Intranets and collaboration software were originally big-enterprise applications. The corporate IT department built a Web portal accessible only to employees, where the company and individual departments could share documents, schedules, announcements and more. Such portals can create enormous efficiencies.
Now companies like Mindbridge are making intranets and collaboration tools as much a small business tool. Mindbridge recently released the third version of its popular browser-based intranet software, IntraSmart, a turnkey solution that lets non-IT professionals configure and administer an employee portal.
IntraSmart pricing starts at a modest $95 per user for up to 50 users. Total price for a company with 50 employees would be $4,750.
Before this latest version upgrade IntraSmart already provided automated document sharing and management, group scheduling and calendars, bulletin boards, company and departmental announcements, a group address book, an employee directory and a forms generator for creating custom modules.
The new version adds an all-new asset tracking module — for tracking and scheduling assets such as rooms, equipment and vehicles. It integrates with the existing group scheduling features so that a user can schedule a meeting and book the room in the same process.
With Version 3.0, Mindbridge has also introduced significant enhancements and additions to some of the other application modules.
We tested IntraSmart 3.0 in a perhaps less-than-ideal environment — on a workstation running Windows XP Home Edition. The product also runs on more appropriate server-oriented operating systems, including Windows NT and 2000, Linux, Mac OS X, Solaris, SunOS, various Unix implementations and FreeBSD.
IntraSmart for the most part worked fine on our test system — except for one glitch caused by a deliberate security feature in the Apache Web server software on which the product is based. The feature, a limitation on the maximum header size of the cookies in a given session, is intended to stop denial-of-service attacks.
Mindbridge assured us that the problem we encountered usually only crops up in evaluations when the evaluator is experimenting and clicking every link. The failure, however, is disconcertingly total — the program stops responding and throws up an Apache error message, no matter what you click. On the other hand, it’s easily solved, by shutting down the browser and restarting it.
The product at first glance seemed like not much — a collection of moderately useful capabilities, wrapped in a deceptively simple browser-based user interface and a pedestrian graphical skin (interchangeable base page design — Mindbridge supplies 13 and you can create custom skins.)
IntraSmart’s strengths only become clear as you delve into the details of how it works. Much thought has gone into the programming and the way the functions integrate.
IntraSmart is what Mindbridge calls “roles-based” software. Users can be either full administrators with control of all the program’s functions, sub-administrators with access to only some of the controls, or simple users.
All users must also be assigned to at least one “department.” In a big enough company, these could be actual departments — IS, HR, accounting and so on. Departmental affiliations determine which information the user sees at the portal.
One of the first steps in setting up an IntraSmart intranet is entering employee or user information. It’s optionally possible to use Lightweight Directory Access Protocol (LDAP) so that changes to NT domain membership are automatically reflected in the IntraSmart employee list and vice versa. Otherwise, it’s a matter of filling in a browser-based form to create each record, including the employees’ permissions and departmental affiliations — and optionally, a picture.
Users can set up their browser to automatically log on to the intranet when they start their computer in the morning. If you can train them to log off whenever they leave the office — and log back on when they return — it’s possible for a company telephone operator to use the intranet log-on list like an in-out board.
The group address book looks similar to the employee list but is intended primarily as an outside contact list for customers and suppliers. Address book entries can be private (only visible to the creator of the entry), public (viewable by everyone) or departmental (only visible to users with the relevant departmental affiliation.) The address book can also be synchronized with Outlook using an optional utility.
The group scheduling functions, though not unique, are among the best, most distinctive features in IntraSmart. They’re the ones that differentiate this program from simple Web site creation tools and database managers.
IntraSmart lets you select a group of individuals — from both employee list and group address book (new in Version 3.0) — and a room. Also new to Version 3.0 is the “Group Schedule” button. When you click it, the program presents a compact, color-coded calendar showing the availability of each individual and of the room on that day.
From the same scheduling dialog, a user can choose to send out e-mails to participants informing them of the meeting schedule, set up a private bulletin board for exchanging messages and memos with other participants and e-mail the designated asset manager (assigned when the asset is created in the Asset Scheduler module) to request services, such as food or special equipment.
Announcements appear on the portal’s home page — which is different, or can be, for each user. The announcement creation dialog provides a WYSIWYG HTML editor that allows users to set type font, color and size and add graphics. The creator of the announcement can also use the dialog to set the start and end dates if it’s an event.
If it’s an announcement of an event — an optional or company-wide meeting or social occasion, for example — a calendar icon will appear beside it on the page. Clicking the icon automatically adds the event to the user’s personal calendar. It’s this kind of attention to detail that makes you warm to IntraSmart despite its general clunkiness.
Users permitted to create announcements can also use the forms generator, a very basic point-and-click interface for creating online forms that include fill-in fields, radio buttons, pull-down lists, etc.
One ideal use is to create employee surveys which can be posted as announcements. The data from a forms-based survey can be automatically synced from IntraSmart to a Microsoft Access, Crystal Reports or other database, which the creator can use analyze the data and generate reports.
The other key module is the documents database. Administrators can add documents to a database, designating them as public or department-specific. When users select the “Document Library” menu option, the program displays a list of relevant documents — those intended for all, such as company policy statements, plus documents for departments with which they’re affiliated.
Documents can be virtually any format. With known formats, an icon identifying the file type appears. Clicking on the History button for a document displays a list of revision dates and authors tracing the evolution of the document.
Users can choose to add any public or departmental document they see in the Document Library to a My Documents folder — not the standard Windows Explorer My Documents folder but a folder in the IntraSmart document database. This saves them the trouble of searching through long lists of documents for often used items.
They can also “subscribe” to individual documents or departmental document groups so that they receive e-mail notification of any new documents in the group or any changes to a document. Again, these are the kinds of grace notes that make IntraSmart a truly useful program.
For very small businesses, IntraSmart is probably overkill. But for any company with 20 or more employees — all the way up to hundreds — it’s a relatively inexpensive and very useful solution to intra-company communications. Our only complaint is that it could look a little sharper.
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