Web portals are the latest rage in the IT world. Big software vendors have been quick to jump at the opportunity to prove that, when it comes to Web supersites, bigger is indeed better. But where does that leave you? Emily Fitzloff goes on the portal patrol.
Since the term "portal" blossomed as the latest tech-industry buzzword, software vendors ranging from database to knowledge management companies have mutated seemingly overnight into portal providers. Everyone wants to ride the wave.
"A lot of people are suffering from portal envy because the consumer portals have done very well as far as Wall Street evaluation goes," International Data Corporation (IDC)'s director of knowledge technologies in the US, Gerry Murray, said.
Small software providers hope to grab a piece of the action by helping business customers create corporate portals. What has resulted from the emergence of this rel- atively new market is a tremendous amount of hype. But mingled with the rhetoric are some meaningful notions about cost-effectively sharing company knowledge.
Although the definition of a corporate portal often is "in the eyes of the beholder", according to Geoffrey Bock, a consultant at Boston-based Patricia Seybold Group, enterprise portals in many ways are just the next step after an intranet. If the intranet was developed as a place where corporate content could reside, the portal is designed to dynamically organise that information. Substitute MyYahoo for My(company name here), and you get the idea.
Corporate portals offer efficient communications. Employees traditionally have spent too much time gathering the information they need to do their jobs. Corporate portals can aggregate information relevant to employees' individual roles, making them more productive, and for significantly less expense than other information-sharing methods such as paper documents, meetings, and training sessions.
"The main goal is to cut down or eliminate the need for employees to waste time searching through internal repositories or the Web for the information they need," says Mike Lynch, CEO of Autonomy, a San Francisco-based portal software provider that lists Reuters and Shell International among its customers.
Also, corporate portals give companies an effective way to deliver critical internal communications regarding change management, performance improvement, and internal branding.
For a while, IT managers saw push technology as the way to get this information to people, but now they view corporate portals as less intrusive than push technology and more structured than plain intranet solutions, says Andy Snider, managing director of VIS, a Massachusetts-based portal developer.
Corporate portal start-up costs - including the software to build customised interfaces and aggregate enough data to make projects worthwhile - range from $US150,000 to $300,000, Snider says. According to Forrester Research, to build a project to full scope over two years, companies should prepare to spend $1.5 million, primarily on aggregating data from multiple sources.
Calculating return on investment for knowledge-related technologies such as corporate portals is notoriously difficult. However, the costs are almost the same, whether a company builds the portals for 50 people or 5000, so the per-employee costs drop sharply with the number of users. VIS' customers find that building a portal for fewer than 500 users is useful but not economically advantageous; with 700 or more people to reach, the portal becomes economically desirable; when 2000 or more people use the portal, the costs start becoming dramatically less than other ways of reaching those people, Snider says.
Also, long-term maintenance is something that potential corporate portal users need to consider as a standard cost of deployment.
"In the beginning, you get set up and then you're done - there's your portal, for now," says Tom Koulopoulos, president of the Delphi Group in Boston. "But if your portal is to be a reflection of changes within your business, it seems inevitable that you will end up with some sort of portal manager to keep an eye on the portal and how well it's mapping to the relevance of your business."
Despite the costs, early adopters give credence to the claim that corporate portals are great for helping leverage and exchange valuable knowledge that exists in multiple forms and in multiple locations.
Digidesign, a division of California-based Avid Technology, wanted to share pockets of corporate "knowledge" with the entire organisation, but the knowledge resided in multiple reports on multiple servers that all had different security profiles.
"It was a major task to figure out where this information was and how to get it," says Bill Schwartz, operations project manager at Digidesign.
The company installed context management software from Verano, a California portal software vendor, to centralise access to data such as Excel spreadsheets, SAP applications, customer profiles, and manuals. Now users do not just get a whole blob of information quicker, they get the right information quicker because it is based on user profiles, Schwartz says.
Look before you leap
Not all companies are jumping immedi-ately on the corporate portal bandwagon, however. Many organisations are pausing before investing in expensive software with unknown maintenance costs and an as-yet murky return on investment. Even if start-up costs are fairly low, analysts warn that the cost of maintaining a corporate portal - even one that claims to be automated and dynamically updated - may increase as its role expands.
Also, the early leaders in the infant market are small vendors, and some IT managers baulk at risking money with vendors with which they are unfamiliar. It is always easier convincing CIOs to invest in an established product from the likes of Microsoft than in a new technology from a smaller and more obscure software provider.
For companies that are ready to take on the risks and glean the rewards, the first steps in building a corporate portal are organising content and giving users access, according to Forrester.
To begin with, one of the most common uses for enterprise portals is to support sales forces in the field. Salespeople who had to view status reports from the office can now access them - and other valuable information such as competitors' press releases - while on the road.
In this initial phase, some companies find nontechnical issues, primarily employee resistance, are the greatest challenge. People are accustomed to viewing their knowledge as power, and the notion of having a central place where everybody is ideally invited to share all of their knowledge does involve a cultural shift.
"People will need some time to assimilate as these cultural issues come to a head," IDC's Murray says.
Glenn Kelman, vice president of product management and marketing at San Francisco-based Plumtree Software, suggests that the "getting used to" phase depends largely on how well potential users are educated about the portal before it is deployed.
"If it is something that just IT wants - rather than all of the business units - and they install it and tell everybody they need to use it, it won't be very valuable," Kelman says.
To minimise cultural resistance, some companies are taking things slowly. "I call the theme for what we're doing now 'find what we know'. The next phase will be 'share what we know'," says Kelman.
Many companies find that the second step in building a corporate portal is making the application interactive, such as letting users make changes to their retirement accounts.
Now a third phase is emerging for early adopters: extending the portals to the extranet for partners, suppliers, customers, and/or distributors.
Evidence of this third phase growth can be found in Plumtree's launch of Version 3.0 of its Plumtree Corporate Portal product.
Plumtree's corporate portal solution organises corporate content, categorises it, and creates personalised updates for users. It also has provisions for opening up the portal to the extranet, Kelman says.
The external phase often follows internal portal projects, because many users wet their feet with an internal project to test its value and become comfortable with its security mechanisms, before either extending it or creating a second portal outside the firewall. But once portals start exchanging data outside the corporate firewall, the potential applications and benefits will increase significantly. Outsiders can view corporate information, and organisations can open themselves up to more feedback on improving goods and services.
"Third parties tend to catch things that people within the company may have missed," Koulopoulos says. "The real bang for the buck will be when they start interfacing to the outside."
However, although extending portals to external partners should lead to higher returns, analysts predict it will also tap IT resources more over time.
Research and define
Whether a corporate portal is for internal use only or extends outside the firewall, experts suggest that companies carefully research needs and define goals. Otherwise, they may end up with a solution that is not relevant.
"You have to set finite objectives that you are trying to address [for example]. What are you doing on a day-to-day basis that is requiring you to jump between different OSes and databases?" Koulopoulos says.
To keep the information current while minimising IT resources, experts advise IT managers to invest in a corporate portal that has extensive automation functionality.
"The most fundamental point is what I call the 'Thursday-After Problem'. That is, what happens the Thursday after the portal is installed and the content changes and new content arrives?" says Autonomy's Lynch. "It is vital to ask what the technology is under the portal that can actively and automatically understand the new information. If it is just a dressed-up relational database or keyword-based method, the IT director had better be prepared to hire 50 [people] to help keep the site up to date."
The technology that lies beneath the portal may vary widely among different products, and no one portal software provider is going to be able to address everyone's needs in terms of an enterprise portal. Some are focused more on organising structured as opposed to unstructured data, or vice versa. Other areas of focus include taxonomy, knowledge management, database functionality, content/context management, and collaborative capabilities.
But although strict, market definitions for the enabling technologies have not yet emerged, moving forward with the corporate portal concept is a smart move. As businesses get increasingly distributed and employees are required to do more of their jobs online, it makes more and more sense to have a centralised Web portal where they can access the information they need in order to be productive.