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Having an intranet can help small businesses too

The last thing any small business needs is inefficiency. To become and stay competitive, you need to ensure everyone is working well as a team. That means cutting out any duplication of effort, encoraging better sharing of information, and getting input from all the right people - all without wasting time.

Has this ever happened to you? You're on your way to an important client meeting, but everyone has different versions of the product brochure - or worse, the price list. If you pick the wrong version, you look stupid in front of the client, and you risk losing the deal.

No excuse

Quote�An intranet site looks and operates exactly the same as a website outside.�End Quote

So how do you ensure everyone in the company is working from the right versions of key documents? One option is to base your working around an intranet website. This is a website that is only accessible to employees within the company - as opposed to an internet site, which is visible to the outside world.

An intranet site looks and operates exactly the same as a website outside; so if you're familiar with the web, there's nothing to fear. And with the latest versions of common software such as Word and Excel, running an intranet site becomes as easy as saving a file to your hard disk.

Intranets are no longer out of reach of the typical small business. So really, there's no excuse for people to save duplicates of the same document in different places, or using out-of-date versions.

Make a start

Many small businesses are using Microsoft's SharePoint technology as the basis for a company intranet. Windows SharePoint Services, which comes free with Windows Small Business Server, gives you all you need to make a start. You can have a basic intranet site up and running in next to no time, using the preconfigured sample site as your model.

Out of the box, a SharePoint-based intranet gives you lots of tools which you might only expect to see on very advanced websites. For example, you can make the system email you any time a document is added or changed. Or you can create a 'document workspace', which can include a discussion forum and shared lists of contacts, events and outstanding tasks.

You can also make the intranet site available - securely - over the internet. This could make the lives of your sales team much easier, letting them call up the information they need from a client's offices, their hotel room, or - with a wi-fi enabled laptop or PDA - even the nearest Starbucks.

Full history

Quote�If you send out a document whose changes have been tracked, your readers may be able to see its full history.�End Quote

The ability to 'track changes' to a document has been a feature of word processors like Microsoft Word for over a decade. This gives you a 'marked up' view of your document, showing the words added, changed or removed in each revision, with the name of the person who did it. It lets everyone have a say, but still allows the document owner to decide what feedback to take on board (or not).

But it's a feature you need to take care with, as several major companies and organisations (including 10 Downing Street) have found out the hard way. If you send out a document whose changes have been tracked, your readers may be able to see its full history. This might reveal more to them than you ever intended.

You might find it easier, not to mention safer, to let your intranet handle this kind of document management. With disk space now very cheap, you can happily store each revision of your important documents in a designated place on your intranet, with no immediate prospect of overloading your server. In the case of SharePoint, for example, this can even be done automatically - just tick the box telling SharePoint that you want to keep a full version history.

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