Creating an Extranet - How creating an extranet can positively influence your company's growth

Mark Ramsey's high-tech consultant company, with 9 employees, has an extranet. So does Bob Cutter's advertising agency, which has 35 staff members, a team of 107 freelancers and 7 clients.
Both companies, one in Oregon the other in Pennsylvania, have realized the benefits of having an extranet work environment, such as Same-Page eStudio, where employees can communicate and collaborate on projects more quickly and efficiently.

What is an extranet: A network based on internet protocols belonging to an entity that provides various levels of accessibility to outsiders. You can access an extranet only if you have a valid username and password, and your identity determines which parts of the extranet you can view. An extranet's web site looks and acts just like any other Web sites, but the security surrounding an extranet fends off unauthorized access.

Like the Internet itself, extranets are used to share information. Secure extranets are in demand because they are much less expensive to build and manage than private networks based on proprietary protocols. Extranets are becoming a very popular means for business partners to exchange information.

"It enhances collaborative knowledge gathering, particularly for a company that has more than one office," Ramsey says of an eStudio, a web site that is restricted to employees and other authorized external users. "Also, we have a number of people who travel regularly and they can quickly login, retrieve documents, get calendar events and record task activity. It really helps keep my team on the same page."

"An extranet can be especially useful for ad agencies that share a lot of documents with employees and clients," adds Cutter, whose Same-Page eStudio system currently deploys 7 eStudios (one for each of his ongoing clients). "You can provide a lot of helpful information to your team, such as reporting forms. . . . And it is really nice to allow our clients to go to a [private] Web site to look over different layouts for their campaigns."

A recent survey of U.S. companies with five to 500 employees by Modalis Research Technologies found that 70% felt their companies would gain from having an extranet. How would they benefit? By being able to work more efficiently and productively in groups, they answered in the survey.

So how can an extranet help your company? Here's how.

Information sharing:
An extranet allows a company to quickly post announcements and items of interest to the group, without tying up e-mail servers. The advantage over regular e-mail is that an extranet can more easily store large file sizes and longer messages, graphics and multiple Web pages; can place a priority on certain messages; can more easily allow for collaboration on a message, and can keep a message in front of people for as long as necessary.
Document sharing:
Most businesses already share files through one or more servers. With an extranet, you benefit from a digital dashboard for project information and include status reports of who has reviewed and signed off on various documents. An extranet also allows for quicker access to files, and easier management, organization, storage and transfer of documents.
Repository for vitals:
Employee contact information, sales and marketing data and brochures, appointment calendars, project calendars, vacation schedules and other vital statistics can be kept in a central location, for employees to easily access and to add their own contributions.
Project collaboration:
An extranet allow an administrator the ability to restrict read-or-write privileges, depending on the employee or project. That means certain parts of the company extranet can be off-limits to certain people, enabling smaller groups to collaborate among themselves at a project level to get work done.
Discussion boards:
Most extranets include discussion boards, where issues can be hashed out in an open forum, without creating massive e-mail threads.
Work Log:
Team members can have a central location to file their work logs and update the status of tasks that have been assigned to them.

Times are improving right now for many businesses, large and small. But many small- and medium-sized businesses nationally — along with government agencies and nonprofit organizations — are recognizing the potential cost savings and other advantages of having an extranet, such as Same-Page eStudio. A key reason for this growing interest is because extranets have become affordable and scalable for both small and medium-sized companies.

A small but increasing number of turnkey solutions are inexpensive and easy to build and use. Same-Page eStudio packages cost as little as $39 a month, and $ 59 a month for an unlimited number of users. You can sign up for a package online in a few minutes. eStudio does not require a huge investment of information-technology staffing or resources. The only things you need are a PC (or Mac) and Internet access.

"I increasingly see more and more small- and medium-sized businesses looking at this opportunity," says an owner of Florida-based Cable TV Network "The more employees you have in different locations and the more you outsource/collaborate on projects, the more you are likely to benefit."

"A lot of small businesses are frustrated; they cannot collaborate as well as they would like right now," says Walt Harris, who designed and analyzed the survey. "They are relying on e-mail, or their own servers, and believe there are better ways to work collectively."

Some 58% of the survey respondents said they rely mostly on e-mail to collaborate with colleagues. But only 21% wanted to continue relying on e-mail for this purpose. The main barrier to getting an extranet was concern about the cost of development and maintenance and the lack of technical staffing and know-how. But word about lower-cost and low-maintenance extranet solutions is just now getting out in the small-business market.

There is no research indicating how many small- to medium-sized businesses actually have extranets. (Among larger businesses, recent studies show that 85% of Fortune 200 companies and more than 67% of Fortune 1000 companies have or are developing corporate intranets.) The number will jump when more small businesses discover that the new solutions on the market, such as Same-Page eStudio, are affordable and don't require significant staffing and oversight.

"An extranet can save you money, as well. Businesses with five or more employees -- particularly employees in different locations -- can save up to 50% on materials, travel, mobile phone, postage and other costs," says Bruce Collen, President of Same-Page eStudio. "It's all about working more efficiently," Collen says. He and other extranet proponents insist that most businesses will get a greater return on their investment in an extranet than trying to build an intranet or e-commerce site. "The money you save with an extranet will go directly improving your bottom line."

Other related articles on Intranet software is located Intranet-Extranet and Intranet Software.

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