I3 UPDATE / Entovation International News

a free monthly briefing on the knowledge agenda

No. 44 October 2000





David J. Skyrme


David Skyrme Associates


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Panacea or Pig?

David J. Skyrme

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:

  • Single log-in: this overcomes the common problem in many organization that each system has a separate log-in with yet more passwords that the user has to remember

  • Unified search - across all databases and applications

  • Personalization - customization of the userís desktop

  • Application integration - if your work demands some market analysis, then the program operates within a window on desktop and lets you move data to another document or application

  • Collaboration - online forums, chat, discussion groups

  • Security - sorting out which users can access what information or facilities

  • Scalability - can easily evolve from the pilot project with tens of users to the corporate portal with thousands.

  • Openness - device independence, use of open standards such as XML.

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:

  • Content management - organizational knowledge must be properly 'mapped' and managed. Several speakers referred to the need for knowledge taxonomies, something that we have advocated in the past, but which seems to have risen up the corporate consciousness during the last six months or so. Search engines, even with todayís sophistication, are not as useful as having a well-developed knowledge schema around which it is easy to navigate.

  • Defined knowledge roles - in order to manage content, there is a mix of full-time and part time knowledge roles. These are typically roles that will be found in an extended KM team. One such role is that of a knowledge editor who selects content, and may add links to related documentation. Another might be a knowledge broker, someone who works with a user connecting them to the best sources of knowledge - after all, even with the best organized information sources, a professional librarian familiar with sources may find the best knowledge for a userís task more quickly.

  • Communities - there is a danger of the portal suppliers putting too much emphasis on information, rather than the knowledge held by people. Therefore the nurturing of communities of interest that cut across organizational boundaries is important. Organizations must ensure that some people, such as subject experts are allowed time to participate and support such communities.

  • The "what's in it for me?" question. Unless the issues of organizational culture and personal motivations are addressed, many portals will remain under-populated with information and under utilized.

In addition, lessons from individual projects included:

  • understanding your knowledge assets - the kind of understanding that comes from an information audit or knowledge inventory project.

  • start quickly and evolve - a portal project is not a major IT project needing fully developed specifications and sign-off before putting anything up. Rapid prototyping and user feedback is the name of the game.

  • knowledge risk assessment - what knowledge might you not want to have available at everybody's desktop? Balance the risk of hoarding with the benefits of sharing.

  • is there a killer application? - in one organization the expertise directory was the biggest benefit; in another the ability to send short text messages to mobile phones was what attracted users to the portal.

The Challenges

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:

  • the degree of customization allowed - if users can make their interface too personal, they may lose the corporate identity. They may filter out important corporate messages that people at corporate HQ feel should be 'pushed' at them - in one case interrupting what the user was doing at the screen with an 'important alert'.

  • integration - not just of information from disparate sources, but of KM and ebusiness, of the technical perspectives and business ones. How do you get the right balance?

  • effective use - how can you offer training or support to make users more effective. Like many IT tools, most users will probably use only a fraction of the functionality and then just well enough to get by.

  • maintaining multiple channels - how can you enhance the desktop offering with the personal touch (Have a look at Lands' End Live (TM) at http://www.landsend.com for an Internet example). Will experts in a subject operate a round-the-clock rota system where they are available to answer questions in person?

  • measurement - what is the business case for portals - the costs are usually visible but the benefits are dispersed amongst many users and difficult to assess.

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.

Email: david@skyrme.com

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