posted 25 Sep 2002 in Volume 6 Issue 2
The intranet and beyond
Despite promising immense business benefits, intranets often fail to deliver. Steve Boom explores what usually goes wrong, and how the lessons learnt from failed corporate intranet implementations can help shape best practice for portal design and deployment.
Before Honeywell deployed its enterprise portal, adoption of web-based applications was low. Honeywell’s Travel Wizard, which provided a direct link with the Sabre reservations system, had the potential to deliver savings both in terms of discounted fares (approximately 30 per cent) and reduced operating costs ($30 per transaction).
When Honeywell aggregated the Travel Wizard into its portal, employee use of the application soared. During the first 90 days, Honeywell’s enterprise portal received 8,000 unique visitors per day. Six months after implementation the portal was getting more than 20,000 per day. Today, 55,000 of the company’s 70,000 employees with computers visit the portal every week.
The most common project in today’s enterprise that has the potential to become a major headache is the corporate intranet. A few years ago, intranets were seen as a step towards creating the perfect ‘knowledge culture’. An internal website, browsed from the comfort of the desktop, enabling quick and easy access to all the information an employee needs to do his job, combined with streamlined internal communications. This could not fail to improve productivity and efficiency. But in reality, most corporate intranets do.
Why do most corporate intranet fail to live up to their promise? There are a number of reasons, but perhaps the largest impediment to a successful intranet is the failure of most organisations to develop a clearly defined strategy for intranet design and deployment. A recent survey of over 300 e-business and communications directors carried out by Mentor, an independent research firm, found that 79 per cent of companies cannot pinpoint the main business use of their intranet.
As intranets fail to deliver the promises of seamless, corporate-wide communication, many companies are looking for a complete solution. An enterprise portal is just what they are looking for. ‘Portal’ is one of the most over-used words in the industry today. But just what is a portal?
A portal is a gateway to the enterprise, a single site combining applications and web content, where an employee can access the entire enterprise. It is more than a homepage. At the most basic level, enterprise portals are tools for group communication. With a portal, a user defines what he is interested in, and what content and applications are useful to him.
Enterprise portals are the natural evolution from the corporate intranet. They provide a solution for many of the problems associated with intranets, in addition to offering a host of business benefits. Enterprise portals can be personalised by job roles as well as on an individual basis, giving staff a single point of access to the specific content and tools they require, tailored to the way they like to work. They should provide businesses with the resources employees, partners or customers need to collaborate, communicate and make decisions.
A well-designed portal integrates internet and intranet content, corporate databases, e-mail systems and enterprise applications (eg, Oracle, PeopleSoft, SAP) empowering employees to increase business efficiency, improve the quality of corporate relationships and maximise value throughout the entire enterprise. The larger the organisation, the greater value an enterprise portal will deliver.
Enterprise portals deliver a number of key business benefits. As an optimal starting point for locating desired information, portals improve access to data by delivering personalised, single-screen access to key internal and external content and services. They ensure increased productivity, enabling employees to perform their daily tasks more efficiently and productively through simplified desktop navigation.
A portal offers a unified point of distribution, fostering more loyalty and better communication with employees, customers and suppliers. By linking the enterprise portal to corporate databases and enterprise applications, users can view and manipulate information from numerous sources, improving the decision-making process.
Most corporate intranets are virtually un-navigable because of the sheer weight of content. To avoid these problems, some companies provide access to a limited selection of content and information, failing to fulfil the needs of the departments and business units that the intranet is meant to serve.
As a consequence, larger organisations have seen collections of mini-sites organically spring up, each tailored to the specific needs of individual departments or work groups. Supporting these multiple sites creates a major resource drain and management nightmare for IT departments.
What companies need is a complete enterprise portal solution combining technology, content and services, expertise consulting, and implementation from planning to launch and beyond. With an enterprise portal solution, employees can enjoy the benefits of a personalised desktop environment, reducing time-consuming searches, increasing work efficiency and improving corporate communication. Users who can control their environment and tailor their desktop to suit the way they work report higher levels of job satisfaction and greater productivity.
Another barrier to executing a successful enterprise portal is that many businesses see portal design and deployment as a pure technology issue. IT departments are asked to develop the infrastructure but are not made aware of the business objectives for implementing the technology. This approach is fundamentally flawed because it fails to take into account basic issues, such as: which business processes will this project support? Which will repeatedly drive users back to the intranet site? Which content and tools will users want? How can management be delegated on a departmental level? What’s the plan for rolling out new services and functionality?
Don’t be transfixed by technology. Portals should be viewed as comprising multiple layers: technology, content and services. Define and refine the strategy before starting work on building the portal. Make sure the strategy includes ideas on how to meet future business needs – portal deployment should be thought of as a continuous development cycle. A thorough understanding of the business objectives of the portal is crucial at this stage.
The design phase must be a collaborative effort including people from all areas of the business – IT, HR, communications, sales, marketing, etc. By including representatives from each business unit in the design phase of portal development, business needs will be met across the entire organisation, which is essential for maximising return on investment. Adoption is the single most important factor when considering the ROI of an enterprise portal, and a familiar interface accelerates user adoption, ensuring strong returns.
During initial development and pilot deployment stages, there should be limited focus on content and services. It’s advisable to think big but start small. Switching to a portal-based desktop will require a shift in working culture, and the last thing you want to do is overwhelm users at the start. Include a limited range of content and services in the portal, but make sure these are things that will encourage repeat usage – for example, applications and content that users will perceive as essential tools and will deliver immediate benefit. Where do PC users spend most of their time? The e-mail inbox. By ensuring the inclusion of the most vital applications and content, such as e-mail applications and functionality, you will make the move to a portal desktop as easy as possible, while driving early adoption.
Involve user groups in small pilot trials and incorporate the feedback into the design. All the applications do not have to be available at launch, but make sure that key applications are available from the beginning, even if it means delaying the launch to ensure that they are available.
Once the initial deployment is completed and the portal infrastructure is in place, focus should shift from technology to content and services. This is the operational phase of the portal lifecycle. Key considerations should be how to increase employee adoption and usage of the portal.
Think carefully about what external, as well as internal, content and services you need to deliver real value to your users. Having a long-term strategy for incorporating additional content and services is vital since this is what will drive and maintain continued user buy-in and interest. Web services are a cost effective way to integrate basic applications into the portal. Web services are self contained, modular applications, such as instant messaging, collaboration tools, online travel and navigational services. Incorporating video web streaming into the portal, for example, giving a CEO the power to talk directly to each and every employee on the day of the financial results, improves corporate communications and gives your business the tools to ensure consistent messaging. Streaming enables you to hold web conferences and e-training, reducing ‘dead time’ spent by employees travelling to meetings, in addition to slashing travel costs. It also adds an element of sex appeal to your portal, encouraging adoption and, ultimately, repeat usage.
In addition to web services, it is important to consider the level of portal content. On a basic level, portals serve up access to pre-packaged as well as personalised content from a service such as Yahoo!, which delivers 2,200+ content feeds. At a premium level, services can be expanded to offer verticals market content (financial reports, industry analysis, etc), e-learning, human resources functionality, streaming video, live-event broadcast and multi-media video.
Look at the various portal technology vendors and examine their ability to deliver external content and services now, and in the future. Find out whether they are one-stop, full-service providers, or merely portal technology vendors. One of the reasons Honeywell chose an enterprise solution from Yahoo! was that internal research by Bask Iyer, Honeywell’s Vice-President of e-business, revealed that almost all employees already used Yahoo!’s consumer portal to access content relevant to their personal and professional lives. That meant that when the portal went live, with integrated external Yahoo! content and services, it provided a familiar and intuitive environment for users which helped to drive rapid adoption.
Learn from our experience. Take your enterprise portal as a serious business decision and afford it the attention it deserves. By carefully considering all of the potential stumbling blocks, you can avoid the pitfalls of uneducated portal implementation. With a clearly defined business strategy and careful planning, your enterprise portal can become the cornerstone of your organisation.
Steve Boom is director of Yahoo! Enterprise Solutions Europe. He can be contacted via email@example.com