Intranet, extranet or portal, which is the right platform for your company? Often the terminology is used interchangeably which makes it very confusing, especially if technology isn’t really your thing. In this post, we make the selection process simpler by unpicking what the different terms mean and by identifying the best uses for each platform. Selecting the right choice for your business will be a more straightforward prospect. So let’s start with the basics.
What Is An Intranet?
An intranet is a closed online communications network. Think of it as being an internal website accessible only to your employees or selected clients and customers. It’s where staff go to get stuff done.
What Is Intranet Software?
Intranet software is the computer program used to create your intranet and the tools and modules you want it to feature.
How will implementing intranet software help my business? Well, that’s a good question so let’s turn our attention to looking at the purpose of an intranet.
What Purpose Does An Intranet Serve?
Quite simply, an intranet will bring organizational efficiencies to any business. Using the intranet’s tools and modules, staff members will be able to get on with the job more efficiently and effectively.
The intranet encompasses a wide range of information and services and can include the following:
- File and document management and sharing
- News feeds and blogs on a company-wide or team basis
- Corporate calendars featuring key events or milestones
- Automated business processes such as online forms
- Project workspaces in which staff can collaborate and work together on organization-wide projects and issues
- Staff directories with biographies and expertise highlighted
- Quizzes and surveys
- Social intranet features including individual and site activity walls.
Intranet software enables you to create a platform that has all the tools staff need to be more effective in their roles and complete tasks and business processes faster and more accurately.
The motivation for deploying intranet software varies from company to company. It could be a need to streamline daily business processes, or wanting to organize people and data more effectively. The intranet is also a great enabler of communications and so often the primary motivation is a desire to improve internal communications. Other drivers include needing to increase employee engagement or break down internal information silos and enhance collaboration and team working.
Whatever the case may be, the intranet’s flexible and comprehensive offering means that most businesses quickly find their company intranet becomes an essential workplace tool.
What Is An Intranet Site?
An intranet site is in effect an organization’s internal website and has a similar look and feel as websites on the world wide web. In fact, the same internet technology is used to create intranet sites.
Most intranet sites mimic internet ones with a home page and a series of ‘parent’ as well as ‘child’ pages. The structure will vary depending on your company or industry but typically involves a team or departmental ‘parent’ page followed by business process or task-related ‘child’ or sub-pages.
How you organize the information on your intranet is one of the critical factors to its success. Convoluted or complicated structures that make it hard for staff to quickly and easily locate data will see your intranet struggle to gain traction. A logical, easy to follow structure, on the other hand, will not only appeal to end users, it also means that they are not wasting valuable time searching for stuff on the intranet.
An essential starting point for any successful intranet site is, therefore, having a clear site map or plan in place to guide its development.
Also of critical importance in the context of an intranet site is the design. A consistently applied, simple, minimalist intranet design works best. Too much information, flashing images, loud colors or cluttered home pages are not only hard on the eye, they also make it difficult for users to find information and tools.
Be sure to refresh and update the text and images on a regular basis. Outdated information and static images are almost as bad as overworked designs. Have systems set up to ensure that content is reviewed, updated or deleted if it is no longer current.
With more and more employees telecommuting and working flexibly, your intranet design also needs to be mobile friendly and optimized for use by smartphones and tablets.
Intranet design is a huge topic, we encourage you to check out our blog for some additional insights and best practice advice on how to create a successful intranet design.
What Is An Intranet Server?
An intranet server is the hardware used to host the intranet software and data. You can host your intranet internally on a company server or externally on a third-party server usually in the cloud.
Nowadays, most companies decide to go for a cloud option rather than hosting the intranet on a company server. Cloud intranets have a number of advantages. They’re quicker to set up and easier to manage, are cost-effective and have minimal downtime. What’s more, the cloud provider retains responsibility for all software updates and backups as well as the security of the intranet site. This includes firewalls, SSL encryption and all the latest cybersecurity features.
A downside of using an external intranet server is the overall loss of control. It means that your company data is being managed by a third party. Some businesses feel uncomfortable with this, however, for many more the provider’s protocols offer a guarantee that data will be handled appropriately.
Hosting your intranet on the company server may seem like a convenient option, especially for larger companies that already have on-site servers and an internal IT resource. There are, however, a number of disadvantages that you need to fully evaluate including:
- Self-hosting is time and resource intensive and takes up valuable physical space.
- Flexibility and adaptability can be impaired.
- Ongoing hardware and software issues are your responsibility.
- Security assurance is down to you.
And so, many companies, on balance, find that the cloud option is more flexible and economical.
Intranet And Extranet Differences?
We’ve already looked at the basic definition of an intranet, but what are extranets? What exactly are they and how do they differ from a standard intranet? In addition, you may also have come across the term ‘portal’ and may be wondering how they fit into the mix. The truth is that each is a variation of an intranet. However, let’s help to clear up any confusion by examining each in turn.
What Are The Different Intranet Options?
Did you know that there are a number of ways that you can set up your intranet?
- Do-It-Yourself Intranet
- Cloud Intranet
Let’s look at each in turn.
As you would expect, this is a bespoke intranet developed from scratch. Companies download intranet software such as WordPress or SharePoint to develop their intranet, which is then hosted on the company server.
For many businesses this can seem like a good option. As well as being able to develop an intranet that is a perfect match to your organization’s requirements, often the base CMS software is free to download making it an even more attractive prospect.
However, before you jump into clicking the download button, there are some important drawbacks to thoroughly consider. The first is that often the CMS software, hasn’t been developed with an intranet in mind. WordPress, for instance, was developed specifically as a web creation and blogging platform. And SharePoint is really more of advanced document management and storage system rather than an intranet creation tool. In practice, this means that these types of intranet software don’t have the same level of functionality and flexibility as software that has been developed specifically for creating intranets.
In addition, many businesses quickly discover that the core free offering is limited in its scope and so to satisfy your organization’s needs, additional plug-ins and add-ons need to be purchased. The ‘free’ intranet software can easily become an entirely different beast as costs mount. It can also make for complicated management of the site as each plug-in could well be supplied by a different developer and, therefore, could have a different look and feel as well as differing update schedules.
The result can be a confusing, jumble of different tools rather than a cohesive, integrated intranet platform. So what may have seemed like a cost-effective, hassle-free way to deploy an intranet can easily turn into the exact opposite.
By comparison, this option is a much more straightforward prospect. Most cloud intranet providers use pre-built intranet templates that you then pick and mix according to your needs. The intranet templates are super easy to set up and unlike other options don’t require any great technical expertise. Using an intuitive, 5-step site builder process with drag and drop functionality, the intranet templates can be fully customized with your company branding and logo making for a totally unique intranet.
The other advantage is that the technology has been tried and tested in the field. A bespoke intranet will require an extensive period of piloting and testing to make sure that it does what you want it to. With cloud intranet templates, the provider will have done all that in advance so that from day one you can have absolute confidence that the intranet will meet your aims and objectives.
What’s more, the cloud intranet provider retains responsibility for all updates and backups as well as assuring the security of all the information and data on your intranet. So if phishing and malware sounds like another language, then this could be an important consideration for you.
Like an intranet, an extranet is also a closed private network, but the difference is that access is allowed to selected parties external to your business such as customers, clients or suppliers. It’s a platform in which these external parties can communicate, collaborate and share information directly with your staff in an entirely secure online space.
Companies that use extranets often include those that exchange large volumes of data. For example, if you use internet banking or submit your tax return online, then you’ve already had an experience of using an extranet. Other sectors such as manufacturers regularly use extranets for sharing product manuals and technical specifications. Wholesalers use extranets to make online catalogs available to vendors. In addition, web designers are also prominent users of extranets to allow clients easy access to check on the development of ongoing projects.
In simple terms, a portal is a gateway that allows the intranet or extranet to connect with a variety of external enterprise systems or applications – think customer relationship management software or human resources applications. The great advantage of a portal is that it brings together in one platform all the tools and services that staff use in their day-to-day work. There’s only one sign-on, allowing for a more integrated, seamless service.
Industries such as banks, accountants and healthcare providers are using portals in response to the challenges of managing multiple information channels.
What Purpose Do Intranets, Extranets & Portals Serve?
So now that we have a clear understanding of the intranet definition and the different types available in the market, let’s turn our attention to the impact they can have on your business by showcasing some of the possibilities.
And if you are still undecided as to which option is the best fit for your business and its needs, then the following discussion may help you to make a final selection.
Intranet For Connecting With Remote Workers
A great practical application of the standard cloud intranet option is those companies that have lots of remote workers or personnel that spend large parts of their working day out on the road. If you are a field servicing company, for instance, involved in servicing office equipment or perhaps you provide a building maintenance service, then for you communicating with staff members will be a top priority along with the smooth operation of business processes. You will use the intranet to book appointments, to schedule and organize daily work, for estimating, dispatch, CRM tools, invoicing and payments. You will also use the intranet to offer support to field personnel in terms of access to maintenance manuals and histories, product brochures and information on regulatory compliance.
A cloud intranet that is fully mobile-optimized and accessible 24/7 via a smartphone or tablet means that your field service personnel will have at their fingertips the collective resources of the whole company, even when on the road. The efficiencies to be had are obvious as are the potential impacts on customer service and responsiveness.
Intranet For Improved Employee Engagement
It makes perfect sense that happy and involved employees are more productive ones. In fact, according to Gallup, organizations that are the best at engaging their employees achieve earnings-per-share growth that is more than four times that of their less engaged competitors.
Having the mechanisms in place to promote employee engagement within your organization is an important step in the right direction and an intranet will help you. One of the key drivers for employee engagement is recognition. Research published in the McKinsey Quarterly still provides the yardstick, and 67 percent of respondents identified praise and commendation from their manager as being a key personal driver and motivator. A simple thank you from a manager for a job well done goes a long well; however, you can use the intranet to set up a formal and comprehensive employee recognition scheme that will have a far wider reach and impact. Use the intranet to recognize and publicize the employee or team of the month that has gone the extra mile or has come up with a time- or money-saving suggestion. The public recognition and the sense of value and appreciation that it conveys will help to enhance the organization’s overall rate of employee engagement.
Extranets For Streamlined Business Processes
Are you looking to cut back on paper and email-based processes? Do you want to perform key business tasks more efficiently? If you order from a particular supplier on a regular basis, usually via a paper and email system, then an extranet could offer a range of business benefits. All your ordering, invoicing and interaction with that supplier can instead take place in real time through the secure extranet. Relevant information and data about that supplier is now stored in one central location, making it much easier to find key data rather than having to sort through literally hundreds of emails or bits of paper. It’s a much faster and more accurate process all round and the benefits are magnified if several departments in your business interact with the same supplier.
Extranets for Enhanced Collaboration
If your business involves close collaboration with external third parties, then an extranet could be the way to go.
A design agency, for instance, will work closely with clients on brainstorming ideas and design concepts for a new product launch. In this context, an extranet allows for seamless communication in real time. What’s more, initial designs can be shared, feedback provided and proposals refined and developed all through the extranet without the need for paper versions, shared online storage platforms or email processes. It’s much easier to keep track of where things are at as the extranet is the sole means of communication. The result is a speedier, more responsive and productive collaboration for both parties.
Portals For Employee Self-Service
When it comes to promoting employee self-service, portals are the perfect vehicle. And increased opportunities for employee self-service have been linked to improvements in employee engagement, staff morale and all-round productivity. So, if enhanced employee engagement or improved internal communications is one of the main motivations driving your intranet solution, then a portal could well be the answer you are looking for.
A portal enables staff to solve problems directly for themselves. It could be ordering new office supplies, submitting an expenses claim or holiday request, locating an internal expert on social media marketing or even checking up on a product manual to answer a customer query. A portal allows staff members to quickly and easily locate for themselves the information they are after.
A self-service portal simultaneously ticks a number of boxes: it’s empowering for the employee as well as being a time saver for the organization.
Portals For More Effective Onboarding Of New Employees
In addition, an employee self-service portal is often used in the context of onboarding new employees. Do away with the endless form filling and passive reading of information with an onboarding portal. Personnel and IT set-up requirements can be completed online and the portal will automatically route the form through to the appropriate staff member for action.
Rather than a traditional classroom style of instruction, interactive media such as quizzes, videos and webinars can be used to convey the necessary company information to new recruits in a much more engaging way. What’s more, staff will be able to complete onboarding at a time and pace that is convenient for them away from the rigid constraints of the 9 to 5 office setup. Completing an onboarding checklist while commuting into work on the train could make much more sense for the employee who is keen to hit the ground running.
The whole process of bedding in a new member of staff is, therefore, made much easier and speedier with a portal.
Intranets And Extranets: Further Reading
If you would like to know more about any aspect of intranets, extranets or portals and how they could impact on your company’s bottom dollar, then check out our blog for plenty of additional posts and inspiration. Here is a selection of just a few of the resources available:
Want To Know More?
Hopefully, this post has improved your understanding of intranets, the different types and their applications in practice. If you’d like to find out more, then the expert team at MyHub will be happy to help. And if you would like to explore further the practical application of intranets, then have a look at these case studies.