How Intranets and Extranets Can Help Your Business

Intranets and extranets help businesses keep track of documents, customers and each other. Find out how these virtual tools can structure your business and make you available to your client base 24/7.

Steve Longley was having trouble with Colombia, Mexico and the Dominican Republic.

Longley
is CEO of Integra Relationship Marketing, a direct-mail business
targeting Hispanic Americans, which communicates regularly with
customers and collaborators in those countries. Soon after Integra was
founded in 2003, Longley realized how laborious and complicated it was
to get input on documents sent back and forth by fax or simple e-mail.
He set out to find an easier way, and discovered “extranets.”

Now,
any number of people can easily massage or comment on a project at any
time of the day or night over the company’s extranet, a computerized
information system that can be accessed only by approved users within
or outside the company.

“Transfer time of large
documents was much more efficient using the extranet,” Longley says.
Now, information-heavy communications no longer clog up Integra’s
computers or have to wait until business hours in Princeton, N.J.,
where the company is based.

To build the extranet,
Integra hired WorkZone, a four-year-old Conshohocken, Pa., startup that
provides complete, private systems for businesses and facilitates their
use. WorkZone was started from scratch, with no customers, and now
services more than 150 companies and 15,000 individuals.

“It
allowed us to very simply organize our clients’ files and grow the
number of contributors we had uploading and downloading files to and
from our site,” Longley says. They can also keep tabs on who checks in
when. “It becomes an extension of our internal project management
system, but allows people to interact with us 24/7.”

If you’re operating on a more modest budget, there are solutions such as Microsoft Office Live
(a StartupNation sponsor).  Office Live is a hosted service that offers
a package that includes the ability to set up password-protected Web
sites for collaboration amongst internal and/or external parties.

What are “intranets” and “extranets”?

Before
extranets came intranets, which allowed companies to easily send
documents, messages and other communications to and between employees.
The content was guaranteed privacy, since only approved users could
access these in-house networks. Because intranets are part of a
company’s internal computing system, they don’t require Web access,
says Malcolm Brown, vice president of WorkZone.

The next
logical step was a way to expand such secure communication with
customers and other chosen users outside the in-house network.
Extranets were born.

These networks make it easier for
companies and customers to access documents without the long delays
that are common when sending large files by e-mail. They open in-house
dialog to “selectively share information with key outsiders,” like
clients, sales forces and industry partners, Brown says.

Like intranets, extranets offer a secure way to communicate and share gobs of information without freezing up internal systems.

So how do you know if you need one or both?

Easy.
Whenever a company is having trouble keeping track of documents or
staying in touch with customers, consider it, Brown says.

Go with the flow

It’s
not hard to set up either network. You can buy and install software to
handle it, or build a system from scratch if you have the know-how.

And then there are hosted services, like Microsoft Office Live,
WorkZone, Near-Time and others, which make it all happen within a
matter of days, or even minutes if you use provided templates. They
keep all information outside your company and take care of documents
and interactions for you.

Perry Smith’s company, Aims, created an extranet six months ago to manage collaborations with vendors and partners.

“We
were working with a manufacturer that wanted us to be working with
their dealer network, to provide information on product quality in a
very rapid time frame – as soon as the product was delivered to the
dealer, (to) react on the manufacturing floor to problems in the
field,” says Smith. He knew about Near-Time, a Chapel Hill, N.C.-based
company that provides hosted collaborative systems. Aims already used a
Near-Time intranet to share design information, weekly status checks
and priority postings among company employees.

Aims still
uses e-mail to communicate, but the extranet takes it to another level,
Smith says. “We’ve found it to be an effective supplement, a better,
more interactive environment.”

Thumbnail sketch of intranets and extranets

  • What can they do for your business?
    Both are secure ways to share information in a closed environment.
    Intranets function inside a company while extranets involve key
    outsiders, all of whom must be given access to the system in order to
    use it.
  • How do you know if you need one? Whenever
    communicating gets too tough – too many departments, documents,
    destinations – or too big (uploading and downloading large files), they
    can ease your pain.
  • Are they hard to set up? Depends
    on your level of expertise. You can buy and install software, hire an
    IT specialist to modify software to suit your company’s needs, or build
    your own system. Or buy into an established hosted server and pay a
    monthly fee to have someone else manage it all for you.

Lynne Meredith Schreiber is a freelance writer for StartupNation .

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