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This is the On-line companion to my monthly column in
Enterprise Reengineering
The National Publication for BPR

Accessing the Internet's True Smarts
(From the August 1996 issue)

This month I would like to talk about the Internet's single most valuable resource - its users.

When I work with an organization, I always determine how they are utilizing the Internet. Almost all Internet users are accessing the Internet via the Web and feel quite content with that. In fact, new Internet users go through a honeymoon phase, feeling quite euphoric over their new-found ability to access information all over the planet. After all, through your Web browser you are accessing much of mankind's knowledge (at least what's available on hard disk).

But sooner or later, you will get stuck. You'll be looking for a piece of information, and Lycos and Alta Vista will draw blanks. This is when you need to evolve beyond just surfing Web pages.

I am always surprised that in most of my Internet classes, fewer than 10 percent of the students have previously accessed Usenet newsgroups. The Web may contain a lot of good information, but the Usenet newsgroups provide access to the information that exists in people's heads. This can be much more powerful than Web-page based information.

There are currently over 25,000 Usenet newsgroups. Each newsgroup is dedicated to a specifically defined topic such as Oracle Databases (e.g., comp.databases.oracle ). In these discussion groups Internet users can post questions and messages for each other about specific topics. The messages are stored throughout the Internet on news servers. Every Internet provider has a news server for its users, as do most major organizations.

Many Internet users already have the software required to participate in a Usenet discussion group in their Web browsers. If not, ask your network administrator or Internet provider how to configure your software to gain access to them.

When you first participate in a discussion group, it is recommended that you spend some time just "lurking." Read through the recent messages and get a sense of how this virtual group of people interacts. You may see a message called "FAQ," or Frequently Asked Questions, and you should READ IT FIRST before you post your first message. FAQs are developed by the participants in the group to provide guidance as to what topics the discussion group will cover.

The FAQ may also contain the answers to questions which are repeatedly asked by new arrivals to the discussion group. FAQs can be quite valuable documents for a specific area, because they are built up over years, with the consensus of hundreds of subject experts.

Recognize that when you first access a newsgroup, you are probably seeing only the past several days worth of messages. It will take a week or two to follow the many threads of conversation. You should also be aware that not all of the discussion is occurring in the forum. When users reply to a Newsgroup message, they can reply back to the group (for all to see) or they have the option of replying via E-mail directly to the person who posted the original message. In response to Usenet messages I have posted, there may have been five replies in the Newsgroup, and 20 E-mail messages sent directly to me.

There are several Web sites which can help you better understand the Newsgroups.

Finally, perhaps the most important Usenet resource: Dejanews. Dejanews is a searchable database of all the messages from all the newsgroups. Dejanews is a great way to discover which newsgroups cover a specific topic. Search for your company's name at Dejanews and you will discover:

Dejanews also has advanced query options that let you compose very powerful searches. For example, I can easily see all the Usenet messages from all government employees in the Oracle newsgroup during the past three months.

It will take some time to discover which Usenet newsgroups are relevant and helpful for your interests, but once you have been helped by your fellow Internet users, you will see the value of this powerful resource .

Russ Haynal

Please be sure to visit my Archive of BPR articles.

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