How To Build An Extranet People Will Use


The evolution of extranets

Since the 1990s, businesses have been attracted to the potential benefits of using extranets to collaborate with customers, clients, partners, contractors, suppliers, and distributors.  Prior to the rise of the internet, these relationships were conducted by telephone, or in some extreme cases, by dedicated online connections for Electronic Data Interchange (EDI).


Yet despite their promise, extranets are still underutilized.  In theory, any time a cross-organization group needs to work together, that group should build an extranet to share key documents and information.  In practice, most of these groups still rely on email lists, file attachments, and the occasional consumer-grade file sharing product.  The rise of consumer file sharing tools like Dropbox is one of the few innovations that has spread; in an earlier era, groups used FTP servers instead.


Why extranets fail

So why are extranets underutilized?  First, the overhead to build an extranet has been too high for casual use.  On-premise tools like Microsoft SharePoint typically require IT approval and assistance to build an extranet — a major problem for small groups that need to move quickly.  Meanwhile, the first generation of hosted extranet tools like Documentum's eRoom and Intralinks' deal rooms were too expensive for casual use.


Second, many extranet tools have lacked the flexibility to support different usage modes.  Many groups include both internal and external personnel, and even within those two broad groups, the individual users need to be assigned different levels of access.  Most extranet tools did not include the requisite access controls.


Finally, the few extranets that were created often languished due to a lack of adoption.  Extranets need to be easy to use because they are competing with email, which is a core productivity application for nearly any modern knowledge worker.  Extranets can't represent extra work, or they'll simply be supplanted by email.


3 keys to building a successful extranet

To build a successful extranet that people will use, you need to address the three reasons why extranets fail.  First, you should select an extranet platform that allows you to create new extranets quickly, and with little to no additional cost.  These characteristics help explain why so many turn to consumer-grade services despite their poor fit for the purpose.  Ideally, you ought to be able to set up an extranet in a matter of minutes.


Second, your extranet platform should support highly flexible access controls, so you can distinguish between internal and external users, as well as between partners, suppliers, contractors, and so on, all of whom have different information needs.


Finally, your extranet platform needs to be easy to use, and work with email, rather than requiring users to make a choice.  If you do require them to make a choice, email is going to win, nearly every time.


Building extranets with PBworks

PBworks offers an extranet platform that address the three keys to building a successful extranet.


1) You can create a new extranet in less than a minute.  You can even customize an extranet template to standardize your extranet design.


2) You can leverage highly granular access controls, down to the level of individual users and individual files.  For any given file or document, you can see exactly which users have access; for any given user, you can see exactly which files and documents they're authorized to view.


3) PBworks has been proven at web scale, with millions of self-service users.  In addition, each extranet integrates with email, rather than working against it.  Each extranet has its own special "inbox@" email address.  Authorized users can forward emails to that address to quickly load text and documents into the system.


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