posted 3 Oct 2000 in Volume 4 Issue 2
Holding back the tide
Information overload is a problem that threatens to engulf employees; the sheer amount of data available through digital sources has created a knowledge management nightmare. Portal technology may well be the solution, and Ian Wells provides some top line considerations for deploying a successful corporate portal strategy.
As anyone responsible for knowledge management will know, information fuels knowledge. Knowledge is power and a key factor in possessing a competitive edge.
The benefits of empowering each employee with the knowledge that is specific to them to do their job in a more informed manner leads to improved productivity of individuals, allowing them to achieve more accurate decision-making and the ability to respond more efficiently with customers, partners or suppliers. This will lead to increased sales revenue and profit, plus customer retention. It is no wonder then that knowledge management initiatives are being pushed up the ladder of business priorities.
Today, individuals can have access to this kind of information at the click of a mouse button, from a range of digital information sources. Firstly, buried within the bowels of the company itself is raw data contained in legacy departmental databases such as human resources, marketing and sales, or from the corporate intranet and extranet. Add to this the external sources, in particular the Internet, and the numerous electronic subscription-based news services, for example Reuters. This means simple access to an abundance of facts and statistics ripe for converting into valuable knowledge for companies to use in their quest for a more efficient and more competitive business.
This is the theory but, of course, in practice the reality is much different, as businesses discover that the ability to access information is not the same as finding the information they need. The sheer weight of information available from these sources has created a knowledge management nightmare, which is resulting in an information overload problem for the very individuals it is there to help. Access to a pool of unstructured information, often with poor search facilities, means homing in on the ‘nuggets’ of information that are specifically relevant to an individual requires time consuming and, only too typically, ineffective searches. Needless-to-say, this negates the value of any knowledge management initiative, which therefore becomes a wasted investment. With the rapid proliferation of available information, the challenge grows greater every day – with a new web page added to the Internet every six seconds – information overload is a problem that will not just disappear.
What’s the solution?
Many organisations are turning to corporate portals as a way to manage information. Meta Group defines a portal as “...a framework that enables differing levels of functionality (e.g. content, applications) and interactivity (e.g. community) to members based on preferences and business rules.” These portals provide better ‘context’ around work activities and add value to existing sites or information databases through customised connections. In short, corporate portals draw all the available raw data together, making it easier for the correct individual to access the ‘nuggets’ that are relevant to them through a single point of entry on the corporate network.
There are a number of different types of corporate portals available, each providing solutions to varying needs. These include vertical, corporate, collaborative, consumer, e-commerce and knowledge portals. Often the type of portal is differentiated by either the area covered (for example, enterprise wide, business function, industry) or the service provided (content aggregation, application access, personalised home page, and so on). There are many players in the corporate portal market. A company’s specific requirements will determine the most suitable vendor. However, outlined below are some general considerations to help you through the minefield when embarking on putting together a corporate portal strategy.
The thing to remember when deploying this kind of strategy for knowledge management is that content is key. Firstly, a personalised approach must therefore be taken to ensure that the right ‘nuggets’ are matched to the right individual. However, the true value lies in a portal solution that goes one step further by delivering these ‘nuggets’ to the individual in a timely manner, whether it comes from the Internet, intranet or a subscription-based news service, without the need for them to search for it. Without these two factors, companies will wallow in a sea of potentially useful information, but never have the capability to pick out and act on the ‘nuggets’ that will have maximum effect.
Companies can provide employees with their own personalised corporate portal. These are similar in concept to those provided by Yahoo! and Excite, but are specifically designed for use within the enterprise. They will intelligently aggregate information from the various internal and external sources available and automatically deliver only the relevant content to each employee. This means that they are not distracted by searching Internet sites or areas of the intranet that are not of true value to them.
There are two types of personalisation. For employees within a business the ‘voluntary’ personalisation route is usually (although not always) the most appropriate. This means that the individual employees chose themselves the content that they wish to receive. This is determined during the set up phase, where the employees are prompted to set up their own information profile. They are alerted to the arrival of fresh information either through a browser on their PC, via email or fax. If working remotely from the office, alerts can be received on mobile phones through SMS (Short Messaging Service) or on a WAP device.
Deploying this kind of portal strategy holds much the same benefits for managing the knowledge and information relevant to a company’s partners, clients or customers. However, more often an ‘involuntary’ personalisation route is typical where the purpose of the portal is usually to disseminate selected information, for instance in a retail scenario. This means that the company defines the information that is to be sent to the individual, rather than the individual making their own choice. A portal site that can alert customers via the variety of different mechanisms mentioned above will allow them to focus on the updated information delivered to them as it is published, rather than having to search for it themselves. Delivering this information will help to reduce the possibility of them being distracted or diverted to a competitive site.
Providing the technology offered within the chosen solution allows, once installed, the portal will be dynamic to the changing needs of the users. Functionality can be developed and features added to suit each individual’s needs. This means that the portal can evolve as the company grows or diversifies. This will be covered in more depth later in this article.
Successful corporate portals will therefore focus web and internal information sources on each individual, because it will deliver personalised business information, ensure customised timely delivery, eliminate ineffective searching, and provide industry specific information.
As with any successful strategy, planning is vital to the success of a corporate portal strategy. Begin with assessing the requirements of the individuals that the solution is aiming to help.
Defining the user communities
The ideal portal will satisfy many types of user. These users fall into two categories; internal (sales, marketing, HR, accounts and so on) and external (for example, partners, clients and customers). Each community will require its own unique information according to the nature of the population. This must then be drilled down further to the demands of the roles of each individual within that community. This will dictate, and thereby personalise, the information that the portal strategy must be capable of delivering to each individual. This can be a mixture of data from internal databases (maybe an HR or sales department), news sources or plain and simple word-processed or presentation documents.
Ensuring buy-in from the community
The next thing to consider is what will generate loyalty to using the portal solution. Again this will vary from each community, and in turn each individual, in terms of content and the delivery mechanism, for instance push email, SMS and so on. Enabling links to non-work related websites will help to make the portal or personal home page a place that individuals want to visit and thus increase the odds of these users remaining reliant on the portal solution.
As mentioned before, content is key to the value of a successful portal solution. A true information aggregator will provide both the technology to implement a corporate portal solution and the content to add value to that solution. However, not all portal solutions will offer both these elements. Likewise, some may place more emphasis on one or other of the elements. The technology offered within a solution will be geared to the target market it is selling to, be it large enterprises, medium-sized organisations or smaller companies. The nature of the technology already being used in legacy systems may also take a leading role in the technology on offer (notably, for example, Lotus Notes users). The content on offer will be a mixture of free (websites) and paid for (subscription-based) content. The extent and coverage of this content will largely depend on the Internet search facility that the vendor has implemented and the number of content deals that they have negotiated. Again, your company’s needs will dictate which is the most appropriate solution to choose, but it is worth pointing out that researching what is on offer for both technology and the content is an absolute must.
Ease of use
Providing users with a corporate portal solution that is easy to use is essential to making the solution popular. Providing them with an interface which has a familiar look, feel and functionality will ensure this. Most corporate portal solutions offer a browser-based interface for this reason. It will also eliminate the time and cost of having to train individuals to use the solution. Solutions that can be easily managed in-house without the need for high technical support are also invaluable, in particular if the ‘knowledge manager’ is a non-technical individual. Again, the extent to which both these elements feature in the solutions on offer will depend on the kind of the solution they are. Thorough investigation of these points is also, therefore, a must.
Out of the box versus bespoke
There has been much debate recently about which offers the best suitability to a company. However, the bottom line is that to build a bespoke corporate portal solution is generally not necessary. It is time consuming, expensive and will take longer to get to market than using an ‘out of the box’ solution. Most ‘out of the box’ solutions offer enough flexibility and leeway to customise the solution to suit most companies’ requirements.
Choose a portal solution that offers flexibility through open platform support. That way, you’ll be able to integrate with existing infrastructures whether your legacy systems run on Java, Microsoft or Lotus Notes. It will also eliminate restrictions when integrating the solution with any new applications introduced to your network in the future. Another element to check when assessing the various solutions is whether they are XML-based. This is important, as XML is the current and future computing language that all electronic software and information will eventually conform to. The advantage is that it is an ‘open’ language that can read and convert all types of computer language. This means that your solution will not be restricted in terms of integration with existing systems within the organisation or limit the content that can be assessed/delivered to the users.
Of course, issues of security are also a key thing to consider when enabling employees to access organisational information. Portal solutions that offer the capability to control access to certain areas of information is paramount. For example, access to details on salaries or sensitive board data, information that could affect stock prices, would not be prudent if everyone within an organisation could access them. Caution should therefore be taken when ensuring that the portal solution chosen offers this functionality.
Because personalisation is what a successful corporate portal strategy is all about, look for solutions that allow you change the interface of the portal page to match your corporate style.
Quantifying return on investment
When justifying the need for a corporate portal solution this simple calculation should be considered. Taking a company with 1,000 employees as an example, Mediapps has found that each employee uses around ten separate sources of information. These range from national newspapers, Reuters or other subscribed services, the corporate intranet and other internal electronic sources such as HR or EPR databases. To monitor all these takes approximately eight minutes. That employee will search these sources around three times a day for job specific information. That’s 24 minutes every day spent searching or 120 minutes per five working day week. Over the course of a year (48 working weeks), this adds up to 96 hours in time spent searching for information along. If the average salary of each employee is £18,000, that’s £1,028.16 lost in search time. Multiply this by the number of employees in the organisation and the loss in productive time, and therefore revenue, is clearly significant. If the same company used a corporate portal solution that provides both the correct technology and will deliver the correct content, the search time is reduced to five minutes per day to check the portal ‘alerts’. This equates to just £214.20 per employee.
Current corporate portal solutions range in cost from a few thousand pounds to several hundred thousand pounds. Again, the solution chosen will be dependent on the company’s needs. However, if the initial investment is too high, the return will never be achieved. For example, if the solution chosen is very expensive, with lots of integration and customisation work to be done, getting the system up and running will take longer and the entry point will be higher. The question to ask is ‘can this return on investment ever be realised?’ The best way to approach a corporate portal strategy is to start small and extend it as and when the company and budgets are ready to accommodate the growth. This is where the flexibility to grow and develop the solution you have chosen becomes important. As with most other successful strategies, when deploying a corporate portal solution, the 80/20 rule applies.
The benefits of deploying a corporate portal could ultimately improve employee productivity through better efficiency and better use of their time, increased sales revenue and billable hours, reduced training costs because they’re simple to use. A portal can also simplify billing and access for subscription services such as Reuters, because you are only using one entry point and will be able to determine who is receiving information from the service if you need to recharge the cost to clients, customers or partners.
To ensure success of a corporate portal strategy, assess which communities will be using the solution, and define their information needs by group and individual. Next, look at the existing technology within the company and the array of information sources available to it. When looking to match the right corporate portal solution with the company’s needs, the key elements to evaluate are that the technology it offers is complementary to and easily integrated with existing legacy systems, that the system provides flexibility through open architecture for addressing future growth, offers suitable content synchronisation, achievable ROI and time to market. Ensure that the vendor has local presence and strong partnerships that will adequately support both the technology and the content of the solution you are buying into.
Careful consideration of these issues should help towards getting a corporate portal solution off the ground, and make the minefield of solutions on offer less daunting for those embarking on what is potentially an extremely effective route towards true knowledge management. KM
Ian Wells is managing director of Mediapps. He can be contacted at: email@example.com