Still the Panacea?
This is the second in our follow up articles promised in our review of 'hot topics' in I3 UPDATE No. 57. We last looked at portals on these pages in October 2000 (Portals: Panacea or Pig?). We traced the evolution of portal from a gateway to Internet resources (e.g. Yahoo) to an intranet gateway. At the time, the term EIP (Enterprise Information Portal) was in vogue. Now, the world wants to make them 'personal'. In other words, to fit the information that is displayed around YOUR work needs, not what managers and others think you ought to see! This is a significant step forward in that the providers of solutions (technology and content) are at least professing to be customer-centric. What we explore in this article is just how far customer needs are being met and the challenges that this involves.
The essentials of a portal have not changed over the last 18 months. The list (from the earlier article) is:
- Single log-in to multiple databases and services
- Unified search - across all databases and applications
- Personalization - customization of the userís desktop
- Application integration - access to your applications from within the
- Collaboration - online forums, chat, discussion groups
- Security - different levels of access privilege and security for different
users / content
- 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
Today, the emphasis has changed somewhat. For example, more organizations are looking at standards like LDAP (Light Directory Access Protocol) as the preferred method of recording users details and profiles than can used to log into various services (and to note their preferences and connect them to relevant communities). The main difference is that personalization has come to the fore and is actually interpreted in several ways. As indicated above, the first is the ability to customize the desktop. The user can control features such as:
- which items (content blocks) go into which 'placeholders' (the different sections of the screen layout); sometimes users can resize placeholders, making some bigger and some smaller than their default values
- colour preference (if you don't like the murky yellow background chosen by the web designer, you don;t have to put up with it!)
- font size and typeface preferences (within reason)
- what filtering to apply e.g. to news stories
- the order of display (on some systems, a user simply clicks up and down arrows to change the order of items)
Often they have even more flexibility in having the ability to create several different portal pages, perhaps one for each role they perform. Thus, an organization might have several defaults available to users such as the marketer's portal, the finance portal, the researcher's portal etc. However, all this choice is given within a certain framework. For example, the basic layout structure is fixed, and the providers can fix certain areas, for example by ensuring that corporate news and key messages of the day are in prominent unalterable positions.
But personalization can also be interpreted differently as we discuss in Customization below.
Since the earlier article was written, there have also been several significant developments in other areas.
- Market Consolidation - Even though the portal market is estimated at over $800 million annually and growing at over 50 per cent a year, this is insufficient to support the 100 or so hopefuls who were in the market a couple of years ago. Also, heavyweight enterprise integration companies are after some of the action. Hence SAP acquired TopTier to create SAP Portal. The result for users is that competition has led to price reductions, but it does raise issue of longer term strategy of product development / support and vendor viability (those with good functionality are likely to succeed to be bought out by one of the larger enterprise solution)
- Content Management Systems - View these as the production side of portal content. They make it easier for knowledge workers to publish content without knowing the intricacies of HTML (just as the portal user customizes their screens without having to programme). These systems also make it easier to create information once, but to use it in many places. Thus an announcement of a new product discussion forum could automatically be placed in the relevant other forums, news and other pages, simply by giving it the appropriate 'tags'. There is growing interest in publishing the same information (or a variant of it) to multiple channels e.g. PDA, digital TV and mobile phone (though try getting a desktop portal page onto a phone display!).
- Content Customization - This is sometimes referred to as personalization (which means that if you use the term 'personalization' you need to define your use of the term, or simply omit it and refer to the type mentioned earlier as 'personalized pages'). Customization is one of the features offered by content management systems. It means that the content displayed to the portal user can be customized according to the user's personal profiles and/or actual interactions with the system. For example, the results of searches may be filtered and ordered according to a user's personal interests. Or it may be ordered according to which topic the user was most recently browsing.
- Collaboration - Although many portal offerings have collaboration features, in the early systems, these were little more than shared spaces or folders. With the growing adoption of communities of practice, many portal systems offer different ways of connecting people to people, such as threaded discussions or chat windows. However, there is a growing use of specialized project collaboration software like eRooms. The interesting question is how much such functions will integrate with main portal functionality, or remain a distinctive solutions (although accessed from the portal as an application).
- Wider collaboration - What most organizations are realizing is that if they are to present a useful and unified information source to users, then they will need to source content externally that fulfills internal needs in the places where it belongs. In other words, rather than having links to the home pages of ten different knowledge management sources, wouldn't it be nice to have deep links to the relevant articles in the relevant sections of the portal, and have them indexed using common keywords? This calls for closer collaboration and perhaps even formal agreements with major content providers. But many organizations are thinking beyond information to transactions. If a given transactions cuts across organizations, then the need for common standards and schemas for content interchange become even more important.
All these developments, plus other coalescing and segmentation in the KM technology space, creates interesting challenges for users and implementers. Gartner Group has positioned portals as a technology that has reached the phase in its life cycle of the 'trough of disillusionment' (Gartner's technology adoption curve evolves from early adopters, through a peak of euphoria, then a trough of disillusionment through to wider acceptance and consolidation). It suggests that portals as having peaked on the hype curve and are going down the slope of disillusionment.
Just think for a moment what some of the reasons might be:
- vendor hype - despite what they say, not every organization has a portal, not every knowledge worker uses one as their primary PC interface; also do you know of any "out of the box" solution that is truly ready to run "out of the box"?
- existing content cannot just be thrown at a content management system or portal - it needs to be classified, and perhaps rewritten for the medium (e.g. if a portal shows you only a title and first line, does your existing content convey its essence thus?); editing and migration is a non-trivial task.
- cross-functional and inter-organization integration - once you take a customer-centric view, then it is only a small step to realize that the customer could not care less who provides the information or application as long as it all works seamlessly together. Lack of common standards in defining content has held this back, although developments in XML schemas and RDF
(Resource Definition framework) should help in the medium term.
- need to change business processes - a corollary of a unified view and integration is that it is possible, even desirable, to restructure business processes and workflow to take advantage of portal technology. If a user can access a form on the screen, why not let them complete it there and then and forward it to the next stage of the process. Could the processes be improved to take advantage of parallelism, e.g. forwarding it for approval to multiple people at the same time vs. a traditional sequential (hierarchical) process?
- need to change culture - in a portal environment, many more people are responsible for content. Do they understand, and are they committed to maintain and enhance their content and expertise details (at least the content management system will notify them when their content reaches its "sell by" date and need review and renewal)?
Lessons from The Leaders
Thus, implementing a personal portal is a major infrastructure project, in that to fulfill its potential it isn't just a personal tool, but it really is an enterprise, even inter-enterprise system. By focusing on the individual, as opposed to the enterprise, the needs of the different customers really come to the fore. Here are some recurring lessons distilled from case studies of organizations that have responded to these challenges:
- be ruthlessly customer centric - understand their roles, tasks, motivations and observe how they use systems to do their daily work
- start small with a community focus - each group of users will need training and help with customized pages, content and applications. By selecting a community you narrow the topic focus, but also start to get the benefits of inter-departmental knowledge sharing
- customize a standard product than developing a bespoke solution - most major portals (e.g. Plumtree, Hummingbird) offers many tailoring options and a high degree of flexibility
- underpin content with a well defined relational database - these are behind most content management systems anyway, but using a standard database will allow you to adapt new downstream technologies as they become available
- develop an information architecture - a portal throws up many inconsistencies in the use of language and content / editorial standards; use communities as sources of inputs to agree some high level information structures as well as taking ownership for lower level branches of the information tree that are subject specific
- don't just aggregate content, integrate applications and workflow - only if it helps real people carry out real tasks on a routine basis will a portal become indispensable tool for its users.
- communicate, demonstrate, deploy - portals are the ideal candidate for "show 'n tell"; you will have to do some early communication to create awareness and gain buy-in (or even funding); later keep up the communications to share experiences and knowledge of portal features and to develop individual and community proficiency.
A common finding amongst all - portals take much longer and cost much more to implement widely and to embed into the organization than you originally estimate. There's nothing new in that - just a bit of knowledge we often tend to overlook!
Some Portal Links
List of Corporate Products http://www.dwinfocenter.org/infofilt.html - all the usual suspects and many more...
Suppliers and Resources (Open Directory) http://dmoz.org/Computers/Intranet/Corporate_Portals/ - not as complete but different
Portals Community http://www.portalscommunity.com/ - white papers, links, news, independent
Enfish Personal http://www.enfish.com - a $99 product for those who want portal-like features on their PC, but aren't part of an enterprise
Optimal Desktop http://www.optimalaccess.com
- personalized desktop software using 'tabs'
If you have practical experience of implementing a portal, why not share your lessons with our readers?
Email: David J. Skyrme
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