posted 1 Dec 1999 in Volume 3 Issue 4
Content is key
Everyone has heard the phrase 'content is key'; it is the flesh to the bones of a company's infrastructure. But what happens if time is of the essence and information inevitably gets buried in the strangest of places i.e. throughout individual PCs, files, or even in the heads of people who don't have time to record their knowledge? The corporate portal eases time pressure, as information becomes easier to find and is mapped out in an intuitive sense. Here, Darren Lee takes us through the day of an employee whose working methods have changed through the introduction of this technology.
Robert Sutherland is an internal accounting auditor for a multi-national manufacturing company. Today begins like most others for Robert, a coffee mug in one hand, the other working the keyboard as he logs his computer onto the network. His browser opens automatically and loads the company's internal home page. This is no ordinary home page, it's Robert's personal window to the information and resources he needs to be successful. The morning routine continues: He checks the opening price on the stock market; reluctantly scans the flood of new email messages that arrived overnight; glances at the day's appointments; notices that the company was mentioned in the news for its new manufacturing technique and then, with a deep breath, 'time to get busy.'
Robert picks up a recent sales contract for a new customer. To refresh his memory on how to report this new revenue, he returns to his browser, opens his personal library and types 'recognising revenue for manufacturing companies.' Clicking the search button produces the top 50 search results ranked in order of relevance and each with a summary containing Robert's search terms highlighted in red. His eyes quickly scan the summaries; 'there it is, 'Revenue Recognition, Manufacturing' '. One click and he retrieves the ASB's Statement of Standard Accounting Practice regarding revenue recognition for manufacturing companies.
Armed with this information, he then links from the home page to the company's accounting programme, locates a copy of the invoice and displays it in his browser. Everything looks to be in order, time to allocate the revenue to the various departments. Just to be on the safe side, he links back to his personalised corporate library and browses the table of contents, quickly locating the company's internal accounting policy guide, page 57 - 'Allocating Revenue'. Back to the accounting programme, Robert makes the necessary entries and completes his first task of the day. 'Not bad,' he muses, leaning back in his chair. 'Coffee's still hot.'
Robert has been more effective and less stressed lately since his company's IS department completed the corporate portal project. Nearly everything he needs to get the job done, from reference materials to real-time news feeds are now accessible under one roof anywhere, anytime via a common browser interface.
What's in a portal?
As with any developing solution, the definition of a corporate portal is still a moving target. The landscape is becoming clearer, however. Merrill Lynch's report on Enterprise Information Portals (EIP) identifies four key components:
While key components have been identified, the specific needs and applications of each individual company will ultimately define what goes into their portal. The Delphi group has identified some of the uses for a corporate portal. These include access to knowledge bases, disparate corporate data, internal company information, policies and procedures, best practices, and HR information. Other items include tools for business process support, customer service, project support, directories and bulletin boards, identification of experts, news and internet access.
A look at Robert's individual window to his day-to-day corporate world identifies benefits from some of the portal tools Delphi outlines. The challenge for any organisation seeking to arm employees with a single gateway to the tools that make them effective is defining just what pieces to include, what components are already available, what piece should be the cornerstone and where to start.
Portal implementation - The first step
While features like stock quotes, company news, and a view of an email in-box are nice features to have, they aren't the components that drive the IT department to venture into uncharted territory with a mission of creating the corporate portal. Most likely, the pressure to start the project will come from a far greater need - providing people like Robert with the mission critical information they require and the tools to really make it useful. Give Robert access to the cluttered network directory and a hard copy of published accounting standards but don't expect him to be very productive. Give him access to fully indexed and logically organised internal collections of information, however, couple this with the professionally published titles, and you can expect a lot more. To Robert, this is the component that makes his corporate portal so valuable.
Forrester research identifies this component of a corporate portal to be the critical piece and recommends that the first phase of portal development should focus on content services. Content services include:
This means that navigation must be simple so that employees can easily find their way around. The content therefore needs to be organised in a pre-designed and logical topic hierarchy. The information must be indexed so key terms can be quickly located. Structuring information and categorising key topics that can be quickly searched is also critical. Unless your information is static, easy updating and automatic publication is likewise a high priority on your list.
If Robert was the only employee in the company, you would only need to worry about his collection of information and you would be finished. However, because every organisation has people who need access to sales information, HR records, customer support procedures, legal records, marketing material, product specifications, and who knows what else, you have other items to consider. Everyone is going to want a personalised view to the information and resources of greatest interest to them and HR would cringe at the thought of everyone having access to company salary records. The ability to personalise and customise each view for every user, while at the same time protect against unauthorised access, is something that needs to be considered as well.
Because of the hype surrounding portals, many software companies are re-inventing themselves as complete portal solution providers. However, companies looking to develop their portal should focus on the core technology that is to become the foundation of their portal. After an evaluation of their needs, most companies will recognise that solid tools for building, managing, searching and categorising information will provide the greatest benefit and return on investment. This evaluation may also uncover the fact that technology designed to perform these tasks has been around for years. Commercial publishers of professional information have been adding value to their information through such technology for many years now. The corporate world is now recognising the value these types of technologies can add to their portal.
The first step is finding the right solution; one that meets your core need of adding value to your information but is flexible enough to integrate with the other technologies as you identify additional needs. Early adopters of corporate portals are typically companies that derive significant value from, and in many cases build their businesses on, information. Ernst & Young chose NextPage LivePublish to manage the critical part of their corporate portal - the content piece. Return on investment is expected to be considerable. The company faced a number of information management challenges. It had lots of content that was unstructured, uncategorised and difficult to search. The information was also difficult to update. Ernst & Young required a solution that would enable them to manage and update information from all over the organisation and import from external sources as well.
Another feature that appealed to Ernst & Young was the fact that the solution would handle various file formats so they could use their existing data with little or no conversion required. LivePublish also offered security and personalisation features for customised access based on user rights. The use of standard Web servers and Web browsers for delivery and access provided the flexibility to integrate other components from other vendors to round out the portal solution as the project grew. Because LivePublish came from a company with a track record of working with the world's leading publishers for many years, they knew the solution was from someone who understood the demanding requirements of electronic publishing and professional information access.
The future of the corporate portal
The corporate portal concept will become more clearly defined as time goes on. Companies will struggle with implementing necessary processes and the challenge of conditioning employees to use the available technology to make the most of the resource. The success of a corporate portal project may be as contingent upon the conditioning of people to use the new technology, as it is the technology itself.
Corporations need to decide what the critical piece or focal point for their portal should be and begin planning development now. For most companies this will be classification, organisation and publication of core company information. Typically companies begin with HR and supplier information and then graduate to sophisticated sales, marketing and accounting procedures. Value can be added to this information through integration with other components from numerous vendors. These vendors must realise that the standard Web browser has become the access tool of choice and that their solutions must fit within this environment. Companies who are considering on waiting for a complete out-of-the-box corporate portal solution may end up wishing they had started their project earlier. The companies that take advantage of technology already available (technology that meets their immediate needs of providing rich-access to existing mission-critical information as well as the flexibility to grow with their corporate portal) will have a head start on increasing productivity. Now is the best time to begin.
Darren Lee is Vice President of Strategy within NextPage. He can be contacted at:email@example.com