Why your small business needs an intranet One thing I like about running a small company is the ability to act quickly. Decisions are not bogged down by layers of management. In fact, most moves are made with the interested parties meeting around a conference table. But there can come a point when your business outgrows this arrangement. You need constant, reliable and secure communications with others in the company to ensure successful growth. You need an intranet. An intranet is similar to a Web site, and it uses Internet protocols, but it's an internal network exclusive to one company. (An "extranet" also is an internal or private Web site, but access privileges are extended to designated customers, partners and/or others.) Most large corporations use intranets. Information distribution is a huge task when you have 10,000 or more employees. Intranets can help cure that headache. I hear you, "I don't have anywhere near 10,000 employees!" But I can give you three major reasons why your small business should invest in one. Here they are: 1. Communication Suffers When Dealing With More Than One Person Even a very small company has communication issues. Most people find out what's happening while gossiping around the coffee pot. Stories change as they spread, leading to a misinformed and disgruntled staff. If you have telecommuters, off-site workers, employees who travel a lot or a "virtual" company, communication issues become even more challenging. In order for a company to succeed, all players must understand its goals. Neither long-term nor short-term goals should be confined to upper management meetings. It's Business 101. Everyone needs to be working toward common goals. An intranet is the perfect place to post weekly reports, memos and goals. This way, everyone is on the same page. Toby Ward, president of the intranet consulting firm Prescient Digital Media, notes that even a company with few employees benefits from an intranet. Even if you don't have people working remotely, your sales staffers or consultants aren't always in the office. Building an intranet can enhance communication through message boards, instant messaging and moderated chats. How? Let's take a typical business scenario. The sales staff of five has to come up with a presentation to the president on increasing sales in the next fiscal year. Those five people will enter a conference room, eat pizza, drink coffee and drag it out for hours. The first meeting turns into a three-hour, stream-of-consciousness brainstorming session. The second meeting starts with a review of the best ideas from the first. The participants hash out why they will or will not work. By the third or fourth meeting, the five will come up with some proposals. Using a discussion board in the days before the meetings can streamline the experience. Ideas can be debated beforehand. Participants come into the sales meeting more focused. 2. Time Is Money Yes, this is a cliché. But it's too valid not to use here. An intranet allows you to post critical information for all employees to see. Even having human resources information posted is valuable. One of my employees said workers in his former office once spent 45 minutes trying to find out if the day after Thanksgiving was a paid holiday. The personnel manager was gone and no one else knew. Posting of calendars, company policies and company benefits is a great start. They'll reduce wasted time. But an intranet can be used for more than basic information. The beauty of an intranet is its interactivity. You can save time (and trees) with interactive forms. Vacation requests, supply orders, changes to benefits and more can be handled quickly and efficiently. Make sure your intranet follows good design principles. You can't just throw stuff up there and hope people will find it. Organize your intranet to make it as user-friendly as possible. We're trying to save time here, not frustrate people. 3.It's Better Than E-Mail You may be thinking, "Why doesn't the personnel person just e-mail the form?" Or, "I communicate well with my employees through meetings and postings on the cork board." According to Ward, e-mailing multiple versions of the same document or presentation leads to confusion and sometimes information overload. Let's take that same sales group we envisioned earlier. They've decided on three major ways they will increase sales. They are now working on a PowerPoint presentation. Five people collaborating on one PowerPoint file can lead to disastrous results. I can hear the shouting now. "Who has the most revised version?" "Johnson, you gave me the wrong figures. I thought we fixed that." And so on. By using an intranet, people can work on a shared file and have a central location for the most recent file. This will also help save space on your server. It may sound like a tiny thing, but having versions of various files on everybody's computer takes up valuable space. How To Get Started Before you set up an intranet, make sure you understand what you want it to do. Understand how employees will use it. Finally, adhere to good design principles. If it takes five or six clicks to find a vacation request form, it's too complex. You'll also have to decide if you want to build your own solution. A consultant can build an intranet to your specifications. It will have the look and feel and design principles you specify. This route will cost you U.S. $10 to $500 per person per month. There also are software packages such as Windows SharePoint Services that allow you to customize and design most everything yourself, using someone else's template. SharePoint runs U.S. $39.95 a month or $399 a year, no matter how many users. Some packages, such as Instant Intranet Builder, use Microsoft Access as the core database. They incorporate linking mechanisms to create a workable intranet easily. You don't need a dedicated IT person to set up and maintain it. Depending on the company's size, the entire package can be had for as little as U.S. $5 per person per month. Some other software products available include InfoStreet, IntraSmart and Intranet Suite. Pricing varies, depending on the number of users. There's Got To Be A Downside, Right? To get your intranet ready for employee use, you will need someone to develop and maintain the content. The idea is to have continually updated information available. How you delegate those tasks may depend on the size of your company. If you only have 10 people, one person may be sufficient to maintain the information. If you have a larger company, you'll probably want to separate content updates among departments. No matter the size, you'll have to budget maintenance time into an employee's schedule. Remember, we're dealing with computers — nothing ever runs as smoothly as we would like. You'll also have to invest in time for employee training. You may even have to spend time convincing old stalwarts to use the intranet. Once the system is up and running and everyone understands it, the return on investment will be significant.