Many business and IT professionals are now familiar with the benefits of an intranet portal. Serving as an organization hub, internal employees can share information, documents, news, events, and can access departmental services.
Built strategically and consistently, an intranet portal can drive internal business collaboration and productivity while also providing better service across the organization.
Business solution portals, most often deployed on SharePoint On-premise and more recently Office 365 in the cloud, are seeing a rise in popularity and demand.
So why not extend that model to your extended organization? Your business partners, boards, committees, members, volunteers, and clients? Rather than an “intra,” why not an “extra” net for external users?
According to TechTarget, an extranet is a private network that uses Internet technology and the public telecommunication system to securely share part of a business's information or operations. An extranet can be viewed as part of a company's intranet that is extended to users outside the company.
Without an extranet, many organizations resort to sending emails or using basic document hosting sites, such as dropbox, to exchange content and information with outside partners and groups. This is time-consuming and ineffective for maintaining and building partner and business relationships.
By creating an extranet environment, you give your external partners and groups a way to collaborate externally as well as self-service access to more cohesively work with internal staff. This reduces work load at your business, improves communication, and builds a better business relationship.
Extranets are not a new concept. For many organizations, building and deploying an extranet with the right user authentication required complex and costly development. With the availability of Office 365, that has all changed.
Office 365 and SharePoint Online provides an excellent platform for extranet portals. The “external user” model for user management in Office 365 eliminates a major hurdle for providing secure access to relevant organization content without exposing internal information. Additionally, SharePoint Online and other Office 365 functions like Skype for business, Planner, Groups and others provide a natural platform for full collaboration with external users.
Portal Models for Different Types of External Groups
All organizations interact with external partners, groups, and clients. For businesses, it might be distributors, suppliers, or subcontractors. For nonprofits and governments, it might be committees, boards, volunteers, or community groups. The common thread is that the more collaborative and productive these groups are, the more your organization and customers benefit.
In some cases, an organization might have several types of external users that interact with the business. Today, much of this information and content is sent by email, which can get lost, doesn’t provide any analytics, or becomes outdated.
The Office 365 platform, with its rich and flexible ecosystem of collaborative features, is a natural place to start.
Setting up an Extranet Structure
Like your employees, group members need to stay current with organization news, announcements, and events. An Extranet Home Page is necessary where members can enter and see the latest events as well as access relevant content and information.
The extranet might even include a service request system for external users to request services or submit forms. Some extranets include member directories and generalized document libraries presented by your organization.
Below the Extranet Home Page are individual sites for each group of external users. There might be a Board Portal for your Board of Directors, Committee Portals, Distributor and Reseller Portals, and even a Volunteer Portal or Donor Portal. Each site is set up so that only those members of the site can access the content.
Depending on the function of the group, the site might be as simple as a modified SharePoint team site with basic document sharing and a calendar. Or, it can be an operational site, such as a volunteers’ site with job schedules, form processing, and basic business processes.
Buy or Build your Extranet Structure?
With a little SharePoint training, you could potentially build an extranet portal structure. Unlike an intranet, though, the extranet is your organization’s face to outside partners and users. Even though Office 365 has the external user authentication model, you want to make sure you set up permissions correctly.
Hiring a consulting firm is an option, but this can get very expensive very quickly. The other option is to purchase an out-of-the-box solution that is pre-built using proven best practices and design. This route is often the fastest and most cost-effective way to a successful extranet deployment.
One out-of-the-box offering is from SP Marketplace. SP Extranet includes a well-designed home page and group site templates that provide 80% to 100% of what an organization will need to get started. Additionally, it is built on native SharePoint Online and takes advantage of many of the Office 365 collaborative features, such as Skype for business, Yammer, and Groups.
Whatever approach you take, know that leveraging Office 365 for improving communication, sharing and processes with your external partners is natural and will benefit your organization for years to come.
To learn more about how to quickly set up an affordable extranet, visit SP Marketplace online or schedule a live demonstration.
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