What is an extranet?

Technological innovations have paved the way for more efficient collaboration pathways than ever before. In decades past, stakeholders who wished to share materials with external partners faced limited and inefficient options. With the proliferation of extranets, the options for third-party collaborators are endless. In this piece, we explore what extranets are, how they can be implemented within your workplace, and tips to maximize collaboration capabilities with external users.

Definition of an extranet

Extranets can take on many different forms depending on the purpose they are designed to serve and the collaborators who will be utilizing them. Consequently, arriving at a cohesive definition of the term can prove challenging. Gartner defines extranets as “A collaborative, internet-based network that facilitates inter-company relationships by linking an enterprise with its suppliers, customers, or other external business partners. Extranets provide secured extensions of internal business processes to external business partners”.

As Garnter’s definition illustrates, the primary focal point of extranets is third-party collaboration. Virtually every enterprise works in conjunction with some external source, whether that is customers, suppliers, freelancers, outside investors, or a combination of these groups. Extranets enable stakeholders to create digital workplaces that reach outside the bounds of an organization and cut down on much of the silos that typically occurs during external collaborations. Some stakeholders may choose to utilize an extranet that sits within their company intranet and is supplemented with various authentication methods. Other leaders might opt for a platform that is entirely separate and distinct from an enterprise’s internal network.

Depending on the type of collaboration an extranet is built to facilitate, different design models may prove to be more or less effective. In the section below, we delve deeper into some of most common types of extranets stakeholders can utilize to maximize productivity and bridge communications gaps.

Types of extranets

Extranets can fulfill a variety of different purposes for enterprises and their collaborators. Some of the fundamental types of external networks are as follows:

Project extranets

When several different parties are involved in an upcoming initiative, an extranet can be an efficient and useful tool for managing the project. Customizable permissions and privacy settings help ensure that confidential information remains in the right hands. Cross-organization collaboration is a mainstay for many industries from healthcare to architecture to retail and e-commerce. Extranets are an easy way to ensure every collaborator remains accountable for their share of work and prevents components of the project from slipping through the cracks.

Logistic extranets

Extranets can be particularly integral for companies within the e-commerce space. These platforms can connect suppliers to distributors to couriers to customers and keep these pathways open when an exchange or modification is needed. Logistic extranets can help enterprises improve consumer experience by ensuring customers can easily access real-time updates on their products and services.

Integration extranets

Another game-changing tool for brands that sell products online: an integration extranet keeps track of inventory and updates it instantaneously. This data can be used for stock-taking purposes and ensures that information is easily accessible by multiple relevant parties. Integration extranets can be built upon an enterprise’s intranet or hosted on an entirely separate platform.

Employee information hub

For franchises and other enterprises with a large frontline workforce, extranets can be a useful tool for disseminating employee information. The platform can host employee timesheets and other worker-specific information as well as serving as a direct line to an enterprise’s corporate office. This type of extranet can also allow employees to submit any concerns or recommendations confidentially. Employee extranets can be a valuable resource for connecting with front-line staff, a vital subset of the workforce that can be notoriously challenging to engage.

Financial data extranet

Extranets are one of the safest and most secure methods for sharing confidential information, which is particularly important when dealing with sensitive material, including finances. One use case that illustrates how extranets can be utilized in a financial setting involves accounting firms during tax season. During this high-stakes time, enterprises need to exchange highly confidential facts and figures quickly, without compromising confidentiality. Extranets can help partners efficiently share updates and ensure that only the proper eyes have access to important metrics.

Customer platform

A platform dedicated to consumer information can help drive efficiency, improve accuracy, and put the customer in the front seat. Organizations that give consumers access to an extranet in order to self report various data and metrics will essentially automate this part of the work process while implementing self serve functionality.

Benefits of an extranet

Extranets can come with a host of benefits, regardless of the type of network your organization utilizes. Some of the most noteworthy improvements stakeholders can expect to witness after implementing an extranet are as follows:

Maximize knowledge sharing

One of the biggest benefits of third-party collaborators is the outside knowledge and unique perspective they bring to the table. With an extranet, an enterprise can take full advantage of the ideas and expertise of everyone involved in the collaboration. External partners are given a powerful platform to share best practices, weigh in on pressing topics and provide valuable feedback to troubleshoot for future interactions. An extranet encourages everyone to weigh in and optimizes the information flow throughout all parties.

Keep information confidential and secure

In many cross-organization collaborations, stakeholders must ensure that third-party users have the information they need to participate without divulging confidential material. Extranets can make it easy for leaders to manage who can see what through customizable permissions options and various authentication modes. External platforms are thought of as one of the safest ways to share documents and data thanks to their extensive array of privacy and permissions controls.

Receive real-time updates seamlessly

In the modern era, customers want as much information as possible. Consumers expect to be able to track the delivery status of the products they ordered, much like clients prefer frequent updates regarding upcoming projects. Extranets help organizations deliver the kind of minute-by-minute notifications consumers have grown to expect, without taxing employee productivity levels. Clients and customers can be granted access to an external network that enables them to access real-time updates whenever they want or need them.

Reduce silos

One of the most challenging components of cross-organization collaboration is the proliferation of silos that can prolong tasks and weigh down interactions between stakeholders. A streamlined extranet can help cut down on the chatter and provide every collaborator with the tools, updates, and documents they are searching in an efficient manner. Modern extranets have high-functioning search capabilities that can further drive efficiency and reduce the lag time that is all too common when working with multiple parties.

Keep everyone accountable

Extranets provide a sophisticated digital solution for stakeholders who are eager to ensure that everyone stays on task. In project management situations, external networks can be utilized to ensure communication and understanding flows freely between all parties. Additionally, these platforms can highlight who has completed their pre-determined deliverables as well as spotlighting collaborators who are lagging behind.

Tips for creating an optimized extranet experience

Organizations that choose to design an extranet in order to facilitate third-party collaboration that is efficient and effective are already a significant step ahead of the game. In order to create the best extranet possible for your organization, be sure to consider the following tips.

Prioritize your users

In years past, virtually all extranet solutions were designed with Sharepoint as their foundation. While Sharepoint offered a viable option, the newest external platforms have tools and functionalities that transcend the bounds of older models. Innovative extranets prioritize the experience of unique users, while traditional platforms simply offer a standardized means to transfer documents and data. An intuitive extranet with tools and capabilities that align with specific collaborations will empower all parties to remain engaged and productive throughout your partnership. When designing an extranet, stakeholders need to prioritize users during the design and implementation process for maximum success.

Pinpoint the central tasks and functionalities

As described above, there are a variety of different types of extranets and each fulfills specific functions. Reflect on the main goals and tasks your extranet will need to support. An external platform that is designed to update inventory will likely look very different from an extranet that was created to facilitate task management. When building an external platform, leaders need to consider what kind of collaborations are most integral to their organization and seek out an extranet that aligns with these demands.

Include a mobile option

In order to maximize the usability of your extranet, ensuring that it is mobile responsive is highly advantageous. Whether you’re sharing data with third-party stakeholders or providing a platform for customers to track orders, virtually all users appreciate having the opportunity to go mobile. A mobile extranet can be particularly valuable when collaborating with front-line staffers outside of your organization, such as contractors, deliverymen, and couriers. These non-connected workers are unlikely to be sitting in front of a computer all day, so mobile access to your extranet is particularly crucial.

Ensure your platform is secure

Security is a growing concern for virtually all organizations as the threat of data leaks looms large. Extranets can be an efficient option to securely share data and documents with customizable security features and permissions controls. Personalized sharing options are particularly integral for extranet design as some parties may need access to more information than other collaborators. External networks enable stakeholders to pick and choose who can see what and update it whenever necessary.

Consider how your extranet and intranet will come together

Many stakeholders may choose to view their extranet as an extension of their organization’s internal network. It is likely that some of the features and functionalities within your existing digital workplace will likely be valuable to your outside platform. Some examples of transferrable tools might include social networking functions and integrations with business applications like Salesforce or HubSpot. When designing an efficient and effective extranet, it can be beneficial to pinpoint functionalities within your intranet that are likely to be useful to third-party collaborators as well.

Intranets vs. extranets

When exploring digital workplace solutions, it is easy to confuse terms. Although the phrases might sound similar, intranets and extranets have unique differences. Below we break down both words and how they work together.

Intranet: A private enterprise network for employees within an organization. Intranets centralize documents, tools, information, and capabilities through one unified platform.

Extranet: A controlled, private network allowing third-party partners to gain information, typically about a specific company or institution, and do so without granting access to an organization’s entire network.

Intranets and extranets perform similar functions, but for different subsets of people. Both platforms facilitate the exchange of ideas and encourage collaboration by providing nuanced communications pathways. Intranets do this internally, for colleagues within a singular enterprise. Extranets enable organizations to expand their knowledge-sharing capabilities by creating new exchanges with individuals or groups outside of the enterprise.

Some external networks can be built to facilitate a multitude of different partnerships, including those involving clients, customers, and outside stakeholders. Depending on the nature of the collaboration, leaders can grant and restrict permissions controls to limit what components of the platform third parties can access. In contrast, intranets are generally more open to the majority of users within the network, although specific security controls may still apply.

Extranets as your third-party collaboration hub

Modern extranets optimize third-party collaboration in a way that has never been done before. Instead of relying on emails and calls for project updates, external platforms provide collaborators with efficient updates in real-time. Additionally, extranets cut down on silos and offer transparency throughout a variety of cross-organization relationships, including those with clients, consumers, and contractors. Stakeholders who are looking to collaborate in a manner that is efficient and secure should turn to extranets as a multi-faceted solution for external partnerships. Just as intranets optimize knowledge sharing internally, extranets maximize the exchange of ideas between outside parties and your enterprise.

Empower third-party collaboration with a modern extranet

Isolated enterprises do not exist. In order to thrive, there is an increasing need for organizations to connect with outside partners and provide transparency to consumers. Extranets eliminate a lot of the lag time that frequently plagues third-party collaboration and repackages it into a highly efficient, personalized platform that is designed with the user in mind. If you are interested in creating a state-of-the-art extranet to revolutionize your enterprise’s external collaborations, get in touch with one of our digital workplace experts today.

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