If you feel like your in-basket could rival a recycling center in terms of paper volume, you’re not alone. That’s why so many companies and schools are turning to intranets—password and firewall-protected web pages designed specifically for internal audiences.

Intranets have tremendous potential for improving employee communications and collaboration. By bringing employees together to share ideas and information, intranets can also play a critical role in achieving educational goals.

Unlike cumbersome manuals, curriculum guides, and other static print publications, intranet documents can be updated quickly and easily.

Internet technology also makes documents more interactive and easier to use via keyword searches, pop-up menus, and hot links to key sections.

Annual reports, personnel directories, department listings, and employee newsletters are perfect candidates. Other popular intranet choices include human resource policies and procedures, benefits, salary schedules, bonus and incentive qualifications, insurance and benefits information, job postings, transfer opportunities, and other time-sensitive issues.

One of the primary advantages is the ability of employees to access information when they need and want it—24 hours a day, seven days a week. Intranets also save time, cutting down on travel to meetings, seminars, and other activities.

In addition to traditional human resources issues, intranets offer unique opportunities for showcasing best practices and lesson plans, sharing calendars, distributing forms, publishing teacher and school-based documents, and hosting discussion forums and online meetings.

“Coordination, communication, and collaboration are the three major strategic goals we’re shooting for,” says Sylvia Knapp, webmaster for the Charlotte-Mecklenburg N.C. Schools (CMS).

After more than a year of planning, CMS launched its system-wide intranet in June. The nation’s 23rd largest school system, CMS has built a sophisticated firewall within its local area network that blocks outside browsers from penetrating private information.

CMS employees, however, can use just one point of entry to access either the CMS intranet or internet site.

“As large as our school system is, with more than 140 sites spread out geographically over a wide area, spreading emergency and regular messages quickly is very difficult,” says Knapp. “With the intranet, we can set up a secure system with nothing more than a web browser on a client server. This will save time, money, and frustration on the part of our employees, who need to be able to access information in a timely fashion.”

To keep information current and accurate, CMS has trained more than 140 webmasters, who regularly post information about their schools. The district also is asking each department to identify who will have publishing privileges on the intranet.

“Having the person who is publishing the information serve as the point of origin for creating it is essential for accuracy,” says Knapp. Active server pages developed by the district’s technology department mean that anyone with basic word processing skills can publish electronically.

“The person entering the information only needs to be able to type and paste,” says Knapp. “They don’t have to worry about programming or even the intricacies of the database—that’s all done for them.”

Intranets also can host private bulletin boards and discussion forums where teachers can exchange ideas, swap copyrighted software (trade an IBM for a Mac version, for example), and compile media center inventories.

Before launching an intranet project, Knapp suggests getting key decision-makers involved early on. “Find out who needs access to timely information to do their jobs better and get them involved,” says Knapp. “By targeting movers and shakers, you create built-in advocates for the project.”

CMS also spent nearly a year building the appropriate infrastructure in terms of hardware, software, programming, and security measures.

The CMS intranet features several major sections: public information, emergency messages (which will appear only when needed), human resources, schools, curriculum and instruction, online courseware, and notes from the superintendent’s office.

“Now, every single employee who can get to an internet browser can have access to timely information,” says Knapp. “The potential for this is just incredible.”

If you’re thinking of jumping on the intranet bandwagon, here are a few tips:

• Plan carefully and recognize that any undertaking this large requires a significant commitment of people, dollars, and—most of all—time.

• Partner with a variety of companies to fill in the gaps of staff expertise and time. Having—or acquiring—in-house expertise and technical skills is essential, however. If the system goes down or has a minor kink, who wants to wait for an outside vendor to fix it? More importantly, even the most skillfull consultant can never grasp the internal issues and political nuances as well as your own employees.

• Brush up on your best collaboration skills and get key people and organizations on board early on. Your network management team must ensure connectivity and bandwidth, while web developers are going to need training, experience, and skill in developing web-based applications. Your “customers”—department chairpersons, division directors, assistant superitendents, and other key personnel—must be willing to try something new and devote time to working with the technical groups as they develop new applications.