Building a System from an Intranet Fragment

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (01-Aug-2005)

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There are many creatures like worms and salamanders that have the ability to replace lost bodily organs, tissue, and even entire limbs through a process called regeneration. A salamander, for instance, can have its tail completely severed and left behind like an old newspaper. It will continue to go about its business snacking on flies and spiders unconcerned about the stub trailing it. After a few weeks, the salamander will grow a new, fully functional replacement tail without so much as a single visit to the plastic surgeon's office. It sounds like something straight out of a low-budget horror movie, but it's as natural to the salamander as growing hair is to us.

Intranet owners can learn a thing or two from our little lizard-like friend because intranets are sometimes forced to go through a similar process of regeneration—but in reverse: It's not the body that needs to grow a new limb, it's the limb that needs to grow a new body.

I've written articles in the past about intranet consolidation and standardization, the process of merging numerous organizational sub-sites into one seamless unit. But what are intranet owners to do if they were to adopt, or are left with, nothing more than a section of a system? There are going to be times when a substantial portion of an intranet will have to be severed from the main corporate system and moved somewhere else. Is it possible for a single, solitary limb to grow a new body?

When and Why Does It Happen?

An intranet is developed to support an organization and its needs at a particular time. It consists of various departmental, workgroup, and project-specific limbs that are connected together to make a whole intranet body. But it's na´ve to think that this can't change in a heartbeat. It's impossible to open up an IT magazine or visit a Web site without hearing about one company buying another; smaller companies being absorbed into larger ones; organizations opening up new, geographically dispersed satellite companies; and organizations willing to sell off core business units to any interested buyers.

The quickly changing landscape of the IT industry and the companies within it can drastically alter the current state of any intranet. It's increasingly common to see large companies sell off one or more of its business units in an attempt to reduce operational costs, or as a result of shifts in business strategy. When this happens, the purchasing company may negotiate to keep the soon-to-be-moved business unit's portion of the intranet along with other acquired assets. The aim here is to install this limb inside their own network as the foundation for their own intranet. Or, if they already have an intranet, to leverage the knowledge assets of the limb by integrating it into their existing system.

This will present a significant challenge to the recipients of the offshoot limb (the recipients will either be the current limb owners who eventually become members of the new company, or existing employees of the receiving company who will see the intranet limb for the first time). They will need to figure out how to make a system out of a single intranet limb, a process that will be greatly affected by what's actually acquired in the procurement contract.

What Will Be Acquired?

From a thousand feet up, it may seem as though removing and re-installing an intranet limb at a different location is an easy task. After all, the Web is the Web, right? Wrong. Although intranets are highly modular, the fact that the severed intranet limb used to be part of a larger system will make it a lot more difficult to regenerate. Aside from the technical issues to deal with, there are dozens of content, intellectual property, and legal matters that need to be addressed as well.

The following table overviews some of the the technical and content issues associated with the acquisition and transfer of an intranet limb.

Technology Issues Content Issues
Ownership and/or licensing of any third-party intranet development and management software. Ownership of, or rights to, any content obtained and/or licensed through third party information providers.
Ownership of, or rights to use, any proprietary in-house applications developed prior to the sale of the business unit. Ownership of, or rights to, content and knowledge assets developed in-house by the originating organization.
Ownership of hardware such as servers that the departing business unit may have helped pay for. Rights to the intranet brand including any names, logos, and material associated with the brand.
Ownership of, or rights to modify, the source code for any acquired proprietary application. Content retention regulations specified by third party content providers or compliance with the Sarbanes-Oxley Act.

All of these rights and ownership issues need to be negotiated between the system originators (i.e., the former owners) and the recipients of the intranet limb being moved. In some cases, additional negotiations will have to take place between the recipients and any third party software or content providers for the purposes of licensing and rights to continued usage. These are resources that the originators don't have the right to grant. If they do, they may end up suffering costly litigation for breach contract and copyrights.

What's a Limb To Do?

All intranets, regardless of how many subsections they contain, have a number of communal resources and components that are shared across the board—search engine, navigational structure, shared applications (proprietary or commercial), content management tools—that may no longer be available to the departing business unit.

The recipients of the severed intranet limb can't count on retaining any of these resources after they leave the company with their part of the system. These resources are intellectual property that belong to the originating company—and it's intellectual property the originators might not want used outside the organization.

Both parties will have their role to play in the severing and regeneration process. It will be the primary responsibility of the originators to cleanly remove one of their intranet limbs without adversely affecting the rest of the system (the larger the limb and the more tightly integrated it is with the main intranet body, the more complicated it becomes). Once the intranet limb has been removed it's up to the recipients to figure out what they will need to do to regenerate this fragment into a usable system.

While the intranet limb recipients—upon taking primary ownership over the content and technology—may negotiate to have the originators provide a certain amount of support during the transition period, they might limit their involvement in the process. After all, the recipients might not be too keen on exposing their own intellectual property either during this regeneration stage.

The amount of effort required in regenerating a usable system out of the limb will be determined by what's agreed upon between the parties and what's acquired in the transfer of ownership. For example, system branding and all designs associated with the brand will most certainly have to be changed. So, depending upon the agreement reached by both parties, the recipients will have several options at their disposal: Reuse, rebuild, or integrate.

This is the best case scenario for the recipients. They're granted rights to use some or all of the components that were available to the departing business unit while they were with the company. This allows them to re-use as much of the acquired intranet limb's technology as possible without having to rebuild core components. All that will be required is a new "wrapper"—front end, navigational structure, overall look and feel—to complete the interface end of the intranet fragment.

Sometimes an intranet's originating company will not allow any of its technologies or designs to be ported outside of the organization and will only agree to allow the recipients to take their content with them. This will force the recipients to build a whole new system from the ground up based on the acquired content. Rebuilding will also be the only available option if the newly acquired intranet limb's technology conflicts with the recipients' current infrastructure.

If the recipient company already has an intranet of its own, they can take the newly acquired intranet limb and integrate it with their existing system. This may be fairly involved—or outright impossible—if the two system have very different technological backbones. In these cases it will be simpler to just extract the content from the acquired intranet and build a new home for it on the existing system.

Closing Thoughts

Recipients of an intranet limb shouldn't force the regeneration issue. Just because they receive a portion of an intranet doesn't always necessarily mean that they must use everything they acquire. There will be times when some of an intranet fragment isn't even usable in the context of its new home.

The purpose of intranet regeneration is to take advantage of as much of the technologies and knowledge assets that are transferred to the new owners. But when the amount of work required for regeneration becomes a liability, it may be a better idea just to salvage the data and let go of the technology. Sometimes the organs are still in good working order but the limbs are limp and useless.

Copyright © 2005 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.