Would you consider driving a car without a dashboard from London to Edinburgh? It's certainly a risky proposition. With no petrol gauge you'd have to keep stopping to refuel, just in case. And how would you regulate your speed or keep a check on your engine temperature and oil and water levels?

Assuming you wouldn't do that, why would you even dream of running your business without a dashboard? Let me explain...

Keeping an eye on your business
An extranet could give you the ability to see how well your business is doing at a glance, wherever you are. You could be at a motorway service station in the middle of nowhere and be able to check on the progress of each of your company's projects. Or you could log in during a meeting with potential investors to show how well you're working towards your financial targets this year compared to last year.

So, what is an extranet?
Essentially, an extranet is a website that allows authorised individuals access to selected internal business processes. This could include key members of staff as well as clients or consultants.

Here are just a few of the benefits you stand to gain by allowing the following people to link to the inner workings of your business via an extranet:

For business leaders on the move, an extranet can provide a valuable window on what's going on with the organisation.

You might have loads of money flying in from your sales, but is it flying back out again to pay ever more staff to support the organisation? An extranet could show you the answer and make it possible to cut costs by outsourcing some of the work.

Having an extranet in place would enable staff to work from home more easily, whether that's full time or just an occasional bit of overtime.

Also those whose jobs involve a lot of travel will be able to stay more closely in touch with what's going on - including uploading information themselves.

Whether in the office or out, logging into an extranet is often the quickest and easiest way to access information about the business.

Clients or customers
An extranet, perhaps forming a private area of your main website, can be a real asset in building and nurturing relationships with your clients or customers. For
Having an extranet in
place would enable staff
to work from home more easily, whether that's full time or just an occasional
bit of overtime.
example you could allow them to log in to check on the progress of their project or order, submit requests, download price lists or make repeat orders.

The ability to reveal selected information securely to outsiders can come in very handy when you need to bring in external resources. It breaks down geographical boundaries and allows consultants, wherever they are, to view and interact with your data in real time.

On the move
The fact that extranets can be accessed from anywhere is all well and good, as long as you can get online to view them. The advent of PDAs and smartphones, like the Microsoft Windows Mobile and Apple iPhone, has brought a new dimension to extranet technology.

Extranets can be designed to be accessible from any handheld mobile device, so users can log in and interact with the system directly from their handset.

One of the fastest growing applications of this technology is sales force automation. Sales people can now log the results of a meeting the moment they leave. It's also a great way for MDs and CEOs to keep an eye on what's going on back at base while they're off site. And companies that have a lot of field staff or people based on customer sites are finding it streamlines the process of submitting reports and timesheets.

To automate or not to automate?
So how do you identify which processes to automate and put online?

Our advice is to first look at which of your operations are currently overly complex and time-consuming. Could streamlining them boost productivity?

Then talk to the members of staff who have most contact with your clients. It's these people who will know the sort of questions that come up time and time again, like ‘where's my order?', ‘will you meet the deadline?', ‘who's handling my case?', or ‘do you have an up-to-date pricelist?'.

Making it happen
Once you know what you'd like an extranet to do for you, the next step is to find a good web development vendor with solid experience in this area. Make sure to choose a company that will take time to listen to your requirements and understand your business.

By the way, creating extranets isn't rocket science - so if they can't explain the solution they're offering in a way you can understand, don't use them!

What's the bottom line?
Many business owners find it difficult to justify spending money on IT solutions that don't directly generate sales.

But think about what you spend your time doing each day at work. How much of it's taken up with chasing up people to get information, doing routine administrative tasks, handling orders, raising invoices and so on?

For a small investment an extranet could free up hours of your time, streamline your business and give a real boost to your organisation's efficiency and profitability.

For more information visit www.proteusvirtual.com