We're living in the information age, but sometimes small businesses find it difficult to store all their information in a way that's easy to find when they need it. Fortunately, that's the exact conundrum today's intranet solutions aim to fix.
What is an Intranet?
A good intranet acts as a hub for a business, giving the employees a central place to store and find documentation, information, templates, discussions, and other materials related to the company. "It helps you save time and keep everybody on the same page," says Diederik van Houten, co-founder of intranet solution provider Papyrs.
"Managers, for example, can see clearly what's going on in different levels of the organization," van Houten added. "New employees can use the intranet to get up to speed quickly. Other employees use it on a day-to-day basis to collaborate on documents and to connect to customers and clients."
Intranets aren't new, but the way small businesses use them has evolved significantly over the years. What started more than a decade ago as a conglomeration of static, employee-facing web pages—basically information management wanted to make available to employees, such as company announcements and various corporate enrollment forms—is now a dynamic engagement tool.
"The latest version of an intranet is what may be called 'social intranet,'" explained Pankaj Taneja, marketing manager at collaboration solutions provider HyperOffice. Interactive and constantly updated data may include things like employee profile pages. "If I want more information on a coworker, I can look up his profile. If I'm across the organization, and I'm looking for people with certain skills, I can search for profiles and see which employees have those skills."
The new intranet, explains Rickard Hansson, CEO and founder of intranet platform Incentive, is built around collaboration. It facilitates conversations between employees, as well as organization-wide information sharing. "You can have all the conversations, all the communication, all the collaboration within one platform, which means that you can easily search and find information later," said Hansson.
Rather than rely on a solution that handles only document management or only note-taking, an intranet gives employees a place to interact, to store those interactions, and to search the entire platform as needed. It is, essentially, a wiki for your company.
Which Features do You Need?
Much of the power of an intranet revolves around communication which, Hansson said, makes it important to find a solution that accommodates the communication channels your employees already use. If your team uses instant messaging, look for a platform that includes it. He adds that wiki functionality is also an asset. A wiki "lets you edit and share documents without having to email or send attachments; it eliminates confusion about which version is the latest."
Next, consider the type of productivity services the platform supports. "These are tools that employees will use every day, multiple times a day, such as document management or file storage," Taneja said. Project and task management tools may also fall under this heading, along with shared calendar and shared contact applications.
In addition, Taneja said that an intranet platform should have a group structure. "Within a company you're going to have multiple groups with different needs. The intranet should let you create spaces within the intranet for each of these groups, rather than having a single place with a lot of clutter." Sales reps may want an area dedicated to customer contacts, while supervisors may need HR reference materials or other items.
Document sharing, web forms, social feeds, employee directories and a powerful search engine are the underpinnings of a great intranet solution, but van Houten suggested that, as small business owners evaluate the various features and capabilities, they should focus on finding a solution that's simple and easy to use, and allows them to get started right away. "An intranet that will help them save time and money, prevent unnecessary meetings and will keep the business running smoothly," he explained.
In addition to the companies mentioned in this article, you'll find other solutions available at various price points, some that emphasize social channels and others that focus more closely on productivity features. If you're interested in adding an intranet solution, take advantage of the free trials many vendors offer. Try-before-you-buy ensures the platform is a good fit with your company's existing workflow.
Julie Knudson is a freelance writer whose articles have appeared in technology magazines including BizTech, Processor, and For The Record. She has covered technology issues for publications in other industries, from foodservice to insurance, and she also writes a recurring column in Integrated Systems Contractor magazine.
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