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Building an employee intranet brings benefits

Small and medium-sized businesses can benefit most from intranets, which offer better productivity, knowledge sharing and money-saving resources.

Building an employee intranet can be a key productivity tool for a small or medium-sized business (SMB), particularly as companies grow beyond the efficacy of sneakernet and explore electronic methods of sharing and disseminating corporate knowledge.

We don't have the fanciest tools -- from an organizational perspective, it's pragmatic.

"It's a beautiful model for an SMB," said Ruth Gilleran, visiting lecturer in the technology, operations and information management division at Babson College in Wellesley, Mass. "One of the first things you need in an early business is to communicate."

In fact, midsized companies may represent the sweet spot of corporate intranet usage, said Alan Pelz-Sharpe, principal strategist at Wipro Technologies, a consulting and analytical firm in Bangalore, India. While very small companies can still rely on word of mouth for information exchange, and large companies struggle with overgrowth and stale content, the midsized companies can really take advantage of the features of an employee intranet.

"The 500- to 1,000-person companies are probably the ones getting the most value from their intranets," he said. "They can get great benefits from having a centralized content store and access point, but they aren't so large as to make something like that clunky and unwieldy."

Function, not fashion, key in an employee intranet

Employee intranets at such companies tend to be practical workhorses. "They might not be sexy, but they work," Pelz-Sharpe said.

For example, the corporate intranet at The Medicines Co., a pharmaceutical company in Parsippany, N.J., functions as a valuable information dissemination point, but it doesn't have a lot of bells and whistles, said David Mitchell, vice president of IT at the company. "We don't have the fanciest tools -- from an organizational perspective, it's pragmatic," Mitchell said. "Technology is not the solution, it's something that drives the content."

Mitchell's goal is to make it easy and simple for his viewer to get at information they care about, whether it be clinical trial data or a self-help section for IT. While this may seem obvious, it's not as simple as it sounds. The following issues should be considered by any SMB considering building an employee intranet:

Planning ahead improves corporate intranet content

Most corporate intranets sprout at the grass-roots level and quickly reach the point where the originator cannot handle his creation. "They spin out of control and can't scale beyond a finite amount of users and content," said Craig St. Clair, a partner at TKG Consulting LLC, a knowledge strategy company in Cambridge, Mass.

Before you get to that point, it's a good idea to sit down and discuss who owns the company intranet, and how it should best be structured. "You need to think about it architecturally and how it will be maintained and sourced," Pelz-Sharpe said. "One of the big mistakes is not giving anybody actual ownership," which is a sure recipe to stale data and user disuse. Ownership often devolves to the IT department by default, but it's important for business-side users to get involved as well.

Prior to building an employee intranet, give up-front thought to how the site will be structured and where content should reside. It needs to be simple and intuitive, or users will stay away in droves, Pelz-Sharpe said. "There needs to be a quick and logical path to information," he said. "After two clicks, most people will give up."

Cost: The technical costs of starting a company intranet are actually rather low; it's the maintenance and upgrades that will kill you. "Static, simple intranets are cheap and easy to put together," St. Clair said. "The cost is in populating and maintaining them."

Moreover, as a corporate intranet bulks up in content and popularity, many companies face sticker shock as they evaluate content management or portal applications. "You'll need to invest a certain amount of capital for those," St. Clair said. He cites a recent client of his that probably spent about $400,000 for a recent intranet upgrade at the 400- to 500-person company.

Security: Companies need to decide ahead of time what the access policies will be before building an employee intranet. Many companies have open access and encourage employees to post information, which requires a certain amount of common sense and self-policing -- all of which should be clearly spelled out. "You need to have a conversation about what's appropriate and what should and shouldn't be posted on the intranet," Pelz-Sharpe said.

Other companies will restrict access to certain areas of the employee intranet according to job title. While useful, that method comes with built-in provisioning chores to ensure that access rights are regularly maintained as employees come and go.

Outsourcing: As with just about any technical project, corporate intranets can be outsourced, which often proves attractive to SMBs, who balk at the initial price tag. "It's cheaper in the short run, but in the long run it's more expensive," St. Clair said.

The type of intranet will also affect costs, as dynamic intranets with a lot of changing information will prove more expensive to outsource than a relatively stable and information-static version.

As with anything, do your homework in advance. "You don't have to take that big capital hit, but you do lose some control if you outsource," St. Clair said.

Carol Hildebrand is a contributing writer based in Wellesley, Mass.

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