posted 18 Mar 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 6
Look before you leap
An exploration of the practical issues surrounding portal technology
The corporate portal has moved on from its humble origins as a collection of links and is well on the way to replacing the graphical desktop as the employee’s gateway to the organisation. Tom Knight and Arif Azar explore the evolution of the technology and offer some insights into how to get the most from portal implementation.
The evolution of the corporate portal
After a period in which company intranets almost went out of fashion – primarily because many organisations that had implemented them failed to reap the business benefits they had been promised – the idea of the corporate portal is back with a vengeance. This is largely due to significantly improved technology and also to dramatically revamped and standardised desktop and network infrastructure, as forced upon organisations by Y2K and which companies are now looking to exploit for financial return. But it is also due to the realisation that technology alone is not the answer to everything; before any money is spent, a solid business case that takes into consideration the finer details surrounding the implementation and change management processes must be in place.
With the rise of the knowledge economy (a concept that certainly hasn’t gone away as a result of the downward stock market correction last year), the baseline of corporate value has expanded from a focus on bricks and mortar to an emphasis on intellectual capital, with a commensurate need to make organisational information and personal knowledge more visible, more measurable and, most importantly, more manageable. This has led to a progressive redefinition of the value of corporate information and an acknowledgement that collecting and analysing data (the old function of information management) is only the first step. The real value comes in enabling and empowering people to use that information effectively. This type of approach has become necessary as organisations are relying more on consolidated information for strategic (as well as tactical) decision making, which means getting this information to end-users in an simple and timely manner. In the current business climate, organisations that don’t have the capability to learn from, and respond rapidly to, changes in the external marketplace, stand little chance of long-term survival.
So what is the role of the portal in this trend? From a technology perspective, interest in portals is emerging because of the frustration caused by unorganised desktops. By desktop, we mean more than the start-up screen in Windows, with its groupings of folders and application icons. Behind this sits a raft of separate applications, functions and data processes, different servers and services, and, through e-mail, web technologies and various collaborative tools, interaction with the world outside the enterprise.
Any task that necessitates access to information sources, transaction-based services, communication or content creation requires workers to be relatively skilled in using a whole raft of different tools and services scattered around their working environment. The challenge – and the promise – of the coming wave of corporate portal innovation is to simplify these processes, providing a gateway to services and information that works intuitively within a single environment and that is totally transparent to the user.
Defining the corporate portal
Gartner gives the following definition of the central functionality of a corporate portal: “Access to and interaction with relevant information, applications and business processes, by selected target audiences, and in a slightly personalised manner.”
From our experience at ICL in working with customers from sectors as diverse as government, retail, utilities and financial services to implement portal technologies, this definition is an accurate one, if a little lightweight. We have seen many vendors jump on the portals bandwagon over the last 12 months, the common trend being to take a basic intranet solution and expand the range of services accessible from within it, while at the same time offering the ability to hide from the users the complexity of information processing (from disparate information sources) that lies behind. The result is a more or less unitary view of corporate information.
The term ‘portal’ also existed in the early years of the web. One of the first was Yahoo!, which in the beginning was no more than a collection of links incorporating keyword search facilities. Faced with the challenge of alternative technologies based on smart search – first through Alta Vista, then with Google – Yahoo!’s offering is now more sophisticated, but remains essentially a collection of links broken down into a range of predefined topics.
The model for corporate portals came some time later, as organisations (many owned by publishing companies used to providing rich sources of specialist material) attempted to set up stall on the world wide web with a portal (or gateway) into specialist material – both local content and relevant links. Areas of interest from Angling to Frank Zappa got their own ‘portals’ of variable quality. A lack of sophistication in content management was almost universal, however.
Corporate portal products – the first generation
From these early efforts the first off-the-shelf portal products evolved, incorporating functionality that approached the definition provided by Gartner. For our purposes, ‘real’ portal solutions began as server-based tools using web-based presentation layers to offer content aggregation: this is the display, organisation and presentation of information within the portal (also known as categorisation), usually accompanied by a basic search engine that allows the user to search for information within the current environment. At this level, personalisation consists of aggregating information for specific workgroups (communities of practice) and some additional lightweight business process functionality (simple forms with associated actions associated), commonly through the use of scripts.
Corporate portals – the second generation
Second generation portal tools (now mature technology) began to focus on integration with multiple content sources, providing a greater level of business process functionality via access to traditional application servers through portal components. Second generation tools also offered a more sophisticated search capability (often based on detailed taxonomies) to serve context-based queries. This was all supported by a robust framework focused on developing functionality based around portal components.
Figure 1 illustrates how this functionality (across both first and second generation portals) works in practice. The ‘compass’ points on this grid define the essential features of a corporate portal:
- Content aggregation and presentation – single view, multiple sources;
- Application access – including business process functionality;
- Search – aimed at multiple sources;
- Integration – with a range of sources across servers, platforms networks, etc.
Beyond the compass grid there are additional dimensions, labelled ‘communities’ and ‘personalisation’. This is where the role of portals moves beyond technical considerations into providing support for mobilising knowledge between people and across organisations. The compass grid feature set may provide employment and entertainment for technical specialists, but real business benefit lies across the other axis.
The communities axis determines the social and cultural context in which information is used. Activity on this axis will determine, in large measure, whether the portal will meet the needs of the business. There are questions to be asked here relating to motivation to contribute, motivation to access and re-use information, maintenance of content, and overall culture of involvement – whether people in the organisation expect to dip into an information repository and find information (structured or unstructured) without putting anything back in, or whether the culture is a more dynamic one of involvement, participation and sharing of personally-held knowledge and expertise.
The same applies with personalisation: where the culture of involvement is high, personalisation is extremely important and is focused on quick access to relevant, commonly-used information sources and tools. Personalisation, which in turn has significant dependencies on infrastructure to ensure maximum benefit, has been misunderstood to some extent. Role-based personalisation, where not just content but application services are tailored to individual needs, is, in the authors’ view, where most benefit is to be gained. Although the tools exist to allow individuals an infinitely customisable working environment, we do not believe there is a real desire among individuals for extreme degrees of flexibility in presentation and access, nor is there a strong business case for it (indeed, the lack of motivation and the amount of training required would appear, for the moment, to work against too high a level of individual personalisation). Even role-based personalisation requires careful change management during its introduction.
Presentation and information delivery
A key function of portals is the presentation of information. How this is done impacts upon functionality across the board. Using current approaches, information is typically delivered in two ways:
- Direct access (focus on aggregation) – the emphasis here is on the portal enabling the user to search for information within multiple repositories. Integration is achieved through connectors, which allow the portal to search for information contained in repositories. Application access is not a priority as there is no real need for the repository to provide an integrated level of functionality. There is a degree of aggregation, as the portal has to format the information that is presented to the user, but the emphasis is on seeking out and pulling together the information found. However, the level of integration of systems can vary, aggregation opportunities via content repositories being easier to implement than those via legacy applications;
- Portal components (applications integration) – in a more ‘advanced’ scenario, the emphasis is on the portal providing a level of integrated applications functionality to the user through portal components. A portal component contains a level of functionality provided by information repositories. For example, integration with a content management system might enable ‘check in, check out’ processes to be carried out. The goal is a significantly higher level of aggregation and integrated presentation, as the portal manages both the format and the interaction between the portal and repository. Integration is obviously high.
Applications access through portal components
We believe that the role of portal components is becoming more important in portal design. This is partly due to the very specific functionality they can bring to the user in providing access to a range of applications from a single browser, without the user having to launch instances of applications within the desktop environment and switch between them. And in addition to integration of applications, portal components can also provide pre-configured information, for example information updated at regular intervals such as news feeds or weather data. These interactions allow the user to generate a holistic context of knowledge in a workplace environment.
Portals and content
Beyond the role of portals themselves – which as we have described, focus on aggregation, personalisation and integration – there are some other key technologies that are essential in the creation of enterprise-wide portal applications. Content management has evolved into a discipline in its own right, but is now closely aligned to portal design and deployment. In fact, we would go so far as to say that it is not possible to build a true portal without incorporating a substantial element of content management behind the scenes. Without exploring content management issues at length, it is evident that questions of content creation, ownership, management, lifecycle and so on are critical parts of the equation.
When the two are combined, then some of the aspirations for corporate portals – the technology component of a wider approach to knowledge management in organisations – start to become possible: users become better able to find what they want without having to browse for it, encompassing better access both to the information required for supporting people in their roles as knowledge workers, and to corporate news, policy, procedures, etc. This in turn begins to generate the sort of return on investment organisations are looking for when implementing portal and content initiatives.
Understanding the marketplace – the technology vendors
The marketplace for portal technologies follows the usual pattern of too many products from too many vendors operating in the same space, and chasing clients whose numbers are increasing, but perhaps not fast enough to keep all the vendors afloat. We see a marketplace that is quite complex and unpredictable, and one in which no vendor has achieved total dominance in terms of either product functionality or market presence. In product selection, therefore, an emphasis must be placed on the ability of any solution created using a portal product to adapt and evolve smoothly, with a focus on the architecture of the product with regards to integration, scalability and openness.
The corporate portals market is attracting a variety of vendors and for different reasons. Ovum views the market as segmented into the following groups:
- Vendors with specific ‘portal’ products – for instance, Autonomy, Plumtree and other technology-driven companies that tend to concentrate on support for the construction and management of corporate taxonomies as well as ongoing categorisation of information;
- Groupware vendors – for IBM and Microsoft the corporate portal is simply another element in their fierce battle for dominance at heart of the enterprise. New features include K-Station (from Lotus) and Microsoft Digital Dashboard (which ships with Sharepoint Portal Server), which has portal-like features, but is more of a development environment than a pure portal product;
- Document management and information retrieval vendors – many of these vendors are taking advantage of the hype surrounding portals to reinforce their roles in managing unstructured information in an intranet environment. Such vendors include Meridio, Documentum, OpenText and Verity;
- Business intelligence and data warehousing vendors – typically referred to as enterprise information portals. The promise is of a cheaper, more flexible front-end to OLAP and data warehouse services that are integrated within the corporate portal;
- Application vendors – such as SAP and PeopleSoft. Both are trying to ensure that their products are positioned at the core of the corporate information architecture by providing a portal element to their products. As a result, they can be seen to be driving the delivery of information to users, rather than simply acting as a passive, back-end data source.
In our opinion, there are simply too many vendors playing in this space, many with evolutions of existing products that fail to address important elements of what should be present in an up-to-date portal architecture. However, we also note that there are a number of firms that are starting to make an impression across some of the boundaries above, with the likes of Plumtree and CA both offering similar products around portal components. Plumtree also has an alliance with Interwoven (a content management firm) with the goal of improving access to a wide range of content sources. Tie-ups between vendors are also common; Hummingbird, for example (like most vendors) integrates with a particular vendor’s search engine, in this case Fulcrum. Nevertheless, product selection in this area will be difficult and extreme care should be taken in order to ensure that you are not left with a product that might vanish or be incorporated into the offering of another vendor in the next industry shake-up.
Implementing a portal
Every organisation is different and has diverse motivations for pursuing a portal strategy. The following section aims to highlight several different approaches that may be useful in various circumstances to help ask the right questions around portals, content and the information and knowledge processes within an organisation.
The knowledge cycle and portal design
The knowledge cycle illustrates the importance of portals in supporting the exchange of knowledge from tacit – the know-how people possess in their heads – to explicit – the hard information stored in repositories – form. The cycle looks at how organisations work to:
- Plan and direct the business (supported by various information and collaboration tools);
- Acquire and collect information, again from tacit sources as well as explicit ones;
- Process that knowledge, adding value through categorisation and aggregation within systems;
- Use knowledge for analysis and production;
- Disseminate information (and share personally-held knowledge).
Using this cycle as an analytical tool, a typical approach to a portals project might include:
- A portals study – mapping the organisation’s business and information strategy to the potential of portal technologies and probable user requirements;
- Information audit – of information sources and access needs, talking into account both role-based information and corporate politics (who gets access to what information) as well as an information map and register of sources;
- Infrastructure and technology audit – highlighting technology issues/impacts of portal roll-out, including network constraints, desktop versions, etc;
- Technologies analysis – looking at specific integration and aggregation needs, and making the appropriate product choice;
- Change management plan – how the portal project might best be implemented in terms of people, processes and technology.
Portals – dos and don'ts
Organisations, bewitched by the promises made by technology vendors (software companies can be particularly guilty in this regard, often making dubious assertions on ROI), have in the past made serious miscalculations regarding the sort of business benefits they might expect from the implementation of intranet and other technologies. In terms of building a business case and setting out the appropriate expectations for what sorts of business benefits might be achievable, the following points should be considered.
What portals (with content management systems) do:
- Provide access to multiple sources of information – filtering more appropriate information, thus addressing information overload;
- Improve quality and relevance of information to decision makers, thus maximising efficiency;
- Open up specialist or dedicated repositories (such as legacy systems) for general use;
- Improve information consistency (reducing duplication and document version mix-up);
- Make it easier to share documentary information across the workgroup/business unit/enterprise.
What portals can’t do:
- Deliver knowledge management. Only people ‘know’ things (everything else is just information). Knowledge management requires changes in behaviour, not just introduction of new technologies;
- Automatically lead to changes in working practices (or better return on intellectual capital) despite better information availability;
- Deliver information or data that isn’t there in the first place;
- Bring into being things like communities of practice where true knowledge sharing can take place – this requires management effort and time;
- Change the culture to one of trust and collaboration. A system is an enabler when it comes to knowledge sharing, but real change requires leadership and willingness to do things differently.
The next generation of portals
The evolution of portals is already well advanced, but for portals to properly come of age, integration is key. Users want to be able to find relevant information, access related sources and, most importantly, view that information in a unified context. Sources are likely to be spread across more than one repository, and the portal must be able to draw upon these repositories automatically rather than rely on the user to conduct time-consuming manual searches.
In the meantime, prospective purchasers of these technologies need to watch out for consolidation among vendors. A shake-up in the market is certainly overdue. Gartner’s view is that some of the niche players focusing purely on portals will eventually run out of money and may either fold or be absorbed by the larger players. We concur; some will survive the storm but the market is likely to look rather different 18 months down the line.
Looking further ahead, the corporate portal is already being touted as a future replacement for the desktop, a new workspace in which workers will share explicit information, exploit online collaboration tools with appropriate levels of functionality (through the use of portal components) for the specific role of each member of staff, and this will be achieved through full technology integration within a single environment. Portal components, which now in many cases have to be specially written, will become widely available with hundreds to choose from, enabling organisations to pick and choose functionality without having to spend vast amounts of money on development. Content management will be integral to the whole project.
However, regardless of how smart portal technologies may become, businesses will fail to realise tangible business benefits if they do not pay due attention to the softer issues relating to knowledge sharing and building an appropriate culture (and appropriate management processes) to support knowledge work. Failure to do so is what caused the collapse of many intranet projects in the past. Hopefully, organisations will have learned their lesson when they come to implement the exciting technologies available to them now.
Tom Knight is a principal consultant in ICL’s knowledge management practice and runs ICL’s Mobilising Knowledge community of practice, aimed at KM practitioners across the company.
Arif Azar runs KM Technology Watch, a community of practice that focuses on intelligence regarding KM technology products and vendors, with particular regard to features, integration and implementation. For further information, contact: firstname.lastname@example.org