An intranet can be an effective internal communication tool for any business, but intranets are mostly used by large companies that have the resources to set them up and maintain them.
Unlike a public Web site on the Internet, an intranet, as its name implies, is designed primarily for internal use. It can be housed on a company's local area network or it can be available via the Internet. In almost all cases, however, access to an intranet is restricted to employees or others who have been invited in by the system administrator.
Although an Internet Web site is a great place to advertise products and services to the public, an intranet is best used for internal communications such as a company directory, calendar of important company events, information about 401(k) plans, announcements, sales incentives and other information designed specifically for your team.
If you have a local area network, you can create an intranet with the same tools you might use to set up an Internet site. The difference is that you would house it on one of the servers attached to your network rather than on a server that was available to the public Internet.
Microsoft FrontPage is a popular tool used primarily to create Web sites for the Internet. Yet, it can easily be used to create a Web site that sits on the LAN and is available only to people inside the company. You can create Web pages with whatever information you want to share and, as long as it's on only your company's internal LAN, you probably don't need any security procedures to keep outsiders from looking at it.
Although tools such as FrontPage let you create sophisticated Web pages for internal (or external) use, they are a bit hard to use. I used FrontPage to build my Web sites and was able to master it relatively easily, but it does require some learning and patience to get the hang of it.
Intranets.com has a simpler solution. Unlike a site housed on your network, an Intranets.com site allows employees and other invited guests access to your intranet without tapping your company's private network. Intranets.com's Web site--which is advertiser-supported and free--lets you quickly build an intranet. The service is mainly oriented toward small business, but community groups, nonprofits, churches or even circles of friends can also use it. The only criterion is that members have to be invited in and given a secret registration code.
It's not the most sophisticated intranet application in the world, but that's one of the reasons it's so easy to set up and use. It takes only a couple of minutes to register and then you can easily add a group calendar, create links to Web sites that might interest the group, set up a database of people with names, addresses, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and the like and even include photos of the people on your list. The site you create also can have links to various directory assistance services, including a "white pages," "yellow pages" and a reverse directory where you can look for a person's name and address if you have his or her phone number (directory services like these are widely available on the Internet and you can find them at http://www.larrysworld.com/searching.html).
The site has an "invite others to this site" link, which allows you to quickly invite people to join. When you send an invitation, your "guests" get e-mail with the link to the intranet and the six-digit registration code they'll need to connect. They set their own user name and password and, once they enroll, their names are added to a list of members that is accessible to anyone in the group.
You can also create an area for group documents, where you can post any PC files, including files from Word, Excel, PowerPoint and other office-type applications. This makes it possible for members of the group to share documents, spreadsheets and other data.
The site also lets you send e-mail messages to individuals or the entire group.
Your intranet will have a "my assistant" area, which is something of a "to do" list. It's really there to sell you on services and products affiliated with the site. Because it's a free site, you can't begrudge it the chance for a little e-commerce, but you don't have to buy the office supplies or subscriptions to trade journals and magazines available there.
The site has its limitations. For one thing, it doesn't let you import data from Microsoft Outlook or other calendar or address book programs. It also doesn't let you run sophisticated applications as you can on some intranets. Yet it's a simple solution to a basic problem of keeping group members in touch. And at that special Internet price of "free," it won't break the bank of even the smallest business.
Technology reports by Lawrence J. Magid can be heard at 1:48 p.m. weekdays on KNX (1070). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com.