I first encountered the term “extranet” shortly after I departed Forrester Research in 1997 for the sunny shores of California. I had joined a digital agency, ChannelNet, and was working on the Ford Motor Company account. After rolling out the very first www.ford.com website, our team was developing a concept for an extranet that would connect dealers to information about customers that were visiting the Ford website.
Even in those early days, people appreciated that the new public website would change consumer buying habits dramatically. Consumers were starting to show up at the dealer armed with information that previously only the dealers knew. What a victory for knowledge sharing!
The net effect of this was to speed up the buying process, and we could see that dealers would need new tools to keep up. Enter the extranet.
The concept for the Ford extranet was to create a network that would allow dealers to get access to more information from Ford. Specifically, dealers could gain access to information that consumers had offered to share, including car details and configurations that they were interested in, and even their personal information, so the dealer could follow-up with them. Dealers could also gain ready access to inventory supply information so they could know what was coming and when.
Fast forward to today. While there are many examples of networks created for external partners, for most organizations the potential to use an extranet as a key tool in their digital workplace ecosystem is largely untapped.
Every organization has partners - individuals and companies providing services in support of the mission of your organization. The reality today is that most of these relationships are at arm’s length, without a sense of a tight-knit community to make them more efficient and effective.
For example, let’s say you work with your organization’s partners. If a partner has a question related to their work for you, do they typically email you the question and you reply via email? What if there were a space for all or some partners to ask questions and get answers? When a question is answered, everyone could see the answer. Once a question is answered publicly, the next partner might find the answer without having to make the inquiry in the first place. Over time, you’ve built a valuable knowledge base that will help all partners—especially new ones.
Another example: Do you work together with partners in a collaborative way? If so, how are you communicating and sharing information and documents? Most people today are still using email, which leads to document proliferation and versioning conflicts. What happens when a new person joins the team a few months in? Where do they go to come up to speed and see the latest documents and conversations? And finally, how do you keep track of who is on the email thread at any given point in time?
Collaborative workspaces that live on a partner extranet are a solution to this problem.
There’s a wealth of knowledge that is continually being generated out of your day-to-day work interactions with partners. It’s a shame, and a waste of resources, not to create a partner community where that value can be captured and made available for the benefit of all.
In this way, a partner extranet is an extension of your employee community. It resides between the ever-growing gap between your public website and social channels on the one hand, and your internal communities and networks on the other. At Ideal State, we use the concept of a Digital Workplace Design as a way of using systems-thinking to solve these kinds of knowledge sharing and communications challenges.