posted 30 Sep 2000 in Volume 4 Issue 2
Although far from offering a complete knowledge management solution, portal technology has emerged as a powerful KM tool, with the potential to provide a corporate focus for your company’s wider knowledge management programme. Simon Lelic talks to representatives from eRoom Technology, Appsolut Software, Lotus, Autonomy, Oracle, GP and Siemens, and asks what the central elements of a successful KM portal should be.
Any attempt to develop a knowledge management programme
and instil in a company a culture of knowledge sharing – contrary to what some
vendors would have you believe – must go beyond simply ‘dropping in’ a
technological framework to facilitate this. But IT, and portal technology in
particular, can certainly make the process less of an uphill battle. At best, an
enterprise information portal, successfully implemented and integrated across
your company’s infrastructure, can allow employees access to information and
knowledge that would otherwise remain locked in your organisation’s corporate
memory, encourage communication and knowledge sharing, and improve the
efficiency with which your business responds to customers’ requirements.
A common analogy drawn by our contributors is of a portal being, as Rob Allison, European director of eRoom Technology puts it, a ‘way in’ to specific services and sets of information. Tony Cocks, senior technology advocate in the UK Technology Group at Lotus, describes a portal as “an electronic doorway, or more likely a series of doorways”. Or, in the words of Simon Fletcher, European communications manager at Autonomy: “A true portal is a gateway into a world of fully automated information. Every user is automatically delivered only that which is relevant to them. Communities of interest automatically link users with similar interests together. Every piece of information is automatically hyperlinked to other relevant pieces of information. In this environment, search becomes a dead paradigm, and the need for manual management of information is virtually nil.” Whether the portal is developed around a specific common interest (sometimes called a vertical portal, or ‘vortal’), or targets horizontal groups of people (otherwise known as a ‘hortal’), as Carolyn Patterson, Internet tools marketing manager at Oracle UK, suggests: “They all have the same generic portal characteristics of providing connectivity, context and consistency between users and their applications, and/or sources of information.”
The potential benefits an EIP can offer your company’s KM programme are therefore obvious. “An intelligently implemented enterprise portal will accelerate productivity dramatically,” says Zoltan Wirth, director of Business Transformation at Siemens ICN. “A portal emphasises the context and process in which each employee belongs, and also creates a virtual people network allowing employees to meet and contact others in the value creation process. In the most sophisticated cases, a portal will also integrate customers involved in the same business processes.” This is something Linda Tremblay, business development director at GP, has had direct experience of. “At GP, or employees are located in various offices, in different cities and different countries,” says Tremblay. “It is the nature of our business to be where the customer needs us to be. Therefore, it is important for the dissemination of information and the sharing of information that GP leverages the flexibility of the web. Portal implementation leading to intranets worldwide means the value network is not only wider, but also that information is available 24/7. This means that value creation and value extraction is increased.”
Fletcher points to recent research findings that estimate a loss to UK businesses of around £17bn every year, due to the time spent by employees attempting to manually source information in the ‘black-hole’ of ever-expanding IT infrastructure. “If you can proactivise that process, by automatically understanding what each user is interested in and delivering information from all those sources accordingly, you will save yourself hard cash,” he says. It is difficult – as it is with any specific element of a knowledge management programme – to calculate the returns an investment in portal development will bring. Partly, as Fletcher says, this is because one of KM’s most valuable characteristics is that it opens up new horizons that will necessarily take time to fully exploit. But the indicators are there. “The success of the portal could be judged on the number of hits,” says Tremblay. “But it is more important to see an improvement in operational performance – which can be classed as one of the shorter-term benefits – and intangible, or long-term benefits, which sustain the knowledge culture and position the firm in line with the strategic vision. Knowledge self-perpetuates; thus the return is never ending. On a simple level, an interest in the growth and expansion of content from the portal measures its performance. It is an encouraging sign when you begin to hear upper management and the employees speaking of the use of the portal as a standard business practice within the company.”
To reach this point, however, and for your business to fully realise the potential KM benefits of portal implementation, there are clearly a number of different approaches that can be taken. Nevertheless, each contributor identifies specific components of a portal application that they see as being integral to success. “Automation and personalisation, based on conceptual technology, are the watchwords,” says Fletcher. “Rudimentary keyword systems and linguistic/semantic approaches still essentially deliver more irrelevant material than relevant. The idea is that the system should be able to automatically decide how a document should be tagged, how it should be categorised, who should read it, and what other information it should be linked to. Only a concept-based approach, reliant neither on hit-and-miss keywords, nor on clumsy rule-based semantics and linguistics, is able to achieve this.” Allison also highlights the importance of using a powerful search engine, capable of ‘pushing’ information to those who need to know it.
Similarly, and according to Tremblay, the application needs to be reliable, secure, easy to use, and flexible. “GP employees will not use the system if it crashes or is slow,” she maintains. “Sharing will be hindered if there is no sense of security for information being made available. People already have their own versions of knowledge management (emails, files, informal discussions, and so on), so the system must be easy to use in order to improve the chances of people being willing to adopt it. Our understanding of KM continues to grow and expand, so therefore the system needs to allow us to change the parameters as our requirements change.” Patterson also stresses how crucial it is to develop a portal framework that is flexible enough to allow easy access, in the right way, to suit individual requirements at any given time. “There must be the ability to customise the portal interface to provide a personal view for the right people, promoting rapid access and navigation of information,” she argues.
In fact, the issue of personalisation surfaces frequently. “All human beings have a personal view of the world,” says Wirth, “so enterprise portals have to offer advanced personalisation features, with which people can build their own working environment.” Allison agrees, arguing that each organisation should attempt to tailor its portal to the end-user by allowing them to have some input into what the portal will deliver to them. “Just like people can go to Yahoo! and create ‘my Yahoo! page’, so users should be able to tailor their portal pages to reflect how they want to work,” says Allison. “Thus a corporate portal would have some fixed content for all users, and a consistent look and feel, but each user’s portal pages would have some content that would reflect their own requirements.” Tremblay sees personalisation as a key to ensuring the EIP will be accepted and utilised by a company’s employees. “If the portal is matched well with the wants and needs of the end-user, it will be easier for them to appreciate the benefits,” she argues. “Information needs to be presented within the context of what is important to them. Then, using the portal will be more attractive and relevant. Understanding the relevancy will hopefully increase the system’s adoption.”
With Raven, the latest offering from Lotus, these ideas seem to have been taken on board. “Raven’s knowledge portal organises all of a user’s information, applications and contacts by community, interest, task or job focus,” explains Cocks. “It is a shell environment that builds and manages portals for each individual and all that user’s community affiliations. Users create a personal portal by selecting from a list of pre-configured knowledge windows, for instance, mail, calendar, discussions, to do items, teamrooms, custom applications, websites and so on. One of the knowledge windows is the ‘hotlist’, which displays the status of a user’s most important information and applications – this could be, for example, mail from a list of important people, documents awaiting approval, new or updated tasks in a teamroom. The portal includes multiple ‘places’. These places can be user-defined, created by departmental or enterprise IT departments, or developed and shared by colleagues.”
This concept of being able to tailor a portal application to the end-user also extends to the process of deciding the EIP’s content. “Determining content should be driven primarily by the individuals using the portal,” says Patterson. “This again relies on a flexible framework to allow users to ‘pick and mix’ the combination of information and applications needed for them to perform their job.” Cocks agrees, suggesting that, ultimately, it should be the user who decides what content they see and use. Similarly, Tremblay emphasises the need to gain an understanding of what type of information is important to employees. “By using this as a foundation, it will draw the end-user to the portal, where additional content can be introduced,” she says. “The content should be relevant, current, and accurate. The information on our portal is a mix of ideas, technologies, designs, data, culture, experience, processes and publications. It is a repository of what has been historically used, discussions of ‘best practices’, and new information that, through strategic vision, integrates into organisational goals. We make sure that the content is blended with the tools (web browsers, Internet links, and so on) to allow the end-user to go beyond the current content for needs we could not foresee.”
Indeed, there is a predominant consensus that employees should be involved in the process of constructing an EIP at as early a stage as possible, both in terms of defining the portal’s structure, and refining the content available. “It has to be made obvious for employees how the value creation happens, and what the contribution (and responsibility) of each particular employee is,” says Wirth. Allison, too, feels that the resistance with which employees usually greet new ways of working can be overcome if people are involved from the outset, and properly trained to make best use of the developing system, and this is echoed by Patterson. “Because the portal should be customised to suit them and their working practices, employees should be included as trusted advisors at every stage,” she says. “This inclusion can often help overcome any resistance to change; people respond much better to projects that they feel some ownership of, rather than projects that are imposed upon them.”
But it is by no means a foregone conclusion that an EIP will integrate smoothly with your organisation’s established working practices. On the contrary, even if employees are involved at the very outset of the project, several barriers can, and probably will, present themselves somewhere along the line. Patterson sees these potential pitfalls as primarily cultural and operational in nature, rather than relating to the new technology itself. For many, the idea that ‘knowledge is power’ still rings true, and this issue has to be addressed. “Employees have to overcome their fear that to share or contribute knowledge will mean that they are compromised,” says Tremblay. “By sharing information, skills, and experience you build the collective knowledge or intellectual capital of the organisation. As the organisation advances in this highly competitive and dynamic world, so too will the individuals who have contributed. So, potential barriers include the employee’s lack of understanding for the portal’s benefits, the lack of appreciation for the relevance to his or her job, and perhaps the lack of time to train on the new system.” As a possible solution to this problem, Tremblay advocates incorporating as many types of relevant pieces of information, tools and so on, as possible in the central location, to ensure that employees are presented with not just a fair, but rather a favourable rate of knowledge exchange. Equally, Cocks warns that the portal must genuinely contribute to the working practices of employees. “Once users find that the portal makes their lives easier, and adds real value to what they do, then resistance will evaporate,” he says. “This sounds easy, but it isn’t. Look honestly at your organisation. Is it one that readily embraces the principles of KM, or do people struggle sharing even the most mundane information?”
Incentive systems, as suggested by Wirth and Steve Blythe, CEO of Appsolut Software, are a possible solution. “Many staff may consider giving up their knowledge as giving up their bargaining power in the workplace,” says Blythe. “Companies, on the other hand, feel entitled to it as they have invested in the users and pay them. Reward systems must therefore be altered to not only reflect performance, productivity and attendance in the workplace, but the sharing of information. Economic criteria should be applied; people input information, it is used, and the business pays them. Information becomes like TV – you pay to use.” Cocks is less convinced by the idea of using “incentives and dictates that force people to use portals”, but Wirth also advocates developing an approach to portal implementation that strikes a balance between processes, organisation, people and technology. “Only the right balance between these components can deliver the required business impact,” he argues.
While it is clear that portal implementation can add significant value to your company’s knowledge management programme, it is equally evident that a number of crucial issues have to be tackled along the way. Many of the ideas explored in this article – as well as other change management concerns – are developed further in the rest of this month’s journal. In the next featured article, Eric Tsui defines a framework to categorise and better appreciate the various qualities of the KM tools and portal products currently on the market, while Geoff Smith discusses the link between portals and corporate intranet systems. This relationship is examined further in an in-depth case study from Microsoft, and elsewhere this issue, Mark Mitcheson of Mediasurface explains how content management techniques can add a new dimension to your KM programme, while Ian Wells offers his advice on how best to approach initiating a successful corporate portal strategy. Above all, though, it is important to remember that any technological tool, no matter how advanced, is just that; a tool. KM is, and always will be, about people. No matter how advanced the portal application your company implements, its effect on value creation will be negligible if you cannot convince your employees to participate. KM
Rob Allison is European director of eRoom Technology. He can be contacted via: www.eroom.com
Steve Blythe is CEO of Appsolut Software. He can be contacted at: email@example.com
Tony Cocks is senior technology advocate in the UK Technology Group at Lotus. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Simon Fletcher is European communications manager at Autonomy. He can be contacted via Liz Dyer at: email@example.com
Carolyn Patterson is Internet tools marketing manager at Oracle UK. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Linda Tremblay is business development director at GP. She can be contacted at: email@example.com
Zoltan Wirth is director Business Transformation at Siemens, Information and Communication Networks. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org