises. Content is written, edited and approved, sent for layout and HTML coding, then shipped to a webmaster for placement on a site.

As a result, each viewable page within a site corresponds to one HTML file on a web server. When the site is a small one, say 100 files or so, with few internal links, keeping it updated and under control is a relatively easy task. But few corporate sites are that small or simple. And the task of managing these sites with thousands of files of multiple links and intricate interrelationships is daunting, if not almost impossible.

The issue is further complicated because most site management and development tools today do not address the essential problem with file-based sites. As the company adds files, the site's complexity grows exponentially. Doubling the content base, for example, doubles the navigational complexity and page links, which creates a four-fold increase in the interrelationships among files.

To overcome this critical issue, content management applications change the paradigm for producing web sites from an interwoven series of static pages to a rich complex of information stored in databases and made available when a user requests it.

It is a digital twist on the proverbial question of whether a tree falling in the forest makes a sound. Does a page exist if a viewer doesn't see it?

For example, a page may be defined by four content components - a navigation bar global to the application, a navigation bar specific to the current content, a body section containing the current content, and a teaser section with links to other related content. Yet these elements are stored in distinct databases and not composed to create a "page" until a user actually requests the "page." This modular approach can be applied to any type of web application, whether pure news publishing, customer support or a product catalog.

This means that the job of composing a page with text, images and links is handled by the server. And that makes possible a level of information distribution unavailable under the traditional file-based models.

For instance, consider the savings in time and resources required to gather news from worldwide affiliates and distribute it via the corporate intranet. In the traditional static page model, a correspondent in each division might compose an item, send it to a centralized editor, who would compose each item into an HTML file, then place the new document on the server, updating the links as necessary. Using a content management application, the repetitive tasks of coding HTML pages and updating links would be easily handled by the server. A correspondent would simply prepare an item, complete a form to provide the server with identifying information, and submit the content for updating by the server, with little or no human intervention.

The Power of Targeting Users

In another twist on this same idea, a New York City-based financial institution is using this principle for updating highly time-sensitive research, which is available to clients and internal customers around the world, almost as soon as it is completed. Research documents are rapidly distributed to web sites, fax server and printers with almost no human intervention other than creating the report itself. When either an internal or external web user enters the site, he or she is able to see a list of current reports. But the list is unique to that user's level of access. Institutional clients receive one level of reports, while individual clients view others. Bond clients receive one type of report, while equity customers have access to another set of reports. All of this segmentation occurs dynamically, as pages and links to reports are generated automatically by the server when the pages are requested by a particular user.

While there are several flavors of content management applications currently on the market, these tools work in remarkably similar ways. Each uses templates to build the basics of how a page will be presented to a user. Taking cues from most document composition tools, these templates define headers, footers, even on a page where content will appear. But they take the issue of dynamics a step further. For instance, one navigational bar might be set globally for a site, while a second is determined based on where a user is within the site. The content management applications also control the dynamic assembly of different components, from images, text and formatting instructions for page content to complex programming logic. The result is that everything about a typical web page, from its navigation elements to the content, is determined by where the user is within the site and rules established by the enterprise for what information can be presented to which users.

This provides an incredible level of power to segment information to different audiences within the enterprise based on specific characteristics. Different classes of employees can receive information only about the benefits they may be eligible for. A sales and marketing department might receive highly detailed information about the products or services an organization sells, while line employees might simply receive summaries of a product's features and benefits. And still further, customers might actually be able to purchase these products through an online commerce server that reuses the same information.

To add even richer capabilities, these tools detect a variety of browsers, eliminating the need to create mirror pages for different browsers. Instead, users receive content filtered through rules that standardize the way a page appears, regardless of the browser. This means that an employee in one division working on a Power Mac and using Netscape Navigator will see information in the same way as others using a Windows 95 machine with Microsoft's Internet Explorer. Still other remote users dialing in through America Online will view the information in the same way as well.

Whether you are currently looking to drive targeted information to designated web users, or simply hoping to reduce the cost of maintaining dynamic content on the web, these new applications bear consideration. They may not answer the proverbial question - when is a page not a page? - but they can dramatically take a corporation's ability to distribute vital information to key constituents to the next level.

Two Ways to Go

Several applications currently are on the market that can help automate content management and production in intranet development. Two of them are:

Batik, the application from New York City-based Digital Image Design, is a suite of programs for managing content and creating dynamically driven pages. Batik not only works with several database applications, it can also make use of a server's file system structure to provide less complex sites with dynamic pages. Site licenses begin at U.S. $3,500.

StoryServer 3, the application from Austin, Texas-based Vignette Corp., integrates a system for producing and managing content with a server for dynamically composing the content. Working with a variety of database applications to maintain content and web servers for serving pages, Story-Server 3 has been adopted by large web content providers such as CNET and Time Warner's Pathfinder.com. Site licenses start at U.S. $40,000.

Bobby Minter is president, Rainbow Media, Inc., New York City. He will be a speaker at IABC's international conference to be held in New Orleans, La., June 14-17.
COPYRIGHT 1998 International Association of Business Communicators
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

 
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Title Annotation:includes related article on computer software for automating content management and production in intranets
Author:Minter, Bobby
Publication:Communication World
Date:Mar 1, 1998
Words:1710
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