An intranet often gets confused with the Internet. While there are a lot of similarities between them, they really are two different things. Simply put, the Internet is the global World Wide Web, while an intranet is a private Internet operating within a company. Both the Internet and an intranet use TCP/IP protocol as well as features like e-mail and typical World Wide Web standards. One main difference is that users of an intranet can get on the Internet, but thanks to protection measures like computer firewalls, global Internet users cannot get onto an intranet unless they have access to it. In fact, an intranet can be ran without an Internet connection. While Internet technologies like browsers, servers, and chat scripts are still used, an intranet can be a separate entity as long as its owners do not require that users have access to information found on the Internet.
When they were first introduced, intranets were dismissed by critics as the latest in a seemingly endless parade of technological fads and buzzwords. That soon changed when businesses started to realize just how important a tool an intranet can be. A company would want to set up an intranet for many reasons. The broad bandwidths that are used in intranets allow for speedier communication and access to information than the Internet. The private internal networks (such as a LAN) offer security and protection in the form of the aforementioned firewalls as well as password-protected access and secure servers. The use of an intranet allows companies to control their business easier and manage their employees more successfully. Less paperwork, increased productivity, added flexibility, and versatility are other factors that intranet users take advantage of. All of this adds up to a bottom line that is attractive in any business decision: the ability to save money and increase profits.
An extranet is part of a company's intranet that can be accessed by users outside of the company. Clients, vendors, suppliers, and business partners are just a few examples of the types of people who would benefit from this type of private network. They can exchange large volumes of data using Electronic Data Interchange (EDI), share exclusive information, collaborate on joint business ventures, participate in training programs, and share services between the companies. An extranet is a way to telecommunicate and share business information securely without having to worry about it being intercepted over the Internet. This is achieved by taking extra security and privacy measures with the extranet, including firewalls, required passwords, and data encryption.
The most popular intranet application is obviously inter-office e-mail. This capability allows the employees of a company to communicate with each other swiftly and easily. If the intranet has access to the Internet, e-mail can be accessed through the Internet connection. If the intranet is running without the Internet, special e-mail software packages can be bought and installed so that employees can take advantage of its many benefits.
An intranet has many other different applications that can be utilized by a company. These include the Web publishing of corporate documents, Web forms, and Web-to-database links that allow users to access information. Newsletters, information on benefits and 401(k) enrollment, job listings and classifieds, libraries, stock quotes, maps, historical data, catalogs, price lists, information on competitors' products, and customer service data are just a few examples of these types of applications. In addition, there are several other main applications that are very popular in the intranet format.
Every type of company has to deal with forms of some sort. This is another area where paperwork can become a problem for a business. Intranet servers can be equipped with programs that allow for forms to be filled out online. They could also be downloaded and printed out by the users themselves, which would cut down on the time it would take to distribute these forms manually.
Organizational policy and procedure manuals are also handy to have on an intranet. Unlike printed hard copies, online manuals can be easily accessed by all employees at any time. They are also easier to organize online, and can be indexed by subject and attached to a search engine to provide for easier navigation through the manual. In addition, changes can be made more quickly and easily when they are in this format. Converting printed materials to Web browser readable formats is fairly simple and requires either an appropriate html translator or a way for the original word processor documents to be launched with a specific application.
Phone directories are one of the most useful intranet applications. Again, this type of application cuts down on paperwork and the time and money it takes to produce hard copies of these directories. Instead, employee names, titles, duties, departments, phone and fax numbers, e-mail addresses, and even photographs can be stored in an online directory. They then can be easily searched and updated at any time with minimal effort. It is suggested that a few paper copies of the employee directory and other important records be kept on hand in the event that the intranet is experiencing technical difficulties.
Online organizational charts are a useful way for employees to see the hierarchy of their company. These charts can describe who reports to whom, the specific duties of a person or department, and the structure of the organization. They can be set up in either graphic or text formats on an intranet and updated every time there is employee turnover or a change in job title or responsibilities.
An intranet is also a useful tool for employee communication. One way users can share information with fellow employees is through online discussion forums or electronic bulletin boards. This requires special software that allows users to post and reply to messages on a variety of topics. Different forums can be set up with each one dedicated to a different topic. Before such a project is undertaken, employees should be aware of the rules regarding what types of posts are appropriate through a simple list of guidelines. These types of discussion forums should always have some sort of monitor to make sure things are running smoothly.
While somewhat complicated, intranets can be equipped with software to allow for live chat rooms or instant messages so that employees can communicate with each other online about work-related subjects. If a company is considering this form of communication, they should first form a policy about what can be discussed in an intranet chat. Chat room moderators and software to log the chats for future reference should also be considered. Despite these options, it is still difficult to see live online chats replacing traditional company meetings anytime soon.
Online polls or surveys are other useful types of intranet applications. As opposed to actual paper surveys (which have a low return rate because they are often considered a hassle), online polls allow employees to get opinions or information quickly with results that can be viewed instantly. Reductions in paper-work, wasted time, mailing costs, and erroneous data are other benefits of these types of surveys.
DESIGNING AN INTRANET
There are many tools at managers' disposal to successfully implement an intranet. These include html editors, database and forms interfaces, java applets, and java script. An intranet must use these tools to be designed well enough to fully maximize its potential. This in turn saves a company time and money. When designing an intranet, careful attention must be paid to the details that will allow employees to find the information that they are looking for in an easy manner. Just because an intranet is only seen by employees and not by clients or the general public, this is no excuse for a company to take the easy way out and cut corners with design. Well-organized intranets with a pleasing graphic design sense are usually much appreciated by the employees who use them.
Generally, an intranet should be designed and organized to focus on a departmental process rather than the department itself. This allows for easier access by employees outside of the department who are contributing to the task at hand. This reflects recent trends in the business world that trumpet the success achieved by the interaction between different departments or divisions within the same company.
According to intranet experts Anthony Schneider and Christopher Davis, "Successful process-oriented intranets look and work as differently as the processes they enable, but they share several common characteristics. First, they are built on smart information design. Second, they focus on tasks, not documents, and aim to integrate those tasks into distinct processes. Finally, the best intranets encourage collaboration by creating shared and familiar spaces that reflect the personality of the company and create a common ground for all employees."
Since individual tasks are generally a small portion of a bigger task, intranets should be organized in such a way that the related individual tasks are grouped together. These tasks can be simple or complex, but as long as they all contribute to the same overall process, employees will benefit from the easy access to information that this sort of design provides.
Intranets are useful in bringing employees from different departments together. They can even help employees of the same company who work at different locations communicate more successfully. Through an effective design, these departments can collaborate and solve problems by using the intranet as a tool rather than relying on more traditional business ideas like meetings and conference calls.
The bottom line is that an intranet, like any corporate venture, is a reflection of the business that runs it. A company that is well organized (and therefore usually successful) will be able to design an intranet in such a way to best suit their needs. As Schneider and Davis state, "As the intranet creates new forms of collaboration, it will challenge traditional ways of doing work and obtaining information. For the intranet to be successful, it must provide ways of empowering all employees, offering concrete incentives for employees to use, and encourage the use, of the intranet. The process-oriented intranet, then, is 'in sync' with the company it works for. And this is where graphic design, tone, and standards emerge as vital to the intranet's success. Like it or not, intranets have personalities, which are amalgams of visual style, tone, and content. An intranet that reflects the culture of its company will make employees feel more at home, will help dispersed employees feel that they share the same space, and will encourage collaboration and communication around the processes they support."
THE COST OF SETTING UP AND RUNNING AN INTRANET
Initially, a business that wishes to set up an intranet has to consider the following costs: hardware (including the server and network adapter), software and utilities, and installation. This can all be done rather quickly since a simple intranet only requires an existing TCP/IP network and an extra machine to act as the server. This extra machine will have to have the proper Web server software and network card installed and may require a memory upgrade and added disk space. After everything is up and running, upgrades to the hardware will have to made from time to time to handle increasing traffic. New software like multimedia applications and interactive forums as well as upgrades to existing applications are all essential. The labor of employees who maintain the intranet is an ongoing cost, as are the costs to publish and archive data.
On the other hand, since intranets were designed to save time, they can usually be counted on to save money as well. By cutting down on routine communication, employees can refocus their efforts to better performing their duties. Employees who use the intranet to its fullest potential will discover that the benefits of e-mail, reduced paperwork, and easy access to information will increase their productivity. Both the employee and the employer benefit in this situation. As mentioned previously, company literature that is stored and distributed online rather than through traditional hard paper copies also cuts down printing and distribution costs. Companies sometimes notice a savings of tens of thousands of dollars when they post their documents online.
In an article that appeared in Intranet Communicator, however, Schneider and McGrath warned managers not to expect too much too soon: "Review the existing return on investment studies or question company executives on their claims of multimillion dollar savings, and one finds that calculating intranet ROI is more art than science and more guesstimate than calculation. Like the sweeping claims made for corporate Web sites a few years ago, many of the projections of ROI measured in thousands of percent may fade as organizations begin to experience the cost of ramping up, maintaining and administering intranets across thousands of users. Not to mention incorporating the inevitable upgrades and conducting enterprise-wide training."
MANAGING AN INTRANET
As the cost to maintain an intranet grows over time, so does the time and effort to maintain it. Managers often spend considerable energy trying to keep up with increased traffic and other forms of growth. Proper planning (including having the best Web and network tools available) is one way to cut down on the manpower required to run an intranet. Employees who maintain the intranet must be experts in the area of Web publishing. Managing the server, developing applications, and converting documents and databases to html format are just some of the duties found in this area.
Many companies decide to hire an outside firm to run their intranet rather than do so themselves. This cuts down on the number of internal problems and potential disasters and gives management peace of mind to know that trained professionals are handling this often delicate situation. If this route is taken, it is important for management to keep some employees dedicated to intranet issues in case the relationship with the outside supplier does not end up working out.
Once the intranet is set up, it is important to keep its content current in order to keep employees using it in the manner for which it was intended. Regular updates regarding company news and the promotion of the intranet from upper management are just two ways to keep it from growing obsolete before its time.
Large corporations like IBM, Ford Motor Company, and the Turner Entertainment Group have all had success implementing intranets into their corporate structure. But these giant companies are not the only ones who have been able to exploit the benefits of intranets to their fullest advantage. Small businesses have taken notice as to how intranets help cut down on costs and increase productivity. Since small businesses often also have less red tape to deal with than larger corporations, a full-fledged intranet or even a test version can often be set up quickly and easily. Once management and employees become familiar with how the intranet works, the possibilities for success are limitless.