From the October 1996 issue of Entrepreneur

Less than two years ago, small companies were at a distinct disadvantage when it came to sharing information among employees. Large corporations had the means to install expensive groupware systems, such as Lotus Notes, that allowed them to share internal information such as sales contacts, customer service information and other documents. They could also install large wide area networks to share key database or other corporate information. But such systems were far too costly and complex for smaller organizations to even consider.

Today, with the increased availability of Intranet technology, organizations of all sizes--even those with as few as five to 10 employees--can give everyone on staff access to internal information, wherever and whenever they need it, simply and cost-effectively.

"Intranet" is a term used to describe the use of Internet technologies internally within an organization rather than externally to connect to the global Internet. Essentially, companies use the Intranet to publish information on an internal Web page, using the same process they would use to publish an external Web page. Users then access this information using a Web browser. These Intranet products also provide some e-mail capabilities.

Intranet applications are catching on quickly in the business world. The percentage of large and midsized companies using some sort of Intranet application has soared to 55 percent, up from just 11 percent a year ago, according to Business Research Group, a high-tech market research and consulting firm in Newton, Massachusetts. By January, that figure is expected to reach 70 percent. And the Intranet's popularity extends equally to smaller companies, according to Clay Ryder, a senior industry analyst at Zona Research, a Redwood City, California, market research and consulting firm. "We've talked to numerous very small companies," Ryder says, "and found usage patterns aren't much different between small and large organizations."

Doing It All

With the Intranet, businesses are moving one step closer to the long-awaited paperless office. The Intranet allows companies to publish all kinds of internal corporate documents--human resources manuals, newsletters, annual reports, maps, company phone lists or locations, price lists and product information--where it is easily accessible by all employees at any time.

Intranets can provide powerful search engines that enable employees to easily find answers to questions that arise in the normal course of doing business. For instance, you could post a list of common customer questions and answers on the Intranet so your customer service representatives could quickly access it while talking to customers.

Intranet applications can also handle functions similar to groupware applications. For instance, you can post electronic sign-up sheets, surveys or simple schedules.

More sophisticated practices include using the Intranet to link employees to your company databases to let them access a wide range of data, such as sales projections and internal discounts. You can also use the Intranet to distribute software. For these types of applications, you would need to contract with a systems integrator to custom design a program using a tool such as Oracle's PowerBrowser or PowerBuilder from the Powersoft Business Group of Cybase.

Intranet Advantages

The Intranet offers a number of important advantages over printed documents when it comes to distributing information. Much of the material businesses print for internal use is expensive and time-consuming to produce (not to mention tree-wasting). You can't guarantee that everyone in your organization will receive the most recent, updated versions of internal documents, policies or other information. With the Intranet, however . . .

You can deliver information whenever someone needs it--any time, day or night. Users simply call up the internal Web page whenever they need the data.

You can guarantee the information is the laBODY and most accurate available, as long as you keep the information on the Web server current. For example, you could use it to deliver daily sales projections.

Updating information is easy. Information is posted on the Intranet using HyperText Markup Language (HTML). Because HTML is simple to learn, you don't have to hire a "techie" to update your information--you can simply train the same people who would have previously updated the information on paper and distributed it.

You can cross-link information to other files using HyperText links. For example, you could cross-link your product literature to technical specifications and pricing information. To find specifications or pricing, users would simply click on a keyword, such as "tecspec" or "price," in the product literature, and the system would automatically take them to the desired information. You can even cross-link information to other files on other servers--whether those servers are down the hall, down the street or across the country.

Its So Easy

Despite all its advantages over printed documents, the Intranet would not be nearly as popular were it expensive or difficult to use. Luckily, all you need to get an Intranet site up and operating is a personal computer capable of running some sort of graphical user interface system, such as Windows 95, Windows NT or the Macintosh OS; an Internet browser; and a networking card for each system.

You'll also need a hard drive on which to post content; if you want to post more dynamic applications, such as forms, or provide access to "applets" (small applications written in Sun Microsystems' Java programming language), you may need a computer to act as a server on which to post your internal Web page.

With browsers costing about $20 per user, an Intranet can cost as little as $1,000 to install--even taking the server into account.

Other reasons Intranet systems are so popular?

Ease of use: Most people can learn to use a Web browser in a few days (or less), compared with weeks or months for many other software applications.

Consistency: You can use the same browser interface for a wide range of applications, from database access and document retrieval to bulletin boards and e-mail. This significantly reduces the time needed to train new users and makes life a lot easier for even the most computer-savvy employees.

Performance: The Intranet runs over a high bandwidth network, which means it can easily handle
audio clips, graphics, animation, video and other multimedia technologies that improve communication.

Cross-platform communications: The adoption of a wide range of standard protocols, such as TCP/IP for networking and HTML for publishing documents on the Web, makes for ease of communication. Whether your company uses a single type of computer platform or a mix of Macs, Unix, Windows systems and so on, common standards for Intranet publishing mean any of these machines can access Intranet documents. You can even set up secure links to communicate with specific external partners or potential customers.

Security: While many people remain concerned about Internet security, Intranets remain secure because they're internal. Intranet users can access the Internet but not vice versa. And, if you wish, you can incorporate additional security levels, including firewalls or encryption.

Computing Caveats

Mastering the Intranet is as easy as learning any computer technology. But hardly any technology is as simple as the vendors make it out to be. Posting Web pages is not difficult, but learning to do so requires training, and no one tool gives you all the bells and whistles you might need to create the fabulous Web pages you've conjured up in your mind.

Still, the Intranet has tremendous potential to save you money in printing costs, to make your organization more competitive, and to give your employees instant access to the up-to-the-minute information they need to make decisions in a fast-changing environment.

Contact Sources

Business Research Group, (617) 630-3900, http://www.brgresearch.com

Oracle Corp., 500 Oracle Pkwy., Redwood Shores, CA 94065, (800) ORACLE-1;

Powersoft Business Group of Cybase Inc., 561 Virginia Rd., Concord, MA 01742, (800) 395-3525;

Zona Research Inc., 900 Veterans Blvd., #500, Redwood City, CA 94063, (415) 568-5700.