Within 24 hours of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, employees of Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Western New York found information about blood donations, charitable organizations and volunteer opportunities on their PC screens.
In recent days as anthrax scares hit the news, quick answers about their company's state of preparedness, tips on how to handle suspicious mail, and who to call in case of an emergency, were available with the click of a mouse.
Welcome to the world of workplace intranets, a fast-growing trend that links workers with a wide range of electronic information about their companies, their work responsibilities and in many cases, their world. While most company intranets focus on work-world basics -- electronic versions of corporate handbooks, vacation schedules, phone directories and interactive access to insurance, pension and other benefits programs, some in-house information systems are offering much more.
"The idea behind our intranet is to communicate, motivate and entertain," said Beth Lasky, Blue Cross/Blue Shield's director of community relations, whose duties include developing and overseeing HealthNow Broadcast.
"We wanted it to be available from boardroom to mailroom, providing the good news and bad news to every employee at every one of our locations," she said.
While the business world has been making great strides moving workers away from paper to electronic communications for daily work duties, it has also been busy scrapping paper memos, printed handbooks and company newsletters in favor of fast, efficient intranet-based, employer/employee correspondence.
Mark McCaskey, president and chief executive officer of Aurora Consulting Group, an East Aurora-based Web site development group, said he's seen an explosion of requests for intranets in the past few years.
"It's up 1,000 percent in the past five years," McCaskey said. "Probably half the work we do now is intranets. There are so many advantages to being able to communicate so efficiently with employees. They can get the information they need and get right back to work."
A prime example of how intranet access can streamline traditional corporate functions is a decision by IBM to handle all of its benefit enrollments electronically. Last November, some 140,000 IBM employees received all of their enrollment materials via the company's intranet, which also offered "tools" to weigh the merits of various benefits and sort through dozens of options to best fit their needs.
In a follow-up survey, 80 percent of workers had favorable responses. Meanwhile, the company reported a $1 million cost savings related to delivery of benefits information.
Putting intranets center stage in benefits management isn't just for high-tech industries with a predominance of white collar workers. In late 2000, the United Auto Workers Union joined with General Motors and DaimlerChrysler to announce that some 400,000 auto workers, would be electronically-linked to online human resource services starting this year.
While intranets have proved beneficial for transmitting information between employers and employees, they can also provide some interesting side benefits. Blue Cross/Blue Shield's 2,100 workers, who are spread out between offices in Buffalo, Albany, Binghamton and Nanticoke Pa., have found they've gained a new sense of community through their intranet.
Special sections listing employee accomplishments, a worker photo gallery and companywide job postings are serving to bring workers together, according to Lasky, who works with content contributors from every office to give the intranet a broader view.
"The HealthNow Broadcast helps to erase the geographic differences," she said. "It's had a lot of positive impact in making us feel more connected."