From the February 2000 issue of Entrepreneur

Guess what: Big companies are doing most of their internal communications more cheaply than you are. What does it cost you to hand out a revised employee manual to every worker? Or an updated phone/e-mail contact list? If you're spending even one cent on either, you're spending more than some large corporations are. Why? Many stopped printing and photocopying such things long ago and are putting all the information up on their intranets.

An intranet can be simple, containing maybe an employee handbook, an internal phone directory and a list of company holidays. But it can quickly become more elaborate, maybe with space provided for announcements news flashes, to-do lists, shared calendars and perhaps even room for employees to post personal items of their choosing, such as photos of new babies.


Robert McGarvey writes on business, psychology and management topics for several national publications. To reach him with your questions or comments, e-mail rjmcgarvey@aol.com.

Risky business?

The benefits of establishing an intranet are clear. It instantly cuts costs. Run off 20 copies of a 50-page employee handbook, add in the labor costs, and you've spent $50 or more. Just photocopying a one-page phone list and walking it around to every desk in the building can get expensive, especially when there's an update every month--maybe even every week.

The bigger benefits may be that distribution is immediate via an intranet and, better still, documents are always there for employees to consult whenever they need. What's more, information that needs to be shared--your schedule, for instance--is shared, just by putting it onto the intranet. Picture one common use: a vacation-planning calendar that lets employees put in dibs on specific weeks; and, while doing that, they can eyeball a shared calendar that tells them at a glance who'll be in and who'll be out during crucial times.

Intranets are not without their risks, however. First, they aren't the Internet, where there's no question that putting up private documents can be dangerous. Even with password protection invoked for specific items, a determined (or simply lucky) hacker could make a few keystrokes and stumble onto everything you've put online. Mammoth corporations sidestep these risks by setting up internal networks revolving around dedicated intranet servers and internal networks that link all computers. They then erect firewalls and multiple, complex, security roadblocks designed to keep outsiders out. Too complicated for a small business? Even when a small company has the technical know-how to erect that kind of intranet, the money to build the system may not be there--building one can quickly guzzle up a five-figure budget. So are you out of luck?

A few years ago, the answer was yes. Back then, small businesses could only enviously drool over big corporate intranets. Today, it's different. Now any business, no matter how small, can set up a slick intranet. And the effort involved is probably much less than you fear.

Now multiple online services exist with the mission of providing space for small businesses to erect Web-based intranets that offer all the bang of big corporate intranets but with an outlay of only a few (often no) bucks. Such as?

  • Intranets.com (http://www.intranets.com) is a free Web-based service that provides a vast 25MB space, features automatic backups of all documents and offers easy tools for creating group calendars, announcements and more.
  • IntraGenics (http://www.intragenics.com/index.cfm) provides a polished set of Web-based intranet tools--employee directories, announcement pages, even forms for submitting and approving vacation requests. The base service is free and a premium version (no ads) is available at the limited time discount rate of $99 per year for up to 25 users (another $35 for every 10 additional users).
  • HotOffice (http://www.hotoffice.com) may be the slickest, easiest to use and most powerful of the Web-based intranet options. Calendars, document storage and contacts lists are all built right in. Featuring full integration with Microsoft Office applications, HotOffice allows for one-click transfers of Office documents into an intranet. The cost is $12.95 per person (with discounts available for more than 20 users), but an advertising-supported version of HotOffice offers much the same for free.

The disadvantages of these venues? One major drawback is that users need a computer with an Internet connection to access the content. Another hitch: Because the information is on the Internet, it incurs all the risks any Internet-based information does, though these services work hard to offer security. HotOffice, for instance, promises this: "Our servers are securely located in a state-of-the-art facility that is managed by Global Center, an industry-recognized leader in digital storage and distribution. Our servers are protected by dual-redundant firewalls. These servers are protected and monitored 24 hours a day, seven days a week by highly skilled technicians, security guards and closed-circuit surveillance equipment. The servers are backed up each evening, and tapes are kept off-site in a secure facility designed specifically to house sensitive media." Sound good to you? It is, and, for the most part, you can breathe easy when it comes to any fears you might have about outsiders crashing your private party.

Beyond that, these Web-based approaches are functionally very similar to the slickest of corporate intranets erected by heavily funded corporate IT staff. And because they're Web-based, they can be accessed from virtually anywhere, at any time--an employee working at home or even from a hotel room can dial in, check out the internal news and download shared documents, all in just a few mouse clicks.

Play By The Rules

Want to get started building your intranet? Start by scoping out the competitive products--put in a half-hour at each, deciding which will best suit your employees' technical skill. Then pick one and get busy uploading an initial batch of content.

What should you put up? When it comes to content, almost anything goes. But be mindful of two rules:

  • Don't include anything too sensitive. Confidentiality and security promises aside, it's wise never to put anything on a Web-based intranet that, if widely distributed, could compromise the future viability of your business. That means no trade secrets, no deeply private memos, no sensitive financial info. Why? Theoretically, any security can be breached--a fact made vivid by successful hacks into the U.S. government's own computers. Then, too, there's the question of employee judgment. Put up a draft agreement to merge with another company, and you risk a misjudgment by an employee who might copy it and put the document into the wrong hands. It happens, even when "confidential" is stamped all over the file.

By all means, freely put up material you'd rather wasn't public--employee work phone numbers, for instance. Sure, it's a hassle if this material gets into outsiders' hands, but if it does, losses are containable.

  • Avoid anything that could trigger lawsuits. Ethnic jokes, cartoons and such cannot be tolerated by a business that wants to stay out of court. And if an employee puts up material others find offensive, take it down immediately. Sure, there are free-speech rights, but corporate lawyers are united in urging fast purging of anything that co-workers might find demeaning.

The big content question is: Should employees be allowed to post to the intranet, or should all postings be handled by a Webmaster? A related question: Should employees be allowed to post personal material? Many hours have been spent debating these issues, and either way, you'll have plenty of company no matter which side you take. But for most small businesses, it usually makes good sense to allow all employees to post and, within the limits of available space and good taste, to put up personal material. Why the latter? An intranet can be a one-way communication tool--where management talks to employees--but you'll heighten employee participation and interest in the intranet if they're given some time to talk as well.

Better still, when the content is rich, checking the intranet will become fun and enjoyable for your workers. They'll like it, they'll use it, and, soon enough, you'll wonder how you ever got along without it.

Next Step

  • Head to Bookmarks on Intranets (http://www.itworks.be/bookmark/intranet), an extensive listing of sources for additional information on creating and maintaining intranets for companies of all sizes. Also check out Complete Intranet Resource (http://intrack.com/intranet), which offers an extensive library of articles covering everything from calculating the ROI of an intranet, as well as links to demos of several polished corporate intranets.