A small business intranet is an important foundation for your small business growth. It gives you a launching pad, a reference point and something to hold on to when your talent acquisition starts to spike and business begins to boom.
But when’s the right time to build an intranet? And how do you go about it?
Settle in: this is your guide to the how and why of a small business intranet.
What is an intranet?
Simple. An intranet is like a website that only your employees can access. Sometimes it is actually hosted on the web, other times you might host it on premise on your own servers.
Most importantly, intranets are a knowledge-base. They are the go-to place for employees looking for information on HR, products, tech tips and anything else they need to do their job.
Intranets can also offer a bit more functionality than your average website, such as HR software to manage time-off requests or messaging features that enable real-time project collaboration.
Timing your intranet right
Micro businesses don’t start out with policies and cultures, guidelines and brand books. As they grow, however, certain documents will emerge out of necessity: process guidelines for project management, product or service descriptions and health and safety policies for employees.
For just a few documents, a filing cabinet (or if you’re feeling streamlined, a shared Dropbox folder) will easily suffice.
There will come a time, however, when these documents start to mount up. Finding, accessing and updating them will start to feel like a chore. And as the business evolves and each new employee asks the same questions you’ll even realise the benefit of having a few more. You’ll develop successful processes that are worth repeating and a defined company culture will begin to emerge.
This is when you need to start building your small business intranet. It might feel premature (not to say unduly time-consuming) when you only have, say, three employees, but building it sooner rather than later puts you in a stronger position for expansion down the line. That is, if you focus on the right things.
What’s in an intranet: our sister’s story
The ‘new intranet’, rather than being a bunch of static pages, is supposedly built around collaboration. ‘You can have all the conversations, all the communication, all the collaboration within one platform, which means that you can easily search and find information later,’ says Rickard Hansson, CEO and founder of intranet platform Incentive.
Sounds great for the big guys, but is this a sensible or even achievable goal for a small business intranet? Probably not.
Last year, our sister company, Articulate, created its first intranet. Because we’re a virtual company, we’d already put a lot of effort into collaboration and communication technologies and processes. We use Basecamp for project management, Yammer and Skype for communication (along side trusty old email of course) and Turbine for HR tasks like expenses and time off.
So when the time came for our intranet, our focus was on culture, policies, process and information sharing. These were what would help the business and what we needed most. So while collaboration was (and still is) important to us, the intranet wasn’t its natural home.
Each business is different, but we found by keeping the initial remit of the intranet quite constrained we were able to benefit quickly in three areas.
1. Pure and simple time-saving
Articulate had reached the point where we had a Dropbox folder of policy documents, a few Basecamp projects around culture and a lot of questions. Matthew had to email everyone when a new version of our writer’s guide was uploaded or if there was a change to our Basecamp conventions.
Creating the intranet not only put everything in one place, it created a single, always-up-to-date version of them. Editing them is easy in WordPress (more about that shortly) and as new questions arise, we can simply add our answers to a new page. It’s quicker for both management and employees.
2. Prioritisation of culture
One of the big prompts for launching Articulate’s intranet was an internal culture development project. We had a big HR push, and developed everything from formal policies to aims of the company and employee role descriptions. We also decided to place a premium on just who ‘Team Articulate’ is.
So we created individual employee pages, which include what we’re experts in and what we need to learn about, to encourage knowledge-sharing between colleagues. Having all of this on an intranet has helped to reinforce the conclusions we reached and build both on them and with them as the company grows.
3. A way to see the gaps
When everything you’ve got is one place, it’s much easier to see what’s missing. As a rule we like to keep bureaucracy and micromanagement to a minimum, but we are big fans of transparency and (here comes that phrase again) knowledge-sharing, which is where the argument for a few more intranet pages came in.
For example, we often write content aimed at small business owners. Each time we do, we strengthen our writing by looking for statistics and research, but doing this every time we wrote on the topic was not a good use of company time. So we created a ‘Sources’ section on our intranet and broke it down into our most commonly researched categories. Now when someone finds a great site or report, they add it to the list.
The technology bit
As demonstrated by Articulate’s story, getting the technology right is all about what you have now, what capabilities you need and what room for development you want to allow. ‘Rather than try to build capabilities you might end up not using, it can be better to create your intranet with some basic features, then add functions as the need arises,’ says IT Donut.
Starting simple is important, but make sure you consider if you want to be able to create wikis, RSS feeds of updates, real-time collaboration or other ‘sometimes typical’ intranet capabilities in the near future. Don’t lock yourself into something that will be of no use in two years’ time.
‘There is no such thing as the best intranet. There is only intranet software that is a good fit for your organization and software that is a poor fit for your organisation,’ says Papyrs, (itself an intranet software provider). Its blog offers a comparison of some of the leading options for small businesses (although they are little biased towards themselves of course) and Life Hacker extolls the virtues of MediaWiki. Other tools for building a simple intranet include: Igloo, Blomfire and Jostle.
Our sister’s story: part two
Over at Articulate, our sister company, we opted for WordPress, and here’s why:
- We use WordPress for our other websites and for client sites, so we already have hosting and management processes in place
- Almost everyone in the company knows how to use WordPress because of our client work so it’s a familiar platform
- There are many plugins and design templates (such as All-in-One Intranet) that make it easy to customise a WordPress site to do intranet stuff
- WordPress sites with modern themes are fast, responsive and well-designed which make them very usable
- We’re a virtual company (and proud of it) but that means we needed a publicly-accessible, password-protected intranet not a site on a corporate network
Small business intranet must-haves
What you include in your small business intranet very much depends on your style of growth, management and working, but there are a few things that are absolute must-haves:
- An employee directory
- HR policies
- Company branding and tone-of-voice guidelines (or similar)
- Instructions for key applications and technology the business uses
- A place to share useful, business-related knowledge
Give it time to grow
Intranets are not built – they are grown. More like plants, not like buildings. #intranet
— Pauli Kongas (@pkongas) January 22, 2013
Finally, it’s important to see an intranet as an evolving part of your business, much like your employees. You have to nurture them and they develop over time; occasionally you’ll also promote them to a new role or help them add new skills to their repertoire.
Start with what you need, don’t try to do everything at once, and rather than seeing your small business intranet as one ‘big project’, see it as nurturing what you need for successful growth.