November 12, 2007
If your small business needs to find better ways to collaborate or reach your best customers, and you aren't using a password-protected workspace, you may be missing out. But even if you are using an intranet or extranet today, you may not be using it to full advantage.
|Microsoft Office Live Small Business
Your dictionary still may not have the words "intranet" and "extranet" in it, but these terms are now an accepted part of the small-business lexicon.
However, many small businesses without IT staffs still view private Web sites or workspaces as the domain of corporations. "You don't have to be a big business to be able to use one," especially now with the increased functionality featured, says Toby Ward, president and CEO of Toronto-based Prescient Digital Media, and an expert on intranets.
How about an internal blog to pass on daily thoughts or brainstorm ideas among your employees, partners, suppliers, and/or customers? How about a wiki to collaborate internally on values or messaging? How about a workspace to personalize the offerings to your best customers?
Tailored workspaces such as these are among the Business Applications available in Microsoft Office Live Premium an offering of Microsoft Office Live Small Business. (Note: Microsoft Office Live Workspace beta is a separate product, available to pre-registrants in late 2007.)
If your business needs to find better ways to collaborate or reach your best customers, and you aren't using a password-protected workspace, you may be missing out. But even if you are using an intranet or extranet today, you may not be using it to full advantage. (An intranet, for those who don't know, is a site restricted to internal company users; an extranet is a password-protected site that a business restricts to selected employees, customers, partners, and others.)
"[Intranet and extranet] are terms you hear more commonly today. They've entered the terminology, even for small businesses, and their functionality has been enhanced in recent years," says Joel Orr, chief visionary at Cyon Research, a Bethesda, Md., consulting firm specializing in engineering automation. "Their integration [with other business applications] has also been greatly increased."
Orr is a recognized authority on extranets, and previously published a weekly newsletter called Extranetnews. He and Ward offer these tips for small-business owners.
- Use an intranet or extranet for any teams that collaborate. This means any teams. You can use one workspace for your marketing activities, another for your accounting needs, and still a third for your legal services, involving different internal or external players in each. Want to cut down on your e-mail overload? Password-protected workspaces are more efficient than relying on e-mail, particularly in sharing and collaborating on research papers and other documents.
Microsoft Office Live Premium, for example, offers more than 20 workspace templates to use for different aspects of your business. It also provides a simple-to-use Sharing Sidebar that enables a business owner to decide who has access to each workspace.
"The more documentation that needs to be exchanged and shared, the greater the need [for an online workspace]," Ward says. "Rather than always relying on e-mail to send documents to customers or partners, just having it in one place and accessible to all involved is a powerful concept."
- Use an extranet to personalize your relationship with customers. A password-protected workspace enables you to personally recognize key customers and offer them insider tips, special offers, and customized information. "An extranet gives you a way to more personally relate to your customers," Orr says.
Orr himself is a customer of Amazon.com, and he speaks of how Amazon — through its extranet — regularly offers him lists of newly published books it feels he would interested in, based on past purchases. "Amazon is talking to me personally," he says, adding that many similar retail and catalog company sites also have transaction-oriented extranets.
With a customer workspace, a small business likewise can offer customization of transactions as well as "helpful advice that goes beyond selling something," Orr says.
Yet a password-protected workspace is like a public Web site in at least one respect, he notes. "You need to provide a benefit to them to keep them coming back."
- Keep it simple: Use the same principles in creating a workspace as in building a public Web site. Your password-protected workspace should be easy to navigate and devoid of distracting graphics. "Don't have gaudy graphics," Orr says. "And don't use Flash, if at all possible. With flashing things, people will get annoyed."
People go to intranets and extranets to find something, learn something, or buy something, Orr notes, "so don't distract them. Many of the principles that apply to sound commercial Web site design should apply here …. [Intranets and extranets] should not require a user manual to operate."
Workspace templates included in Microsoft Office Live Premium allow you to create a "dashboard" page, so that visitors to your workspace can see the different types of information available and can easily access what they want.
- Consider writing an internal blog. Have news to share periodically? Like to think out loud? By writing a blog for a selected audience, you can engage key constituents and keep them abreast of developments in your business, as well as brainstorm and get feedback on ideas.
Yes, you could do the same with e-mail and let your inbox fill up. But blog posts often allow for a more free-form discussion and participation without commitment, Ward says. He writes both a public blog at Intranetblog.com as well as an internal company blog. Ward works out of Vancouver, B.C., and his company has 10 staffers, most of whom are based at the company home office in Toronto. So his internal blog is an opportunity to stay visible and stay in touch with his employees on the other side of Canada.
"A blog, from my perspective, is all about what is going on right now," he says. "It's about a conversation, an idea, or a brainstorm. It's allows the type of thoughts and stream of consciousness that you wouldn't often put in an e-mail."
- Consider a wiki workspace to formulate company values and goals. Ward says his company uses a wiki for a number of things, including a "client manifesto" that outlines Prescient Digital Media's pledge and commitments to its customers. "It has allowed our staff to change and edit it," he says. "We also used our wiki to update our own corporate values.
"A wiki is a great collaboration tool, to minimize long meetings and sprawling conversations."
- Integrate your workspaces with company data from your Microsoft Office applications. Workspaces such as those in Microsoft Office Live Premium work well together with Office applications such as Excel, Access, and even Microsoft Office Accounting Express 2007. A workspace utilizing the latter product allows you to work directly with your accountant, without having to send accounting files via CDs or large e-mail attachments.
"Being able to extend data from Office, and to share it with appropriate users, is a very powerful thing," Orr says. "It means you can avoid the technical issues involved with doing mashups [making different applications try to work together]."
- Do your due diligence in assigning access to your workspaces. Your suppliers may benefit greatly by knowing details about your products and services, your pricing, and your inventory levels. But they probably don't need to have an internal company phone list, an employee vacation calendar, or an archive of previous speeches by the business owner.
Likewise, your employees may be better off not having access to your accounting or legal information, which should be in a workspace closed off to all but your accountant or attorney.
The point is that workspaces work best if they are customized with only the right information per audience. In other words, you shouldn't take an internal team workspace and open it up to selected outsiders without reviewing the content you're allowing new users to see. A better way would be to set up a new workspace and copy or move over only the documents and files most appropriate for the larger audience.
"You should not set up an extranet without first understanding your intended audience," Ward says. "Once you define who the extranet is for, delivering the most appropriate content and granting access to the right people becomes an easier process."
About the author
Monte Enbysk is a senior editor at Microsoft Office Live, and writes about Web-related issues for small businesses. He previously was a columnist and managing editor of the Microsoft.com Small Business Center, and before that a writer and editor at MSN Money, Washington CEO magazine, and daily newspapers in Washington and Oregon. When he's not writing and editing, he's often running. Monte has completed 13 marathons and more than 80 road races since 2001.