Analog Man: Surviving in Spite of Technology

Intranets are great for sharing inaccurate information

Everyone is talking about intranets. technically, an intranet is an internal computer network that's based on Internet protocols and therefore more decentralized than a local area network. But when you get right down to it, an intranet is just a technologically superior way of getting at other people's information without their help.

In the analog days if you needed to know what a senior manager was up to and she wasn't around, you went through her desk drawers. With desktop computers communication became easier: you just looked through the floppy disks on top of her desk. Now, with an intranet, you simply fire up your familiar Internet browser and access the information right off her hard drive. With an extranet, which is an intranet connected back to the Internet, your customers and suppliers can browse your entire company's information from wherever they are.

A big selling point for intranets-extranets is that they let you seamlessly integrate information from inside the company with information gathered from outside, off the Internet. But you don't want to let things get too seamless, mind you--or you may find your business future resting in the hands of 12-year-old hackers from Belarus.

We were working on a new top-secret product I'm going to call a blivet because it's not really much like a blivet, so the name won't give it away.

We'd probably have our blivet on the market now if we hadn't been trying to change the organizational style of the company at the same time we were developing it. Jerry, the chief financial officer (CFO), undertook the first step in the restructuring by hiring our first chief information officer (CIO), Nigel, who in turn begat the intranet.

Being a CIO, Nigel introduced many new acronyms and words into the company vernacular. First he proposed moving the RDBMS from a LAN to a WAN over ISDN. Then he "tasked" expensive trainers to get each department up to speed on making what amounted to internal World Wide Web home pages. There were personal pages for each employee, personnel pages for the human resources department, impersonal pages for the public-relations office, and so on.

But he hit a wall when he got to the Project Blivet team: they didn't want to tell anyone what they were doing, not even on the company intranet. Nigel explained that putting their working papers on the intranet would improve company morale and flatten the hierarchy, making us more of a "learning" corporation.

The blivet group wasn't having any.

Finally, Nigel suggested that they do the pages in a sort of code, just to learn the process. They could use the Escher-like drawing of a standard three-pronged, two-slot blivet--the optical illusion familiar to every engineering student--as a stand-in for their real product. They could post progress reports as though they were working on a three-pronged blivet.

The Project Blivet engineers thought that was cool, and they all started developing internal Web pages. Soon they had the most extensive site in the whole company, even though they were the only ones who knew what any of it meant.

The blivet pages had contests, multimedia games, and animated figures tossing multiple blivets through hoops. The engineers ignored their real work to make these pages high art. They went from not wanting their project on the intranet to working exclusively on the intranet. The intranet replaced Chinese food and Hacky Sack as their favorite mode of procrastination.

That was the small problem.

The big problem was a super salesman named Matt. Matt's virtual reality is the telephone; he is a master of not only all telephone-based information systems but also of any human being who winds up on the other end of the call. His wizardry, however, ends with phones. If you leave Matt alone with a computer, you'll come back and find him yelling into the mouse.

One day Matt's flight was canceled, so he was stuck in the office for an afternoon. Somehow, he landed at a desk with a computer tuned in to the Project Blivet home page. He looked at the picture of the standard three-pronged, two-slot blivet and read some of the text.

As you read what follows, remember that Matt was doing exactly what intranet experts would have him do: he was using the increased communications and flattened hierarchy of the virtual company to increase his personal productivity.

Shortly thereafter, Matt made a few calls and took orders for 40,000 standard three-pronged, two-slot blivets.

Then he caught a late plane for the opposite coast. From the plane Matt phoned the front-desk receptionist and asked her to enter his orders into the system, via the intranet. By so doing, he updated every budget spreadsheet, every press release, and every internal Web page to reflect the additional business.

The next day he called Jerry, the CFO, from his car phone to brag about selling the blivets.

Jerry might have stopped the entire process right there, but he thought Matt was speaking in company code and had sold the real, still-secret product of Project Blivet.

The next day Jerry checked the Project Blivet internal Web page to see how far Matt's delivery date was off. Hmmm. The deadline page was "under construction." "They're working on it," he thought. "That's a good sign! Oh, here we go, a project schedule . . ."

What Jerry had wandered onto was actually an old version of the Project Blivet schedule, in which the real product would have been in active testing by Matt's delivery date. Of course, that master plan had been written more than a year earlier, with a certain amount of exaggerating about future prospects built in.

But it looked to Jerry as though Matt had misled his customers only by a reasonable three to six months, and with big orders in hand, Project Blivet should be able to push ahead.

So Jerry confirmed the orders for 40,000 standard three-pronged, two-slot blivets.

With that information humming around the intranet, marketing orchestrated press leaks and let out trial balloons, customer service posted job descriptions on the Internet for technical writers and trainers to support the blivets, and the halls resounded with the buzz of virtual office workers gearing up for Total Quality Production of an optical illusion.

In fact, everyone got so busy that no one mentioned the orders to the Project Blivet staff, who were too busy updating their internal Web pages to read anything else on the intranet.

Fortunately, Jackie from the mailroom was watching MTV News, which reported that our company had patented a three-pronged, two-slot blivet and that a death-metal band named Rodney Blivet was planning to sue.

Jackie drilled down through the intranet databases until she figured out what had happened. She knew no one in management would believe her, so she logged onto the company E-mail using the name and password of the chief Project Blivet engineer, and explained that Matt's customers were expecting three-pronged, two-slot blivets, but such blivets can't be made because the two slots, when you're looking at the prongs, are actually defined by lines that make up the sides of the prongs when you're looking at the part where it all joins, so the third prong doesn't, you know, line up.

That popped the balloon for everyone--except Matt, who never logs into anything with more than 12 keys. I don't think Matt realizes even today that we weren't actually working on a three-pronged blivet, that it's impossible to make a blivet in three dimensions, and that if you could, it would be unsafe. In Matt's world once you sell it, it exists.

It was too embarrassing to admit in public that we couldn't make a blivet, so we just kept postponing the dates for shipping the things until most of our customers had hit one of those unpredictable budget bumps and called us asking to be let out of their sales contracts, "although please keep us posted." Since relationships are more important to us than short-term profits--and since blivets don't exist--we were very understanding.

People, of course, come and go. Nigel is now CIO of one of our largest competitors and is making more money than our CEO. Matt was hired away by one of his best customers and has been calling us to press for delivery of the blivets. Jackie from the mailroom has also left the company and is now road manager for the popular death-metal band Rodney Blivet.

Moe Meyerson is a middle manager even in his own home. Even in his dreams.