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Panacea or Pig?
It was over a year ago that we last did a feature article on portals - see Portal Power: Gateways or Trapdoors, I3 UPDATE No. 31 - and they are an even hotter topic today, at least as far as EIPs (Enterprise Information Portals) are concerned. According to surveys the majority of large corporations currently have a major portal project in place. The idea is to provide at every professional's desktop access to the all information and tools they need to do their job. Portals promise to be personalized gateways - a 1-stop-shop for knowledge - what they need (no more no less), when they need it how they need it. In short, a panacea for the problem of information overload and the knowledge tool for everyone. But how does this promise stack up?
What's in a Portal?
Everyone has their own favourite list of "essential features", and several IT research companies (e.g. Delphi) have set out theirs. Letís take an example from a supplier. The list below is from Hummingbird - not that I am biased - but it does indicate the features that vendors are promoting:
There are now scores, if not hundreds of portal products on the market. Companies like Hummingbird, Information Advantage (MyEureka), Intraspect and Plumtree have addressed many of the technical problems of integrating information from multiple sources. There are, in addition, other considerations. From the customer's perspective, there are a few other 'givens' not on the list. For the user these include an easy-to-use and dynamic interface that adapts to changing tasks; also let's not forget that most people use a mix of internal and external knowledge where the quality and formatting standards may be different. For the IT, KM and other support departments, there are features like ease-of-publishing, cost to deploy and maintain, and level of training and support needed. Bring this all together and the portal sounds like a panacea. But what is the reality?
Behind the Portal
Last week in London I attended 'Corporate Portals', one a series of knowledge management and ecommerce conferences, organized by Unicom. While not that well attended, the conference was nevertheless notable for the quality and knowledge of its speakers and for the common consensus that emerged around the practical aspects of building a portal. As with other KM solutions, technology is reckoned to be only 10-20 per cent of the solution. More important factors that were mentioned several times during the day included:
In addition, lessons from individual projects included:
As with the introduction of any KM solution, implementers and managers face several difficult judgments. Some of those that surfaced, with different stances being taken by different organizations included:
Panacea or Pig?
We return to the title line. There is no doubt, that if everything worked well and all the knowledge we needed to do our job was literally a fingertip away, that portals would be close to a panacea. The reality, with so much knowledge that we need being in people's heads, is that they can only fulfil some of our needs. And how well they do that depends critically on managing the knowledge behind them - content management, assigning knowledge roles etc. Portals are yet another one of the many tools that can make individuals and organizations more effective at accessing and sharing their knowledge. Just how well they exploit these opportunities depends more on good knowledge management than fretting about which is the best piece of portal technology.
Conference attendees took away one memorable knowledge nugget offered by Chris Gahan, involved with a portal project within British Telecom. He said many portals were like "lipstick on a pig". However well you prettify the front-end (the user interface) it's what behind that makes all the difference.
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