How to use an Intranet to make your office more efficient

How to use an Intranet to make your office more efficient

Anderson, Steve

Using Internet technology to create a private network within your own agency is called an intranet.

We have all heard about the varied benefits that the Internet can bring us. It is changing the basic way we find, access, and use information. With more than one million individual Web sites, the amount of information available to each of us is staggering. In previous columns, we have written about easier ways to find just the right fact we are looking for using Internet search software. (See our February 1997 column.) We believe the biggest growth in the next couple of years will be in the use of Internet technology in our own offices. Using Internet technology to create a private network within your own agency is called an intranet.

Using Internet technology within our own agencies will help us provide to our staff people the information they need to do their jobs more easily and more efficiently. Any agency will experience a number of benefits when using an intranet. And, it is surprisingly inexpensive and easy to set one up.

Another network?

Most agents already have some type of network within their agency. You may wonder why you would want to create another one. Why can’t you just use the same Novell or NT network you already have? You can. Using Internet technology, however, will make it easier for your staff people to find the information they are looking for. Let me explain.

You can use your existing network to store documents your staff people need to reference during the day. You create these documents in programs such as Word and then save them as a Word document file. These document files are then stored in a certain location on the network server. Once your staff people know where these files are, they go to that location, find the document that contains the information they want and they open it with the program used to create it (for example, Word) to read the contents.

Problems arise, though, if documents are created in different programs. Now your staff people have to know which program created the original document so they know which program they need to open to read the file. And, what happens if you want to change the location of some of the documents? Now you have to tell your staff about the new locations. Another problem is the ability of your staff to know how to use different programs. For example, does each person on your staff have the same comfort level using Word? Very quickly, your staff will become confused and discouraged. While this type of information sharing sounds good, rarely have we seen it work very well.

Benefits

As we said, creating a way to share information using Internet technology is called an intranet or an internal Internet. An intranet uses your existing network. It is simply a collection of documents on your network that is easier for your staff to find and read.

Access to current and correct information is becoming more critical. An intranet provides an improved way to share information within the agency. There are several advantages to using this type of technology to manage your agency’s information.

Common access All documents are read using a Web browser. The most popular are Netscape Navigator or Microsoft Internet Explorer. The browser provides an easier and more intuitive way to manage any type of information. Your staff has to learn how to use only one software program to read any type of document.

Hyperlinks You can create links between documents. This means your staff can navigate through a large number of documents without having to know where the files are physically located on your network. As you get more sophisticated you can add simple search engines to help your staff people quickly find the specific documents they are looking for.

Reduced training Because there are fewer software programs to learn, new employees will get up and running more quickly. Everyone looks for information using the same tool (a Web browser) reducing the amount of training and support needed.

Low cost A simple intranet is a low-cost investment. Without a great deal of planning and expense, just a few people in the agency can quickly create an intranet. It also provides a way to begin to develop a more sophisticated presence on the external Internet.

Easy updates Keeping information current becomes much easier. Instead of making the changes in the document and then photocopying it to pass around the office, you can make the changes to the original document and everyone in the office will have the updated information automatically. Because everyone is viewing the same document, when changes are made everyone will have access to the new information.

It is important to remember that what we are describing here is a “simple” intranet. Like a collection of shared folders on a network server, an intranet gives you and your staff people the ability to save files, content, and information in a central location where everyone in the office can find, view, and modify it. This type of intranet allows you to start small to get your feet wet. It can grow as you find the time and the need.

Creating

For agencies with an existing LAN (local area network) and Microsoft Office 97, you need only to purchase Microsoft FrontPage 98. Remember to factor in at least one agency person’s time to learn the basics of setting up the intranet and to continue to manage it after it is set up.

Tools

We have highlighted Microsoft products here simply because most management systems (and Microsoft most agents) have standardized on Microsoft Word and Excel. The Microsoft Office 97 package provides a detailed set of built-in intranet tools that allow you into publish Word documents or Excel spreadsheet files to your intranet. The FrontPage program offers a simple-to-use method to actually lay out your internal Web site that includes sophisticated graphics and navigation tools. As you learn how to build your first site, these tools will grow with you to allow you to manage your Web site with little or assistance from outside professionals.

To start building your intranet you will need, at a minimum, a Web browser and a word processing program capable of saving files in HTML format. If you have Windows 95 installed, Internet Explorer was automatically installed for you. It is available as an icon on your desktop. Microsoft Office 97 provides a rich set of tools for users to be able to create documents in HTML format or in native Office cformats that are optimized for use on an intranet. All of the Office components have been enhanced to support the Web, but we will limit our discussion here to Word.

To take your office procedure manual and make it available online to everyone in your office you would simply open the Word document that contained the manual and save it as an HTML format. The commands are File Save As HTML. You type in a new name for the document (it will be saved with an .htm extension), click on OK and the document will be converted to an HTML formatted document. One of the most powerful features of Internet technology is being able to set up navigation links to separate parts of a long document or to completely separate files. The links are transparent to the user. You can set up these links in Word, or if you use the Table of Contents or cross-reference feature they are set up automatically for you.

The next step is to let your staff have access to the document. As we mentioned earlier, if you have Windows 95, Internet Explorer is automatically installed on your desktop. Your staff will use this or another browser, such as Netscape, to view the procedure manual. To have the procedure manual automatically come up when they start Explorer all you have to do is change the home page setting. In Explorer select View Options and in the home page dialog box enter the location of the “procedure.htm” file. This file is automatically displayed first when the program is started.

When you create a number of different files that are linked together, you will want to create a “start” document that acts as your table of contents. On this page, you create a listing of links to the other files you want your staff to be able to look at.

That’s all there is to it. You can make your site more sophisticated as you become more adventurous. Microsoft FrontPage allows you to create more sophisticated pages combining graphics, fancy bullets, and searching capabilities. Microsoft provides a free CD called “Microsoft Office 60 Minute Intranet Kit.” Version 1 is for Office 97 and FrontPage 97. Version 2 is for use with FrontPage 98. This CD will provide you with predefined templates that you can use along with Office and FrontPage to set up your own intranet in less than an hour.

Content

An intranet can be valuable to you in several areas. The main advantage is to provide a central electronic file cabinet that will contain information your employees need. Examples include the office procedure manual, employee handbook, insurance company commission schedules, vacation schedule, etc. The list is limited only by your imagination. Any document that is in an electronic format, or that can be converted to an electronic format, should be a part of your intranet.

Virtually anyone who can use Word and Internet Explorer can now create a simple intranet for the office and, in the process, increase access to the information the office staff needs to service and sell.

The author

Steve Anderson is a producer at Cadenhead Shreffler Insurance in the Dallas/Fort Worth area. He also heads American Insurance Consultants (AIC) which provides consulting services on how to maximize profits using common sense technology. He is a member of the TAAR network and can be reached at (817) 581-6486 or by e-mail at: sca@gte.net. To obtain additional information by fax on the topic discussed in this article, call InsurFax, AIC’s fax-on-demand system, at (817) 589-4530, 24 hours a day, 7 days per week.

Copyright Rough Notes Co., Inc. Feb 1998

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