Get The Word Out

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.

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This article was originally published in the February 2000 print edition of Entrepreneur with the headline: Get The Word Out.

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