Strategic appliance Featured

9:55am EDT July 22, 2002

Your company has 100 sales people scattered across the globe and you’re launching a new product. To fly all those reps to one location for training and put them up in hotels could cost as much as $1,000 per person. Worse, that exorbitant price tag doesn’t include renting a meeting place or catering the weekend.

But to do the same product introduction virtually, over an extranet, would run about 20 percent of the cost. That, says King Hill, director of marketing services for DigiKnow, is just one way an extranet can realize immediate savings for your company. “Extranets are valuable tools which can provide your employees, customers and partners with remote access to shared information,” Hill says.

They also allow your business to better serve your clients’ needs. For example, a customer in California wants to check the status of an order near the end of the workday. At 4:30 p.m. Pacific time, it’s 7:30 p.m. here. Rather than pay someone to sit by the phones at night and answer questions, let your customers access that information themselves through an extranet.

On the flip side, intranets — an internally based cousin of the extranet — can also save your business money by improving internal communication and streamlining your company’s document organization.

“I can not imagine managing jobs here (at DigiKnow) without our intranet,” says Hill. “All our time sheets are digital.”

While most companies aren’t that reliant on their intranets or extranets yet, many have found they can increase efficiency and decrease costs — two things every business owner seeks. So what’s the right intranet or extranet solution for your business? That, maintains Chris Ramsey, creative director of The Diner Inc., depends on what type of company you own and what applications you need.

“It doesn’t have to be a complicated program to have an effect on a business,” he says. “It could be a contact list, a product list or all the common business terms your company uses.”

Hill says he’s seen extranets that have cost as much as $1 million, though most companies can build intranet/extranet solutions for as little as a few thousand dollars.

Depending on a company’s technical capabilities, intranets and extranets can also support video and audio. A business could try out new ideas, such as marketing videos and advertising campaigns, before releasing them to the public. They can also be used to eliminate the need for printed versions of company newsletters.

“Instead,” offers Ramsey, “you can use a mixture of text, video and audio without incurring the duplication costs.”

Though the idea to improve internal communication isn’t a new one, because intranets and extranets use Web-based technology, they are still undergoing the requisite growing pains. Most companies which developed intranets internally, as natural extensions of their local area networks, have outgrown what their in-house developers were capable of designing.

“It’s the same pattern we saw with Web sites,” explains Ramsey. “A company wanted an Internet site, so they had someone build one for them. But what they originally ordered didn’t do what they found out they needed — and wanted — it to do, so they had to look outside the organization and revamp it.”

The two most common problems he’s seen have been navigation and file location.

“It doesn’t matter how much information you provide for your employees to use if they can’t find it,” Ramsey says. “If you want efficiency, make the intranet efficient to use. If I can get to that information quickly, then it’s valuable.”

But making the information available is only part of the solution. Getting employees to use the information digitally is what really makes it work and keeps cash in your company’s coffers.

“It wouldn’t be good for a company to build an intranet if the business doesn’t provide Web access for its employees,” Ramsey warns.

And though it’s not high on the list of priorities, don’t forget to address security issues going into the project instead of realizing you’ve laid sensitive company data out there for anyone within the company — or with access to your extranet — to read, warns Hill.

“Regulating different levels of access is imperative,” he says. “Consider it like sending e-mail. I’m sure there are times when you send it, then moments later wish you had it back.”