by Brian Read
Although the coming of the Web was exciting with its easy access to data resources world wide, early on we realised that the WWW technology had the potential to improve dramatically the provision of information within an organisation. The timing was fortuitous. At RAL, during 1995 the laboratory abandoned its old central IBM mainframe and along with it the well-established office system, Office Vision. The replacement was to be GUI workstations and the flexibility and choice offered by open systems products.
However implementing client-server systems is not easy. Coupled with this was the inevitable diversity of computer equipment present in a high technology research organisation of nearly two thousand staff spread over two sites in Cheshire and Oxfordshire. This meant finding satisfactory solutions for office functions across a disparate range of platforms (PC, Macintosh, VMS and UNIX of many flavours).
Fortunately, there was now one client-server technology, the World Wide Web, which is almost universally available. It is also cheap and easy to implement. Initially it was selected as the means to provide an information system to help the staff in their work. However it has the potential to evolve into a universal interface for many other applications. It has a particular advantage in a heterogeneous computing environment.
The obvious use of the web is to make textual information available. By putting it on an internal web, easy access is provided to reference information. Examples are management notices, health and safety rules, conditions of employment, internal telephone directory, minutes of meetings, social events - in fact almost any internal document which might be posted on a notice board, circulated on paper or held for reference in Administration.
The web also carries more ephemeral, news information. Accessible from the WWW browser are internal News Groups, the use of which ranges from moderated announcements for the organisation's staff as a whole to participation in discussion groups covering particular projects or departments. One difficulty is how to draw the individual's attention to the posting of new items.
However much more is possible. The web can provide the interface to other office functions. It can be interactive. Perhaps the most powerful is the ability to interface to existing databases. Particularly effective is the forms interface we have built to the Laboratory's financial database, allowing staff easy access to project accounts.
Current development concerns the introduction of transaction processing and workflow to modernise administrative procedures. Security and access control is an increasing technical issue. However, many of the challenges in introducing the web for internal use have been political and social. The very openness of access to information can sometimes be uncomfortable to administrative staff. Responsibility for content must be distributed and clearly attributable. Promotion of internal web services must be clearly separate from the different purpose of the Laboratory's external, public pages. Most importantly, the successful establishment of the web in the Office System depended on the strong support from senior management.
For more details and information, contact the author - the Office System Web is not accessible outside CLRC!