COLUMBIA, S.C. – Using telecommunications wizardry to accomplish the simplest of tasks, including getting to know one another, is the magic behind the power of an intranet. Intranet is more than just a buzzword. It's a powerful tool in the management arsenal of today's modern businesses, including credit unions. And it's simple. "In essence, an intranet is nothing more than allowing you to do all your internal communications work using Web technology," says Dave Plank, chief technology officer at CUNA. In other words, it's an internal Internet. Besides the obvious uses – for instance, posting the employee manual and distributing forms online – credit unions deploying intranets are finding them to be invaluable for building community among employees in often far-flung locations. That's what Allegacy Federal Credit Union is finding with its intranet, named The Grapevine. "The idea behind The Grapevine is that we can use high technology not to drive people away, but to bring people together," says Ray Crouse, manager of e-services for Allegacy. The $765 million credit union is based in Winston-Salem, N.C., and has about 210 employees scattered among 13 branches, including two in New Jersey, one in the Empire State Building and another in Charlotte. The Grapevine was officially launched in January, just after the credit union changed its name from Reynolds Carolina FCU. The CU's intranet is hosted on its own server in Winston-Salem and accessed through the same network used by the credit union's main legacy system, which includes everything from 64K to T1 lines (and frame-relay technology for its out-of-state operations.) In addition to human resources functions, The Grapevine includes sections for each of Allegacy's departments. Some nice touches include photos of employees, with their names popping up when the mouse scrolls the cursor over them. Community involvement and employee awards are featured, too, and there's more. "One of the things we think is pretty neat is our `On the Move section,' " Crouse says. " Hey, if employees think they don't have a chance to move up here, just take a look at that. It has all the promotions for the year, including a little bit about the people and the jobs." A SITE OF MANY USES Promotions of another kind also are a feature on the intranet at Motorola Employees Credit Union-West, a $520 million institution with 190 employees at 12 locations in its hometown of Phoenix, Ariz., and five sites in Austin, Texas. "We have recently added a section called Promotions, so when our marketing department is sending something out to members, employees can see it before it goes out and be aware of what's going on," says Lenore Froehlich, MECU-West's vice president of marketing and training. The intranets at CUNA, MECU-West and Allegacy are all used for training purposes, too. Coursework can be posted on the sites and employees can take classes and keep track of their progress online. Intranets also allow robust calendar functionality, such as keeping up with what branch is open what hours and who's working where and when. In fact, the uses are growing perhaps as fast as the deployment of such sites themselves. Of the 96 respondents to a November 2000 survey by the CUNA Human Resources Council, 56% said they had an intranet in place and another 26% said they would by the end of this year. The remaining 18% said they were interested, too. In other words, not one respondent suggested that an intranet was of no interest. Why such widespread acceptance? "It is our belief . that an effective intranet has become critical to the success of every credit union, large or small," says Sarah White. She's the author of a book on the subject – "Intranets & Credit Unions" – now being offered by CUNA. It's all about working together. "Today's competitive environment demands that we do everything we can to work smarter," says White, a consultant and author of several books on marketing and advertising. A crucial way of doing that is by sharing knowledge, not letting all that institutional know-how get stored in silos defined by departments across the enterprise. "We recognize that individuals throughout the organization have valuable knowledge . The intranet increases the ability of each individual to know more, share more, and participate more fully in the credit union's ongoing search for improvement," White says. Intranet technology generally is straight-forward, hosting is easily done in-house and users can learn quickly how to update their own sections. Easy updating adds to the sense of ownership that is so crucial to an intranet's success. A site's not much use if no one uses it, and acceptance has to come from both the top and from the rank-and-file, intranet veterans say. "Our CEO, Ike Keener, has really pushed the intranet," says Crouse at Allegacy FCU. "I've talked to other credit unions where they didn't have the buy-in of senior management, and you really need that." Allegacy's individual departments are encouraged to update their own sites, using a technology called Active Server Pages. "This allows us to program scripts that run on the server and present the results back to the user's Web browser in an HTML format," Crouse says. "It allows any user to update portions of The Grapevine without needing HTML knowledge." Some departments also use Microsoft's Front Page Web-authoring software to create their pages. At MECU-West, Nicole Tarango, Froehlich's training assistant in electronics, uses Dreamweaver as her software tool. Tarango says she gets a lot of feedback on the site, including comments that the employee manual "is now easier to use and always up-to-date." Employee manuals and other HR information are natural places to start for an intranet. After that, it's important to let the organization determine what it needs and wants. "You need that to facilitate buy-in throughout the organization," says Plank, the CUNA chief technology officer. "And to get there, you need to get specific about the requirements, about what people want to see. Then it becomes their intranet. When that happens, you've got it. A very vibrant and useful intranet." PIECES AND CONNECTIONS For those just stepping into the intranet waters, White, the author, suggests starting off small. "Don't try to set up the whole thing at once. Set up a piece, like an online employee handbook or a procedural manual," she says "As staff benefit from the existing pieces of the intranet, they'll get on board with developing other pieces that will be useful to them." That getting on board creates a sense of ownership, which will go a long way toward making the intranet widely accepted and used. Such use can yield efficiencies as well as connections. "Our Support Services people get requests all the time from other staffers asking them to send them a copy of this, a copy of that," Crouse says. "A lot of that is non-critical. So we built them a form that you use to submit your request to Support Services over The Grapevine. The helps keep the lines open more for members." Intranets also add a kind of accountability. Just having the HR manual live on the site, for instance, helps mandate that it be kept current, users point out. While member service and added internal efficiency certainly are benefits of a dynamic intranet, it's the human connections that high technology fosters that are perhaps the greatest good, users observe. "I would say that maintaining and fostering the sense of family and community ranks right there or maybe above simply reducing paper use," Crouse says. [email protected]

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