Not all successful Web sites are actually on the Web. Large companies with many different office locations have for some time been using internal Web sites -- known as intranets -- to give employees one central location for company information.

Now small companies are picking up on the benefits of having an in-house computer dedicated to storing general data like employee handbooks, policy statements, project timelines, internal job postings, and staffing announcements.

In a tiny office with few employees, this kind of tool might seem like overkill. With only a few employees working closely together, everyone is likely to be communicating regularly enough to stay updated on projects. Companies this size often haven't even written employee handbooks yet.

What you need for an Intranet
  • Office computers that are networked so they can share information from a common central computer. All computers should be at least 386s or faster models.
  • One computer with enough memory to be the central computer, or server. Commonly need something with a gigabyte hard drive and memory of at least 24 megs, for costs of at least $1,000
  • A designer who can get the pages of the intranet coded up
  • Someone on your staff to maintain the site. Maybe daily; maybe weekly or less often
  • Web browsers installed on all employees' computers

    What you do not need
    (things that a regular Web site needs)

  • A domain name
  • An Internet Service Provider (ISP)
  • A link to the outside Internet
If you have an existing Web site, your costs will include labor to develop the pages, and firewall and password security costs. If you don't already have a Web site, it's going to cost you about what it would cost to build a full Web site, minus the phone lines. Figure $15,000 for labor, $8,000 for hardware, $4,000 for software, and then $5,000 each month for in-house labor to do maintenance--these are fast and loose numbers. You can probably do it cheaper if you have a good techie around. Numbers are based on interviews with CEOs whose companies have Web sites.
But once companies begin to grow, communications can deteriorate quickly. New hires join and increased sales bring on new projects and customers. Pretty soon, nobody knows what's going on or even who to ask.

The kind of information that needs to be shared inhouse is obviously not the sort of thing companies want widely available on the Web. But by setting up a Web site on an internal computer that's not connected to any Internet phone lines, a company can make it easier for employees to access a variety of information whenever they want to. Using Web software to set it up means that the collection of information is easy to maintain, and it's easy for employees to access, via point-and-click navigation through a familiar browser interface.

Intranets don't generally help a company make sales, but they can save a company money. Say an employee needs to check on the company vacation leave policy. Normally, someone would have to dig through a file and find the information, then copy it for the employee. With an intranet site, the employee gets the information quickly, without increased labor costs. Or say a company is working on developing a new product -- a new ice cream flavor. The development team can use the intranet site to log the information being collected. Messages and databases about everything from where flavorings come from and which markets are likely to carry the new flavor, to who's designing the package and what people think about the options they're presenting, can be updated daily on the internal Web site.

BOSTON-BASED Forsyth Dental Center, for instance, turned to an intranet because it was decentralized and disorganized. "The staff has always worked in an entrepreneurial fashion," says David Hanson, director of computing and network technology at the small nonprofit agency, which employs 125 people. Historically, Forsyth had been staffed with researchers, students, administrators, and support technicians, most working independently. The result was a scarcity of central communication and information exchange. "There's been a lack of good record-keeping in this institution," Hanson says. "When people couldn't find information, they just let it slip."

Hanson wanted to set up a type of virtual lab notebook, so that everyone in the organization could store and access company research data in one place that would be accessible from many computers. At the time, Lotus Notes was the only software package that would fill Hanson's needs. It was also, at over a thousand dollars, too expensive for the cash-strapped nonprofit. "Given the size of our organization and our resources, we just couldn't do it," he says.

Then in late 1995, after networking Forsyth's internal computers to each other, getting access to the World Wide Web, and launching an external Web site for customers, Hanson realized that an internal Web site could meet his needs and save money, too. "It started when people needed access to documents like the employee handbook," he says. "The CEO suggested we put it on our Web site. Since we didn't want things like that on the external site, we figured we'd start an internal one." To outfit it, Hanson bought a Dell Optiplex XMT 5100 with 32M bytes of RAM and a 1G byte hard drive for $6,000. Vermeer's Front Page Web development software was $300. For the operating system software, Hanson added another site license for Windows NT for $400.

Forsyth's intranet went live at the end of 1995, and now stores the company's handbook, various administrative reports, and safety and chemical hygiene policies. "There were electronic copies of all of that somewhere," he says. "I just had to dig them up and do some minor editing." He plans, too, to add a virtual lab notebook section to the site. "We're very small," Hanson says of the computer staff for the organization. "There are only two of us who run the network and operate all the Web stuff." To help out, a few staffers created sections on the Web site for their own departments.

The internal site makes information more accessible. "Finding stuff in paper files isn't easy, especially when there's a lot of it," he says. "Before, it just wasn't readily available. Now you just fire up Netscape and click on the policies." Staffers have mentioned the difference, Hanson says. "I've had people tell me that before, they never bothered to look things up. But now when they have questions or concerns, they can click on their desktop."

Phaedra Hise is a staff writer at Inc. magazine and author of Growing Your Business Online: Small-Business Strategies for Working the World Wide Web (Henry Holt, 1996).