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Working Together

Teams often include offsite workers, business partners, clients, even suppliers. How can you communicate with them effectively and bring them all together in one spot? By using Internet technologies that foster collaboration.

Working with clients across great distances, Steve Bridges needed a better way to exchange information and collaborate on projects. E-mailing large documents wasn’t efficient. Inboxes got filled up or, worse, documents got overlooked. To remedy his situation, Bridges, IT manager for advertising firm La Agencia de Orci, decided to employ an extranet.

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By using an extranet, his company has been able to exchange large files with clients across the country easily. A password and login protection ensures clients only see information meant for them, and the firm, with offices in New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago, now can offer clients another level of communication. “For us, clients appreciated how simple it made uploading,” Bridges says, “but for another company, an extranet could be so much more.”

Extranets, intranets, wikis, Web meeting software, they are all part of a field of tools that have made it easier for businesses to share information and collaborate on projects. Gone are the days where e-mail attachments ruled our communications. Savvy business owners can now leverage Internet technologies to inform employees, work with clients, and even conduct meetings in more efficient and productive ways.

The Extras of Extranets

In Bridges’ case, an extranet was a perfect solution for his firm’s communication needs. By definition, an extranet is a penetrable form of a company’s intranet, accessible by “outsiders”: customers, clients, vendors, suppliers, even other businesses. Utilizing individual, authorized passcodes and IDs, these outsiders can access information specific to doing business with your company. An extranet’s functions can be individualized to your team, which can have as much to do with your wallet as it does with your needs.

“Our extranet was designed for us, by us,” says Keith Gerson, vice president of market and development for Salt Lake City-based Alphagraphics, a company that helps customers communicate more effectively through visual communications. “One advantage of our extranet is for our international licensees, who don’t speak English,” he says. “We gave them administrative capabilities while using our extranet system, so they can determine what content they want to expose their franchisees to.”

Extranets can be extremely useful for disparate teams that need access to similar information. In the case of franchisees, it could be that they need access to various agreements, advertising assets, and other materials critical to running their franchises successfully. For team members who are offsite, the extranet can offer a powerful way to collaborate on projects by allowing them to access documents, presentations, contracts, and other materials important to completing a given project.

Dan Martin, president of San Diego-based IFX, says his company develops extranets and hosts the systems for clients, so companies can avoid “reinventing the wheel” and purchasing all the hardware needed for necessary security. “An extranet to me could be as simple as a bulletin board to put franchisees and users together in one time and one place,” he says. “This can be $500 or free on sites like extranets.com. However, many companies may need something more than a one-size-fits-all mentality.”

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Martin says the power of extranets was never more apparent than with nutrition client GNC. “We took everything, including sales reporting and training, and consolidated it into one extranet, bringing in their vendors as well,” he says. “This reduced costs and confusion for their international operations and also made it easier for those with only one or two operations.”

For a $5,000-$10,000 budget, Martin says your extranet should be able to have a centralized help desk feature, a way of providing answers through a help directory and support hotline. “You also need to have accountability, a place to track users of the system so the owner of the system always has a record. Martin says some of the hottest extranet trends are online video streaming for training purposes, where you can take a course online, study documents, and have a test come up at the end. “This can result sometimes in actual certification, reducing on-site training or retraining of the customer.”

Intro to Intranets

Though extranets are helpful for your outside clients, business owners who want an efficient method for keeping their employees informed would do well to have a strong intranet. Employing an intranet, HR managers can post benefits and other relevant employee information for worker access, and employees can collaborate on projects with team members. Besides adding efficiency and productivity, an intranet can serve as a place for employees to inform one another of “extracurricular” activities, such as garage sales, cars for sale, and the like. “Everyone in the company would be getting e-mails from each other about puppies being offered or garage sales,” says La Agencia de Orci’s Bridges. “By designating an area for these type of items on the intranet, the people it annoys are free to work and the ones who are interested don’t lose out either… Company productivity definitely went up this way without morale going down.”

Your intranet essentially acts as the home page for employees to log on to each morning, so it’s important to make the information on it pertinent. If you don’t want it to be clicked off in favor of search engines. Also make it as entertaining as possible while maintaining a business-like atmosphere,” Bridges adds. In addition, sometimes it’s better to have too much information in the first few clicks of the intranet rather than not enough. “My research shows if employees have to click more than three times to get to information, they give up,” says Bridges. “If that information is important, make it easy to get to and risk a little clutter.”

As far as cost, for Bridges’ 120-employee company, the intranet took just over 100 staff hours to create. The agency also brought in an outside person to program the site, at a cost of just $5,000. Bridges says many of the work hours came from customization, so small companies could use Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server, a portal server that enables companies to integrate and share disparate information across an organization. The server, along with SharePoint Services, helps companies deploy Web sites that house critical information, which can be shared across teams, or even opened up to outsiders by deploying an extranet. While the product and technology are robust, it’s not as easily set up to meet individual corporate needs, as a custom solution would be.

Working with Wikis

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Far less costly–and less secure–than intranets and extranets are wikis, a relatively new-on-the-scene collaborative Internet tool. A wiki is a piece of server software that is housed on the Internet or a company’s intranet. Users with access can log on to create, share, and revise pages posted to it. Documents and spreadsheets even can be collaborated on in real time, helping relieve any version control issues. If you need to see an earlier version of something, a wiki will also keep a history of changes made.

Charlie O’Donnell, an investment analyst at three-person, New York-based Union Square Ventures and initiator of the tech and new media networking organization nextNY, has found wikis helpful to both entities. “For $15 a month, Union Square Ventures has a wiki that allows us to make simple changes to our company Web pages as needed,” he says. “Nobody needs a login or has to find someone with heavy knowledge of programming.”

For O’Donnell’s networking organization, $10 a month enabled them to create a wiki account where any member could do everything from overall design to changing the writing template of the organization’s Web site. “We didn’t really want the organization to have a leader,” O’Donnell says, “so wikis are the perfect way for everyone to contribute as much as they want to.”

Take a Meeting

Just as wikis, intranets, and extranets have simplified and streamlined communications between team members, customers, and suppliers, Web meeting software has helped make meeting with disparate employees and clients much easier–and less expensive. Alan Minton, vice president of marketing for Bloomington, Indiana-based Cornerstone Information Systems, a travel technology firm, says GoToMeeting software has allowed his 49 employees to cut travel time by more than half. GoToMeeting offers a number of features that help users effectively conduct online meetings, from the ability to broadcast a view of your desktop to attendees and to change presenters and desktop views with a click, to encouraging direct interaction through drawing tools, with which attendees can highlight information in a presentation, and conferencing and chat features. There is one caveat, however, warns Minton. “Because we’re a technology firm,” he says, “if the technology behind our presentations doesn’t work then our clients won’t trust us.” In other words, be sure the technology you commit to using works well, and can support the types of meetings you conduct.

But Cecil Trevathan, who does IT support for UCLA Medical Center, which uses WebEx Web meeting software, believes this type of product could cost you deals no matter what. “It’s strange to log into a Web site and then enter into a conference call this way,” he says. “There’s a bit of a disconnected feeling as you’re watching a computer being used with a person talking on it,” he says, “because you don’t get to see their emotions–as opposed to a real face-to-face demonstration. If you just want to do a foot-in-the-door meeting to demo a product, I think it’s handy, but don’t let it be a crutch in place of real human interaction.”

Trevathan points out that whatever collaboration tools you’re considering buying, it’s a bad investment if it’s over the head of your IT staff. “We can maintain our tools with three or four IT people for 20,000 employees, but we have extensive knowledge to back it up,” he says. “If your IT department is just desktop-class personnel then going for a complex collaboration program is like making a two-year-old do algebra.”