White Paper: Why intranets make your business work harder

The company intranet can be used as a centralised point of information that can equip your employees, save time and boost...

The company intranet can be used as a centralised point of information that can equip your employees, save time and boost business

Five major demands on all companies today have an impact on their ability to compete: customers want everything faster; customers want everything cheaper; customers want better-quality products and services; business has gone global; and all the rules have changed.

Customers want everything faster

Companies have re-engineered and streamlined their processes, doing things faster, forcing their competitors to keep up. Customers now expect instant service and delivery of products. Products have shorter and shorter lives and speed to market is a major competitive advantage. The first product out controls the market and ultimately becomes the most profitable.

Intranets help fast-moving small and medium-sized companies become even faster. With a point and click of a mouse or a simple search, employees have fast access to the most up-to-date information. They no longer have to go searching through paper files or the network, nor call around to validate information. And there's nothing more worrying than employees working with outdated copies and giving customers the wrong information.

Intranets dramatically improve the productivity of your workers knowledge by letting them co-ordinate their efforts and share information, thus saving them time. For example, organisation charts help employees quickly figure out appropriate contacts for solving customer problems and email makes them easy to contact. Bulletins and newsletters keep employees up to date on significant things they need to know without attending time-consuming meetings. And an archive of documents allows employees to share and reuse them. These can save employees valuable time.

Competitive advantage comes from meeting your customers' needs faster and more effectively than your competition. With information at their fingertips, employees can shorten the product development cycle and get products to customers faster. They can also answer customer questions quickly and accurately, and satisfy customer needs.

Customers want everything cheaper

Customers also want things cheaper, putting increased pressure on companies to cut costs. Intranets cut communication costs by decreasing the number of faxes, phone calls and overnight letters among offices while simultaneously improving internal communications. They reduce or eliminate printing and distributing costs for company handbooks, employee directories, organisation charts, contact lists and other documents. Intranets also provide easy access to information, improving productivity, which helps avoid adding new personnel.

Customers want better quality products and services

Not only do they want things faster and cheaper; customers want improved quality at the same time. They just won't settle for less, so if you don't provide it, your competitors will. Intranets can be feedback mechanisms for quality information. You can use intranet discussions for capturing and leveraging the knowledge of your experts through lessons learned or information about technologies and procedures. Employees can report customer feedback in discussion forums, newsletters, bulletins or contact information. Discussions can also nurture creativity and innovation by brainstorming solutions to customer problems or identifying product improvements. Product developers can use this information to improve products. Customer service reps can use it to make better decisions and provide better service to customers.

Business has gone global

Your competitors used to be just down the street. Now they may be on the other side of the world and your customers may be as well. Technology has made this possible. It used to be that only large multinational firms were impacted. Today, however, anybody, anywhere can be your customer or your competitor. Fortunately, intranets keep all employees, everywhere, aware of customers and competition. Employees need only a computer and a modem for hardware to access the company intranet from anywhere in the world.

All the rules have changed

It used to be that your employees worked in one of your offices. Today, however, some may be home-based telecommuters and some may be located in other parts of the world. Your intranet can span the globe. Fortunately, intranets help employees and teams co-ordinate and collaborate, regardless of where they are located. Email and discussion forums facilitate a free flow of information and promote cross-organisation sharing. This breaks down the walls between departments, opens up the culture and improves communication. Marketing has changed as well, focusing on specialised niches. A niche could be just a single customer. Intranets help small and medium-sized companies become even more agile and move quickly to outmanoeuvre their large, perhaps more cumbersome, competitors. For example, news clippings let employees keep up with customers, competitors and the industry. When employees record every contact with customers, everyone then has a unified view of each customer, making your customers' feel like you really do know them and really do care. You might set up discussion forum communities around certain customers or industries, enhancing your one-to-one marketing and relationship building skills.

Resources

Some early intranets took weeks or months to build, which is too expensive for small and medium-sized businesses. With IntraNetics 97 or similar packages, however, everything is already designed, built, tested and integrated into a ready-to-use suite of applications. No custom-developed applications are required. It lets you focus on adding your content and getting an immediate payback. It's much less expensive than building an intranet from scratch, saving you time and money.

You will need someone to set up and maintain the network and server. Most out of the box packages only take a few hours to set up for someone familiar with Microsoft Windows NT or Microsoft BackOffice Small Business Server. This includes deciding which pre-built applications to use. You can start simply if you wish, using only certain applications and then making use of others as needed. Someone must also set up and maintain content. In some companies, one person may have that role along with other responsibilities. In other companies, that role may be distributed among the employees currently responsible for publishing and distributing this content.

Creating and maintaining content in IntraNetics 97 is easy to learn, requiring little or no training. Employees don't need technical skills or knowledge of hypertext markup language (HTML). Simply select "New" to add new entries, or "Edit" or "Delete" to update. Anyone can create and manage content by simply filling in forms or cutting and pasting from existing electronic files. IntraNetics 97 handles the set-up and details for you. Since there's only a single copy to maintain, everyone has the most current version. You need not worry that outdated information is still in use.

Encouraging use

Once the intranet is available to employees, it's important that they use it or you miss out on those tremendous benefits. How do you motivate employees to use it? You could start by informing employees about the intranet, letting them know it's coming and how they will benefit. Use your current employee newsletter or other publications to publicise it.

Training is another way. It's useful to show employees what's available and how to use it, either through one-on-one sessions concurrent with the roll out or in a group session or demo. Fortunately, you don't need much and a lot of employees won't need any training. One of the best ways to get employees to use the intranet is to give them content that helps them do their jobs. If you involve employees in creating and maintaining that content, you'll be off to a good start.

Issues

Here are some issues that arise from intranets. First, should you connect your intranet to the Internet and should all or some of your employees have access to it? One compelling reason to connect to the Internet is to provide employees with the wealth of information available there. As you contemplate your decision, consider whether your competitors give their employees access. If so, then choosing not to connect to the Internet puts your company at a competitive risk.

Second, if you let employees access the Internet, can they do so for personal use? Managers may worry that employees will surf all day. This isn't a new problem ( there have always been ways for employees to waste time. When they first get access to the Internet, employees go through the fascination stage. They're like overwhelmed children on Christmas morning, flitting from toy to toy. They come in early, stay late and surf through lunch, just to indulge themselves. When the novelty wears off, they settle into using the Internet appropriately. And while surfing, employees frequently stumble across information of value in their jobs. Many companies consider this a non-issue, as surfing is simply economical training in how to use the Internet. In the long run, the benefits probably outweigh the disadvantages.

Third, intranets change the culture. When everyone has access to information, companies develop a culture of sharing. Companies with intranets must be comfortable with empowering their employees to have information and make decisions. The benefits from doing so are enormous.

Conclusion

Intranets make it easy for employees to access information and each other, saving companies valuable time and money whilst improving productivity. They also offer those companies a competitive advantage by giving them the flexibility to meet or exceed their customers' demands to have things faster, cheaper and with better quality. Due to the expertise required to build them, intranets have existed mostly in large companies. In just a few hours, your company can start creating an intranet to support and develop your business, help your company become more agile and give it a competitive edge.

Compiled by Rachel Hodgkins

(c) 1997 Knowledgies

Read more on IT for small and medium-sized enterprises (SME)

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