Small businesses have embraced the Internet, using it to communicate via e-mail, establishing web sites to sell products or services and tapping its considerable resources for research purposes. An estimated 5.5 million small businesses are currently internet-enabled and this number is expected to exceed 6 million by year-end. Sold on the Internet’s ability to boost sales and facilitate fast, inexpensive communications, many small business owners are looking at other types of networks--many in use for several years by large business organizations-- to help improve business operations and communications with internal audiences and with business partners.
Here’s how to further tap the networking possibilities created by intranets and extranets.
Intranets and Extranets-What are they?
First, let’s define what an intranet is. Simply stated, an intranet is a private network open to the employees or members of a specific organization. Intranets are a cost-effective and efficient way to improve communication flow within an organization. Not only are they a cheaper way of fostering better two-way communications among divisions, departments, teams and individuals, but they also allow employees based in different locations to collaborate more efficiently and effectively by sharing access to specific documents, central databases or information resources.
An extranet extends the company’s private network to selected third parties -- which might include business partners, suppliers or customers. Extranets allow businesses to make pre-selected information available to key audiences. For example, an extranet allows a marketing or ad agency to give clients direct access to specific account files. The client is able to open relevant files to make corrections and edit copy easily, or can access their customer mailing list and make changes or deletions to the database. Extranets can also make vendor relations less time consuming and help businesses reduce operating costs and improve profit margins.
Good communications are the lifeblood of any organization. Depending upon the nature of their business, organizations are using intranets and extranets in a variety of different applications to improve collaboration and deliver rapid in-time delivery of needed information.
Here are a few applications to consider:
- Provide e-mail service and access to company news, discussion groups and training programs for employees.
- Facilitate access via intranet networks to company publications including telephone directories, organizational charts, human resource materials, benefits information and forms, and employee e-newsletters. On extranets, companies may choose to include product catalogues, price lists, client testimonials and sales brochures.
- Give customers updates 24 hours a day, seven days a week on product order status, schedules and projected delivery dates online via an extranet.
- Provide the means for employees, customers and/or suppliers seeking information to easily identify the appropriate company contacts and email questions directly to them.
- Improve efficiencies between various project teams by allowing fast access to central project reports, project-management tools and schedules.
- Give technology users access to technical support tools, security tools and assistance.
Intranets and extranets are revolutionizing the work place, bringing access, reach and efficiency to businesses small and large. Small businesses are jumping on the bandwagon. An estimated 800,000 are currently using intranets and the number is rising rapidly. Using private networks, these firms can speedily tap the expertise of a variety of people to improve decision-making and achieve new levels of efficiency and productivity throughout their operations. They are using intra- and extranets to significantly lower the costs of routine business tasks involved with producing and distributing information. Many have been able to drastically cut or even eliminate expensive business travel, now they can "meet" and collaborate online with associates throughout the U.S. and around the globe.