Seven years ago, INK, Inc., a pay-for-placement media relations firm, needed a way for its staff to quickly share information about potential opportunities for clients. E-mail was too awkward and restrictive, especially where images or video materials were concerned. The answer was for INK to create its own intranet.

“This is a really great solution and doesn’t require an IT professional,” says Cindy West, vice president and director of operations. “In fact, I set it up myself.”

Using Citrix, and later Microsoft SharePoint, West created what amounts to a portal that all 50 or so INK employees can access, even from overseas. “With the old intranets, you could log in and share stuff, but they were pretty limited,” West says. “With this, we can create a virtual office people can tap into and see what’s going on. They can contribute ideas to accounts, even ones that aren’t theirs. And if they’re pitching one of our clients, they can get all the material they need, including images and video.”

There’s no question that intranets are growing in popularity among small and midsize businesses. But what exactly is an “intranet?”

An internal data network

Strictly speaking, the term refers to an internal network, parallel to the Internet, which exists within an organization and allows employees to share resources.

But most users don’t know or care where data is hosted, they simply see an interface that offers password-protected access to company information, documents, and contacts. So the term is commonly used for any secure website where employees can access materials they need, even if it’s a single site on a single server, and even if it’s actually hosted via the Web, and not within the company at all. Using this definition, many types of collaboration software (such as SharePoint at INK, Inc.) can be used to create an intranet.

Though passing around video and images is an exciting use for an intranet, “It’s the more workaday things that drive people to our product,” says David Christian, chief technology officer at Mindbridge Software, which publishes the intranet application IntraSmart. Specifically, getting the correct versions of important documents into users’ hands.

“Suppose you’re a bank, and you’ve got a whole set of policies and procedures you must provide to every employee,” Christian says. “You could e-mail them around, but that would fill up mailboxes pretty quickly.”

Instead, many companies store essential documents in a shared directory within the network, but that creates its own problems, Christian says. For one thing, users copy the documents to their hard drives, but don’t always replace them with new ones as the documents are updated. Pretty soon, they’re working from outdated policies and procedures. Intranets help bypass this hassle by providing the information in webpage form, rather than as a document, making users more likely to simply open the relevant page, whenever they need that information. If the information on the page stays current, users do, too.

Starting an intranet of your own

If you’re thinking of creating an intranet for your own company, here are some questions that can help you make the right choices:

1. Exactly how will the intranet be used? “Plan it out,” advises West. “You need to have a good idea of how you want to set up the architecture, and what exactly you want it to do.” She herself learned this lesson the hard way. “I’ve had to change our structure twice now,” she says.

2. Will there be an extranet as well? An extranet is a section of the intranet accessible to customers and/or business partners. Providing an extranet was one of the two changes West had to make to INK’s intranet, and it was worth the effort, she says. “When they get mentioned in the media, they can easily find it, and the clips are all there. They can also see what media we’re working on, so they get a good idea of what we’re doing for them,” she says.

3. Will different users need different resources? Most employees may need a link to your company’s health insurance company, Christian notes. Your human resources people may also need administrative access, so they can manage employees’ accounts. Likewise, your sales staff may need links to CRM software that HR people don’t. Consider customizing the intranet interface for different types of users.

4. How compatible is it with existing technology? “The first concern we get from IT people is, how will it integrate with the environment they already have?” Christian notes. For instance, can it use existing credentials? Most users resist having to sign in twice, once to get on to the company network and a second time to get into the intranet.

5. How easy is it to change or add content? “You want to make it as easy to add material as possible,” Christian says. This only makes sense. If updating is too much of a hassle, the documents on the intranet could wind up being just as out of date as what users have stored on their hard drives.

SIDEBAR: Internet Resources for Small Business

Intranets can help users share information, serve customers better, and stay up to date on important policies. There are literally hundreds of software products that can help you create one of your own. Here are a few that are popular with small companies:

HotOffice Thruport Technologies, of Alexandria, Va., provides HotOffice, a Web-based intranet service for small businesses to communicate and collaborate round-the-clock. Pricing for the intranet suite of services starts at $14.95 per month.

Microsoft SharePoint A server and service, Microsoft’s SharePoint technologies can help small and midsize businesses set up a portal to facilitation collaboration and supply access to essential information across the business. Server software and services are available through Microsoft’s volume licensing agreements.

IntraSmart A product of Mindbridge Software, of Norristown, Pa., IntraSmart is designed for midsize or larger organizations. A hosted solution, IntraSmart starts at $99 per month.

Web Office This collaboration software product uses the Internet to make it easier and more cost-effective for small and midsize business employees to work together no matter where they work. Prices start at $59.95 per month and up.