You don't have to be big to be global

Web technology is opening up business in ways that will make global operations the norm.

Web technology is opening up business in ways that will make global operations the norm.

Globalisation is having a significant impact, not just on the types of organisations which succeed but on how they cope with success.

Following the rise of joint ventures, co-development deals and strategic outsourcing, it is more true today than ever that the key assets of an organisation are not its buildings or factories but its information and knowledge.

Companies as diverse as Ford and Dyson are finding that continued success owes as much to managing suppliers as it does to skills in manufacturing.

The only way to control the loosely-linked parts of an organisation is to ensure that these components can communicate effectively. To survive in today's economic climate it is essential that companies allow all their employees to access as much information as necessary for the organisation to move forward as one.

It is not just employees either - authorised partners, buyers and resellers can all benefit from knowing more about the company they are dealing with. Sure, it is a glib statement to suggest that everyone should be in the loop, and naturally certain information needs to remain confidential.

But the answer to the problem of how to ensure this spread of internal information across the company base and beyond lies in what is called the extranet. By definition, an extranet is really a group term for controlled Web-based access by third parties and partners to authorised internal information.

Partnership is becoming increasingly important as businesses re-focus on their core competencies, so relying on third parties to operate effectively is imperative. Similarly, record numbers of employees are remote-working and companies are increasingly spreading their wings internationally.

All these working relationships, whether new or existing, rely on excellent communication and, in particular, a two-way flow of information. A clear advantage of an extranet is how it speeds up the business process - buying and selling functions are completed and everyone is automatically updated. It is also very easy to use.

However, it is all very well allowing trusted business partners to view some customer records, but you certainly will not want to give them unrestricted access to sensitive financial data while inside your company's systems.

When setting up an extranet, therefore, it is first vital to look at all aspects of security. These include considering access control - restricting it only to those services involved and those authorised to have it, at both company and user level.

Privacy is another essential extranet ingredient - simply making sure that no-one else can see the information. In fact, the threat of someone tapping into data during transit across the Internet is much smaller than the threat of someone breaking into the servers and helping themselves.

User authentication is also vital. Extranets will be protected at the company level, allowing certain partners to access the site, but also require individual user level authentication when financially sensitive transactions take place. For example, it is not good enough to know that "someone" at a partner firm ordered £100,000 of stock - you need to know exactly who it was.

It is also important to understand what kind of information is required, by whom and when. For example, price lists and product descriptions can be updated daily, but credit references may need to be real-time. So after having assessed what the business does and individual needs, the right extranet system needs to be supplied.

Companies also need to access lots of information on disparate systems and this needs to be published in a very secure way. Partners (particularly resellers and distributors) will demand equal status to internal staff and won't be fobbed off with second-hand or second-rate access.

In practice, many companies have started to use hosted servers located in highly secure environments. These buildings are physically protected by security guards. The servers are also protected by Internet firewalls. Support staff can gain access to the extranet through virtual private networks.

It is also important to note that data can be viewed securely via the Internet and it is possible to restrict access to authorised users.

While there are now more advanced versions of the extranet on the market, offering full integration with enterprise systems, it remains the most appropriate and cost-effective solution for most firms. In today's global economy many smaller firms are multinational and the extranet plays an important role as the glue to hold these organisations together.
Karl Meyer is business development director at WorldCom

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

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