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Intranet Management: Divine Comedy or Strategic Imperative?

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Martin White suggests that a failure to recognise the value of intranets is a symptom of a failure to recognise information as a strategic asset.

According to Dante in his Divine Comedy the inscription above the door to Hades reads "Abandon hope all ye who enter here". For many this could also be the sign on the home page of their organisation's intranet as, with business-critical decisions to make, they begin the daily hunt for information that they are sure should be somewhere in the application. It could just as easily be the sign on the door of the intranet manager of the organisation, though this door usually also carries a number of other job descriptions, all of which seem to be given more priority by the organisation than the care and development of the intranet. Most organisations of any size will have a full-time web manager, often with a support team, but this is rarely the case with the intranet.

There are a substantial number of intranets in the UK. Statistics from the Office for National Statistics indicate that 22% of all businesses have an intranet [1]. As the size of the business increases so does the level of penetration, and most businesses of more than 500 people will now have some form of intranet. Given the number of businesses in the UK the author estimates that there are probably around 300,000 intranets in the commercial sector, and at a guess a further 100,000 in the public sector, charities, Higher Education institutions (HEIs) and other organisations. Only over the last few years has any reliable statistical information become available on intranet use and development, and this is a in-depth global survey of only around 300 intranets [2]. In the UK HEI sector a major opportunity was lost in a survey commissioned in 2009 by Eduserv into the management of web content in the HEI sector as no account of intranet use of CMS applications was included in the scope of the survey [3]. A survey of SharePoint use in HEIs undertaken for Eduserv in late 2009 [4] did indicate that a number of institutions were using SharePoint for intranet applications but the survey did not look in detail at intranet implementation.

It is also only over the last few years have forums been set up in which intranet managers are able to share experiences and challenges with others. The work of the Intranet Benchmark Forum [5] is focused on providing services to large organisations, but there are also other virtual and physical discussion forums, such as the Intranet Forum [6] run by UKeiG for its members. It is probably reasonable to suggest that the majority of intranet managers have seen very few intranets from which to gain a sense of good practice, whereas web managers have an almost unlimited supply of sites from which to gain ideas for their own use. This is as true in the HEI sector as in other sectors. Given the installed base of intranets in the UK it is also surprising that there is no 'intranet conference' event even though intranet management does feature in events such as Online Information [7]. Most countries in northern Europe have an intranet conference [8], often with several hundred delegates, so why there is no equivalent in the UK is a mystery.

Intranets Are Different

All too often an intranet is regarded as an internal web site. The reality is that about the only commonality between an intranet and a web site is the use of web browser technology. Many very successful intranets do not even use a web content management application but instead are based on Notes technology or portal applications. Intranet content contribution is usually highly distributed, with individual members of staff publishing content direct to the intranet perhaps only a few times a year. This means that the web content management system has to be highly intuitive, and enable Word documents to be rendered into clean HTML code to create web pages. The teams supporting public web sites are using the systems every working day, working often in HTML and having a much more limited range of content to cope with. Many of the problems that arise in keeping content current on an intranet are a result of staff having to use a complex Web publishing system that was specified for Web site management and not intranet management.

Another factor to be considered is that increasingly intranets are federated applications [9]. This is often the situation in HEIs where each department wants to have its own intranet, and on top of all these individual intranets there is some form of top-level 'corporate' home page and navigation. Often there is no central coordination of these intranets, and so each adopts some or none of the visual design standards of the HEI.

As far as enterprise applications are concerned, intranets are different because they are not based on business processes or work-flow. Finance, registry, personnel and most other applications support well-defined processes, usually within a specific department, and where the content requirements are usually specified in database terms. Anything approaching text content is usually relegated to a single field in the database. Intranets exist because there is a substantial amount of information in any organisation that is not based on business processes and cannot be managed within a formal database structure, such as policies, procedures, campus maps, events, staff notices and hundreds of other information formats produced by every department and location within the organisation.

As a result the intranet becomes an information dumping ground. Under-resourced intranet managers do not have the resources to maintain content quality, and so multiple versions of documents with no visible ownership or provenance proliferate. Employees leave or change responsibility but the intranet is based on a 'file-and-forget' principle and no effort is taken to ensure that document ownership is transferred to another member of staff. Very quickly the information architecture of the intranet, based usually on the structure of the organisation at the time of the last WCMS (Web content management system) deployment, is not fit for purpose. The decision is taken to implement a search engine, and only then does the scale of the problem of information decay become apparent. It can also be an interesting exercise to search for 'Confidential' and see just how many documents are returned!

Defining Good Practice

Intranets are not novel. Arguably they date back to the launch of Lotus Notes in 1989, featured prominently in Peter's book Liberation Management [10] and were the basis for the success of Netscape in 1994/1995. The installed base grew very rapidly in the early part of the 21st Century. The first report on good intranet practice [11] to be published in the UK was written by a team of consultants from TFPL in 1999 and much of the good practice remains valid today.

One of the features of the intranet landscape is that the development of intranet good practice has been the result of the evangelism of a single consultant working in Sydney, Australia. James Robertson, the Managing Director of Step Two Designs [12] has published many reports on intranet management and his web site and blog has provided a wealth of free information for intranet managers around the world. The Nielsen Norman Group [13] has played an important role in the area of intranet usability, the Global Intranet Trends Report [2] from Jane McConnell (NetStrategy/JMC) is an invaluable resource and at Intranet Focus Ltd [14 we have concentrated on the interface between intranet strategy and information management strategy, with particular reference to enterprise search. Look along the shelves in any large bookstore and there will be multiple titles on almost any of the most arcane web technology topics, but there will be no books on intranets. Indeed only one book on the subject has been published this century [15] though two others are to be published later in 2010 [16][17].

At the heart of intranet good practice is user-centric design to an extent even greater than is the case with a web site. Many corporate intranets run to millions of pages of content published by thousands of content contributors on hundreds of different topics, and links into tens of applications [18]. Very few web sites are on this scale. Intranets are a decision-support application, not just an internal communications channel, and so a lot of attention has to be paid to gaining a balance between the information architecture, excellent landing pages, well-maintained and appropriate hyperlinks, quality search and a range of RSS feeds.

Getting the balance right has given rise to a keen interest in benchmarking. At one end of the scale is the Intranet Review Toolkit from Step Two Designs, released under a Creative Commons Licence [19], and the Worldwide Intranet Challenge from CIBA Solutions [20] and at the other is the very comprehensive methodology from the Intranet Benchmark Forum [5] Although benchmarking can be very valuable even companies of the same size in the same industry can have very different information requirements and adopting approaches from other organisations without fully understanding the business and technology context can be counter-productive.

There are a great many excellent intranets that set high standards in usability and value to the organisation. In general companies in the pharmaceutical, legal, finance, consulting, engineering and information technology sectors have invested significantly in their intranets. An emerging consensus is emerging from the research undertaken by both McConnell and the Nielsen Norman Group that a ratio of one full-time intranet manager for every 5000 staff is a minimum level of investment, and ideally the ratio should be nearer 1 to 3500. Many charities have also recognised the value of good intranets.

The situation in the public and government sectors is probably not so good, based on anecdotal evidence [21]. To give one example, a factor in the loss of the personal data of half the population by HMRC was the inability of staff to find the relevant policy on the intranet. The Poynter report [22] commented, 'The primary dissemination method for information security policy in HMRC is via its intranet. However, almost all interviewees contacted in my team's investigations expressed a lack of knowledge as to exactly where on the intranet the security policy is to be found. In addition, staff have noted that the intranet search function is unhelpful in generating relevant results for search terms such as "DSSM" [Department Security Standards Manual].'

Information Management

Whenever two or three intranet managers gather together the opening topic will always be around how to persuade senior management to support an intranet. All too often the intranet manager has been asked to make a return-on-investment proposal for additional staff resources or for new content management or search technology. The challenge is how to define what the return will be, and this is a virtually impossible challenge.

Over the last few years several surveys have indicated that there has been perhaps too strong an emphasis on knowledge management as a means of improving organisational performance and not enough on information management. These surveys indicate that managers are making decisions without access to all the information assets of the organisation. For example in a 2009 global survey of 2,500 Chief Information Officer (CIOs) carried out by IBM [23] just 67 percent of CIOs said data are readily available for relevant users. Capgemini surveyed 150 managers in large UK organisations in late 2007 and found that 63% of respondents made business-critical decisions five times or more a week without the right information [24].

An intranet is the archetypical information management application, and can only function effectively within an information management strategy. What constitutes such a strategy is beyond the scope of this paper, but over the last couple of years Intranet Focus Ltd has developed an information management charter as a means of focusing senior management attention on the need to manage information resources actively to reduce business risk.

We commit to ensuring that our employees:

  1. Can find the internal and external information they need to make effective business decisions that reduce corporate risk, enhance the achievement of strategic and operational objectives and enable them to develop their careers
  2. Can trust that information they find will be the best and most current available
  3. Know how to publish and circulate information so that it can be found by other employees both as quickly as possible and also at some time in the future
  4. Can take advantage of the expertise and experience gained by past and current employees
  5. Know that the roles and responsibilities of managers include ensuring that the information requirements of employees are addressed with an appropriate level of resource.

Our experience is that few organisations are in a position to meet these commitments, and yet each one of them is a crucial element in reducing risk and enhancing performance.

The Importance of Governance

Managing an intranet is rarely a substantial technology challenge unless the IT department has taken the view that a portal application is required. Most intranet content is Office files, Adobe PDF and HTML, and perhaps increasingly some rich media, so there are few challenges in terms of file management. The challenges are almost all related to governance, and especially who is able to make the decisions on technology upgrades, information architecture and resource allocation. The budget may well be divided between IT and (quite typically) internal communications, but the benefits of the intranet are at corporate and often global level even in a small organisation. The communications budget will not easily stretch to running training courses for content publishers in the Engineering faculty. The result is then that Engineering find money from somewhere and create their own intranet to meet specific needs.

The critical success factor for an intranet is that users trust it to deliver information on which they can rely. Tracking page hits in the way that a web manager would regard as essential is of little value. Arguably HITS in intranet terms is an acronym for How Idiots Track Success. Governance is all about setting standards, guidelines and success targets, and ensuring that information quality is the highest possible. Another critical issue, referred to below, is working out the optimum relationship between the intranet (basically a publishing application) and collaboration and social media applications that are highly interactive and contain a substantial amount of user-generated content. An intranet strategy that enables decisions to be taken on these and many other issues has to be set within the context of the organisational information strategy.

The governance model also needs to look carefully at issues of information security, the impact of Freedom of Information legislation, data privacy and other compliance and regulatory requirements. Blogs and other social media add an additional layer of complexity to the strategy. In the Eduserv survey [3] respondents to the survey were evenly split between those who said that their institution did have a web strategy (44 per cent) and those who said that their institution did not (43 per cent). Among those who did have a strategy, almost a quarter (24 per cent) said that the strategy had been implemented in 2009 while 15 per cent said the strategy had been put into effect in 2008. In view of the importance of web marketing to attract students, especially from outside the UK, it seems almost inconceivable that so many HEIs do not have a web strategy.

A significant new factor in the governance challenge is presented by the adoption of SharePoint 2007 and imminently SharePoint 2010. With the substantial educational discounts available from Microsoft there is a very significant technology push by IT departments to roll out SharePoint as the Swiss penknife of information management applications. When properly governed SharePoint technology can deliver significant value to the organisation, but in general there is now a realisation that SharePoint is not a plug-and-play application. An excellent report [4] on the use of Microsoft SharePoint in HEIs was published in early 2010. The critical success factors identified included

  • Identifying what customisation is required and managing those customisations
  • Finding a way of managing the provision of new collaborative team sites
  • Identifying a clear focus for the implementation
  • Providing enough training and advice to enable people to make use of the system
  • Defining the boundary between SharePoint and other systems
  • Putting adequate governance arrangements in place: SharePoint has the capacity to sprawl and grow very quickly

In fact these are all different aspects of governance, and reflect the fact that SharePoint, like all intranet applications, is organisation-wide in its operation and impact. Yet it is usually the line responsibility of just one department which has little or no formal responsibility or resources to manage such a complex application.

Searching But Not Finding

The deployment of SharePoint also brings the issue of search to the fore. No matter how much attention is paid to user-centric information architecture the provision of good search functionality is crucial to the effective use of the information assets of the organisation. The search functionality of SharePoint 2007 is very poor; fortunately Microsoft has recognised this and has substantially enhanced SharePoint 2010, though it will require 64-bit architecture. Such is the quality of all the leading enterprise search applications there are going to be few technical problems that cannot be solved on deployment.

However most organisations fail to realise that getting the best from the investment requires a dedicated support team with IT, business and taxonomy skills that could easily be a team of four people [25]. The search logs are an invaluable source of information about not only what users can find but what they are looking for and cannot find. In the latter case there may need to be changes to the information architecture or to the metadata metadata schema; they are not changes that can be made in a matter of hours or even days. Such is the level of performance that users have come to expect from Google on the Web, any apparent failure of the intranet search application to find information that is known to exist will quickly cause a permanent breach of trust in that search application.

The Global Intranet Trends survey [2] has indicated for a number of years that search is regarded as a core application and yet the level of satisfaction is very low. In the 2010 survey only 14% of respondents were very satisfied with their search application. Certainly 47% were moderately satisfied, but is this not an acceptable benchmark for search.

Why are the results so poor? Only 12% of respondents have a search strategy for implementation and evolution and in only 6% of cases are business owners involved in defining requirements. Only 10% of organisations consult users about search and just 13% conduct usability tests. Those figures are bad enough but worse is to come. 70% of organisations have less than one full time employee working on search support, 30% do not look at search logs at all, and a further 35% do so only when resources allow.

What seems to be happening is that the blame for poor search results is being pinned on the technology, as a third of all respondents had implemented or were in the process of implementing a new search application in the past 12 months. This is good news for the search vendors, but not for employees in the organisations concerned.

Working Together

Collaboration, team working, communities of practice, knowledge sharing, web 2.0, enterprise 2.0 – there are just so many buzz words but little attention to detail. So often the view is that people are not working together as the organisation expected, but if wiki applications are implemented and/or SharePoint is installed then all will be well. Hansen has commented that bad collaboration is worse than no collaboration [26]. Certainly there has been a steady increase in the adoption of social media and other collaboration applications, but the direct benefits have been difficult to quantify. Pilot projects rarely deliver immediate benefits and may well be closed down just as they start to be effective.

There is a tendency in organisations to use the word 'collaboration' in a generic sense when in fact there are at least four distinct models of collaboration. The model set out below was developed by Cawthorne [27]

  • Content-centric: Collaborative authoring, editing and discussion of documents or other content items, including sectional editing of large documents
  • Conversation-centric: Not focusing on content items, but on discussions about ideas and concepts; this can be thought of as asynchronous brain-storming or idea development, and discussion forums are one example of this type of collaboration
  • Process-centric: collaboration supporting the completion of standard business processes and tasks; for example the development of the annual business plan and budget for an HEI based on submissions from faculties and subsequent rounds of discussion and negotiation
  • Project-centric: Collaboration around a very specific set of goals and objectives central to a specific project

One of the core issues that this model illustrates is the potential divide between formal information (which may have been published in a document management system) and informal information held on a wiki. Often there is no way for a user unfamiliar with the business process or project to know what the status is of the documentation, which in organisations subject to any compliance requirement can be a major issue.

The HEI Situation in the UK

Higher Education institutions (HEIs) present some unique challenges in intranet management. There are multiple user segments, which might typically include

  • On-site visitors (to conferences, training courses etc)
  • Prospective students
  • Undergraduate
  • Special (Continuing Professional Development (CPD), short course, etc)
  • Postgraduate
    • Research
    • Taught
  • Postgraduate
    • UK
    • International
  • Academic Staff
    • Teaching and Learning
    • Research
  • External researchers
    • Affiliated institutions
    • Corporate
    • Other
  • Alumni
  • Business and commercial partners
  • Regulators and ombudsmen

The unique challenges include:

  • Students may be on campus for only a year and in general the user population changes substantially from year to year
  • HEIs operate on a very federated basis, with limited direct control from a central management team
  • Budgets are under very considerable pressure
  • Usually a multiplicity of departmental and other file servers
  • A wide range of specialised applications, such as learning management applications
  • Complex information security architectures
  • Remote access requirements from student accommodation
  • Support for mobile device access
  • Maintaining a wide range of sensitive personal data
  • The need to protect the integrity of institutional and third-party intellectual property
  • The ability to provide important assessment information to students and staff promptly

The combination of these challenges, multiple user groups and very substantial collections of information mean that HEI information environments are complex strategic assets. As a result HEI intranets push the technological and governance boundaries to the limit and beyond. No research seems to have been carried out on HEI intranets, and the list of challenges above is based on a number of projects carried out by Intranet Focus Ltd in UK universities and associated agencies, in particular a long-term intranet strategy project at the Open University which is described below.

However it is possible to visit a number of university intranets because some or all of the intranet is accessible from the web. 20 UK university intranets can be found very easily using Google and scanning through the first dozen or so pages of results. Some of the information on these sites might well be considered either confidential or at least being subject to controlled access but either it has been decided that the benefits of total or limited public access are in the best interests of the HEI concerned, that Freedom of Information legislation required the HEI to do so, or that no one took a view on the issues. Among the content that is accessible on these intranets are three-year corporate plans, staff policies, and departmental research projects for commercial customers. Although in some cases sections of the intranet are password-protected, one university provides such detailed information on the formats of the passwords and user names that it would be fairly easy to hack into the intranet.

It might be expected that JISC would be in a position to provide support for intranet managers. A search for 'intranets' on the JISC site did produce 383 results, all of which (on 11 February 2010) had the displayed date of 22 April 2009 even though the dates of the content ranged from 1999 to 2009. There are three links on the technology section of the JISC site [28], but two of these no longer exist and the third is a very poor list by a third-party organisation that fails to list most of the major intranet resources referred to in this article.

Open University Intranet Case Study

The Open University has long been a leader in using information technology to support learning, teaching and administration. As far as intranet use was concerned, by early 2007, when the decision had been made to implement an EMC Documentum document management application essentially for course production, there were around 200+ individual intranets in use. They had been built using a number of different platforms, including a WCMS developed by the OU IT department. Intranet search was carried out using Ultraseek, but not all the intranets were indexed. Intranet Focus Ltd was commissioned to develop an intranet strategy for the OU, and at the same time a full-time intranet manager was appointed to manage the development of the intranet.

A significant amount of user survey work was undertaken and the main issues identified were:

  • The inadequacy of the search tool
  • Out-of-date content (sites and documents), content duplication, broken links and owners of documents having left the OU
  • Inconsistent navigation, and the different "look and feel" of sites depending on the publishing platform and on staff resources and expertise
  • Better communication channels, e.g. who is working on a specific project
  • News feeds that would push information out to staff
  • Web publishing - needs to be quick, user-friendly and offer more flexibility

During 2008 decisions were taken to undertake the redevelopment in a number of phases. Phase 1 was to develop a new Intranet home page. Phase 2 was to seek a new search application. Phase 3 was to acquire a suitable Web publishing tool. A new home page was developed using one of the existing CMS platforms. Among the methods used to determine the information architecture were online and manual card-sorting exercises. As the design progressed, a significant amount of usability testing was undertaken around specific tasks that users needed to be able to perform on the intranet. This was soft-launched with the original home page still being available for a while.

The Exalead search application was chosen for both the intranet and public web sites, taking around ten months from writing the specification until implementation, with some significant security management issues to solve in the process.

In the middle of 2009 a decision was taken to adopt Drupal as the University's web publishing tool for new intranet (and public) sites with the plan to gradually migrate other intranet sites to this open source platform. Work is currently being carried out on the redevelopment of the intranet sites for HR and for the OU Business School. Alongside this has been a significant development in the ability to surface Documentum content into Drupal. This work has been conducted by the Intranet Manager with additional resources and support (often limited) for specific tasks. There is still much to do to reduce further the number of intranet sites and to continue to improve usability.

Creating Intranet Value

Over the last ten years there has been little in the way of major technology changes that would affect intranets, even if enterprise search, web content management and portal systems have become more powerful and offer more functionality. The good practice that was developed by early adopters in the 1990s still holds good today. Yet, based on extensive anecdotal information about HEI intranets accumulated over the last few years, and a detailed review of those intranets in the public domain, it is clear that, for the most part, the HEI sector is not adopting good practice. Not only is this an issue for the effective use of the information resources of the university by staff and students but students will go out into careers without experience of what a good intranet should be able to add to help an organisation achieve its objectives.

Although Robertson has played an enormously important role in developing operational good practice it is time to turn to McConnell, who is the leading thinker on intranet strategy, especially governance strategy, to enable me to provide a positive and constructive end to what otherwise would be a somewhat depressing analysis of the intranet environment.

In the NetStrategyJMC 2010 Global Intranet Trends report [2] McConnell identifies six areas where it is both possible and desirable to enhance the value of an intranet.

In summary these are:

  1. Make the intranet a front-door into the widest possible range of repositories and applications, but enable users to customise what they see to reduce information overload
  2. The intranet should be task-based, providing the information and applications needed to complete tasks on a seamless basis, rather than requiring staff to work in one application and then use the intranet to locate forms, documents, and other information needed to complete the task on an ad hoc basis
  3. The intranet should be team-oriented, enabling virtual teams to share knowledge, information and documents. External partners need to be able to access the same information and tools as the employees.
  4. The intranet makes it easy to find people even when you do not know their names. People with shared interests can connect: they can share experiences and good practices directly even if they did not know each other prior to the exchanges
  5. The intranet works in real time, so that users can be informed, communicate and contact each other in real-time regardless of location. The news section of the intranet lets people subscribe to different news topics, and their individual news pages are updated as the news is published
  6. The intranet enables teleworkers to use the same tools and see the same information as the office-based people, making effective use of mobile technology

To achieve this requires vision, planning and commitment to place the intranet at the very centre of an organisational information strategy. It can be done, as the reports from the Nielsen Norman Group and Step Two Designs illustrate, but judging from a review of the admittedly small number of publicly accessible HEI intranets the standards in this sector seem quite low.

In Conclusion

Good decisions demand good information, and, given the economic crisis that the UK is currently experiencing, especially in terms of HEI funding, there will be many difficult decisions to make over the years ahead. The story behind the potential destruction of Northwest Flight 253 on Christmas Day 2009 is a classic example of not being able to join up information from a number of different applications and make good decisions [29]. Stern has commented that, 'Managers need more than gut instinct and past experience to help them make good decisions. This means that knowledge has to be seen as an asset, something to be both respected and exploited.' [30]

Too many organisations seem to take the view that if they put all possible information onto an intranet, and connect up a search engine, then the job is done. In HEIs in particular, with rapidly changing populations of students and researchers in particular, knowledge is walking in and out of the institution all of the time, and information is being added to multiple repositories in amounts that are well into gigabytes each day. A good intranet, properly governed and resourced, with technology that is appropriate to the requirements, will make a significant difference to the achievement of organisational and personal objectives. In a survey of international companies conducted by Capgemini [31], over 80% of respondents stated that information exploitation was a critical driver or determinant of business performance. However, many also felt they could make better use of their information. The vast majority said that business performance could be improved by at least 27% if they were able to exploit their information successfully.

Until HEIs, along with the majority of both private and public sector organisations in the UK, recognise that information needs to be treated as arguably the most important asset they possess (because it remains behind even when employees leave) staff of the institutions could well make uninformed decisions, and end up initiating a divine comedy of errors. Is that a risk worth taking when institutional reputation is so important and fragile? Or would it be better to regard information as a strategic asset, starting with a re-evaluation of the role the intranet is, and could be, playing in the achievement of objectives in challenging and changing times.

Acknowledgements

I would like to record my thanks to Jed Cawthorne, Jane McConnell, Mike Reddy (Syndicus) and James Robertson for their comments on early versions of this paper. Nicky Waters and Ian Roddis kindly agreed to allow me to cite the Open University as a case study. I have made a number of comments on the HEI sector in this paper, and I must emphasise that they should not be regarded as representing the views of my colleagues in the Department of Information Studies at the University of Sheffield.

References

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Author Details

Martin White, FRSC, HonFCLIP, FRSA
Managing Director
Intranet Focus Ltd.
Visiting Professor
Department of Information Studies
University of Sheffield

Email: martin.white@intranetfocus.com
Web site: http://www.intranetfocus.com

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Date published: 
30 January 2010

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How to cite this article

Martin White. "Intranet Management: Divine Comedy or Strategic Imperative?". January 2010, Ariadne Issue 62 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue62/white/


article | by Dr. Radut