Any Portal in a Storm

If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, large sections of the business world can be assumed to be profoundly sincere in their admiration of Internet "portal" companies Lycos, Infoseek, Excite and Yahoo! Considering, it's the portal companies' example that's inspired vendors, analysts and enterprises alike to embrace the concept of the corporate or enterprise information portal as the means of turning the corporate intranet into a centralised information resource capable of leveraging corporate knowledge.

Still, amidst the hype some analysts are warning of steep implementation costs and employee resistance, while others assert that the notion of the hub is already overtaking the portal concept. (Where portals are general interest, a hub is a central position from which everything radiates. Hubs are more narrowly organised than portals and provide a specific audience with appropriate content, commerce and community.)All this while the market is still struggling to achieve a consensus on definitions and well before most companies in Australia have even begun piloting the portal's potential value to their organisations.

Delphi Consulting Australasia is surveying the Australian marketplace to test interest in portals. While it is early days yet, managing director Jeff Sussman says his "gut feel" is that the portal concept is very much in the early investigation stages here. "Even in the States as at January 1999, 42 per cent of the people using portals said they were still in the pilot stage, and 18 per cent said they were at production stage. And we would struggle here to find anyone who would honestly tell us they have a production portal available," he says.

Ernst & Young e-commerce head Mark Reynolds agrees, adding that for most Australian companies increased employee productivity remains a "softer focus" than cutting costs or increasing revenue. Reynolds says he doubts portals are getting a lot of attention just yet in Australia, because their focus is on employee productivity, and companies have more pressing priorities for investment capital.

Yet many analysts remain convinced the corporate portal, with its ability to ensure continuity within an organisation even amidst staff departures and business changes, will be here for the long term and will eventually be adopted by most larger organisations. "Four of the founding principles of knowledge management [require] that knowledge must be captured, shared, leveraged and fed, and the process by default needs to start with the capturing activity," Sussman says. "Looking to the future successful organisations will be those that capture knowledge about their people, processes, products and customers, and from this knowledge will be able to manage connections.

"These organisations will allocate substantial resources to creating corporate portals to capture as much of the P2P [people-to-people]connections as possible, and then providing sophisticated search engines to allow the contents to be shared across all levels of the organisation."Confusing TimesAlthough both the hype and confusion over portals have soared over the last few months, both tend to obscure the fact that the portal concept advances some useful notions about ways to improve employee productivity and affordably capture and share corporate knowledge. Hadley Reynolds, director of research at The Delphi Group, says: "The genesis of the corporate portal movement is the runaway intranet, and the fact that most companies are looking for help in restoring some semblance of order to the unwieldy number of Web sites popping up across the organisation."Corporate portals can increase the effectiveness of a target audience by integrating and personalising their access to content, ensuring its relevance.

They keep information delivery costs down by allowing business users to contribute content without deferring to Web administrators, by saving money on paper-based delivery of content and by reducing support calls. They can increase employee productivity by decreasing the time spent chasing down information. And as an added bonus, they can potentially extend the life of legacy systems.

But all those rewards come at a relatively high cost. Andy Snider, managing director of US-based corporate portal developer VIS, recently told Computerworld that corporate portal start-up costs, including the software to build customised interfaces and aggregate enough data to make projects worthwhile, range from $US150,000 to $US300,000. Forrester Research advises companies to be prepared to spend $US1.5 million, most of it on aggregating data from multiple sources, in building a portal project to full scope over two years.

Nonetheless, the potential rewards remain particularly high. According to Dialog CEO Mark Ostryn, many Australian companies are looking at ways to combine various feeds for information, both internal and external. "I think Australian companies are very aware of the need to keep up with what's going on in the environment. The US tends to be very US-centric. Most of the trade US companies do is internal to the US. In Australia we have to cope much more with the global community," he says.

Ostryn says this has pushed significant numbers of Australian SMEs along the portal track. He says some multinationals are being pushed in that direction by their US or UK parents, and numbers of Australian companies have actually up taken the initiative ahead of their parent companies.

Super Heated

Overseas, portals are hot property and getting hotter. Merrill Lynch says the enterprise information portal market hit $4.4 billion last year and will reach $14.8 billion by 2002, exceeding the investment opportunities of the massive enterprise resource planning (ERP) market. GartnerGroup believes 60 per cent of Fortune 500 enterprises will manage their own enterprise portals by 2003 to enable effective use of personalised decision content, provide role-based access to internal business applications and workflow, and facilitate business-to-business e-commerce integration. The Delphi Group found 55 per cent of the 300 US organisations it interviewed had "portal projects" under way, with about a quarter calling the portal the computing platform of the future, set to replace Windows-based PCs.

Even the ERP vendors, acutely aware their core business is in decline, are trying to reinvent themselves as electronic business vendors using portals as their vehicle. They are planning to use a portal interface to deliver role-based Internet communities and an enterprise resource planning (ERP) backbone.

But IDC has warned that many of the portals flooding the market today are mere "fragments of a solution" that could ultimately prove counterproductive. "The intranet portal must provide or lead to a state of aggregation across the corporate intranet," an IDC report states. "This means that the departmental or application-specific 'portals' that are flooding the market today are nothing more than fragments of the solution. They can, in fact, be counterproductive if they simply re-create existing silos of information and expertise onto the Web," it concludes.

Current confusion about portals is compounded by the failure of the vendors and analysts to even agree on their terminology. Portal means entrance. The Internet portal companies began as search engines to help users navigate the ever-expanding content of the Web, then evolved to become "navigation sites" which filtered popular sites and documents into preconfigured subject categories. Their success inspired the notion of the corporate portal as a behind-the-firewall page presented to users via their browser when they log on to the intranet, combining internal and external information sources and containing a taxonomy of categories for access to corporate content.

GartnerGroup says an enterprise portal is a worker's interface to intranet resources and should be implemented in conjunction with, and at the pace of, the growing portfolio of business applications accessible through the intranet.

Gartner says from there the corporate portal will be extended to the extranet to provide better access to partners, suppliers, customers and distributors, and hence substantially extend the potential applications and benefits.

So far so good. But now every vendor and his son have jumped on the bandwagon, and chief knowledge officers have been left to puzzle out the differences between corporate portals, enterprise portals, knowledge portals and business intelligence portals. And in some instances the differences are very real, with the definitions of portals "all over the map", says Ernst & Young chief knowledge officer Greg Reid.

Sceptical Response

Reid is one critic who believes that an over-concentration on the concept of portals has led many to miss the point. Portals can be thought of as simply a single access point for multiple content. That is something we have had for years, Reid says. Once we used to call them libraries. But out in the real world, it is value-added content that is king, and Reid says it is valuable content and best practices that should be the real focus for knowledge management activity.

"Businesses today are enamoured with portals. They serve a purpose of easy access into the content base, but the primary importance is deep, filtered and process-driven content. If you have good content and you want to use a portal, get it. If you have bad [meaningless] content, portals are absolutely irrelevant to the equation," he says.

According to Reid, the portal is just the tip of the iceberg. The real focus should be on the work required beneath the portal to deliver the right content and knowledge at the right time to the right person or team.

When it comes to providing the systems employees need to carry out their daily duties, many IT departments find themselves having to "band-aid" together a number of applications, data repositories and external services, Reid says.

That is a far from simple task, and one complicated by conflicting user needs, conflicting IT priorities, and the need for employees to chop and change between systems.

In such circumstances a portal can be a holistic and clarifying solution to assist end users in accessing very valuable information easily. Unfortunately, it can also be a difficult one to implement and may take emphasis off more important areas, he says.

Power Politics

Some companies are finding surprising ways to deal with those difficulties.

Take Fuji Xerox.

Fuji Xerox transition manager Neil Burn says that in common with other knowledge management strategies, one difficulty with the portal concept remains the problem of getting employees to share knowledge. Burn, who claims Fuji Xerox is saving around $100,000 by rejecting external portal solutions in favour of its own DocuShare package, says persuading people to share knowledge remains a key issue for IT professionals.

The Fuji Xerox strategy included a deliberate decision against necessitating use of its portal in the belief forced adoption could be counterproductive.

Burn says the strategy has been incredibly successful. "It's quite extraordinary how without any overt 'thou shalt do this', it just happened.

Every person in the company has access to the intranet, so they can just pull up stuff if they want. That was purely voluntary. That was probably the biggest success we've had," he says.

Now the challenge is to market the portal and continue finding ways to encourage people to contribute. A project in France aimed at capturing the sharing of maintenance tips by service engineers has found that putting the names of contributors "up in lights" is enough to encourage contributions, Burn says.

Secrets and Lies

Beyond any implementation difficulties lie other problems with portals. The Delphi Group has identified what it claims is a "nasty little secret" behind both corporate portal and Internet portal sites -- the fact that their ability to organise information rests primarily on the skilled labour of scores of human librarians. "As the number of potentially relevant electronic documents and Web sites explodes in cyberspace, the human library function simply can't scale," a recent Delphi report says.

Delphi says Semio Taxonomy is one of the first portal tools to create and maintain taxonomies automatically, while giving human librarians a strong set of controls to guide the process. Taxonomy generates directories to integrate content from the Web, e-mail, corporate databases, Microsoft applications, Lotus Notes, PDF, HTML, and a wide range of popular file formats. It recognises related concepts and automatically incorporates Thesaurus-like links into its content directories to ensure Taxonomy's directories are complete and reflect the hierarchical relationship between different pieces of information. It can also update content directories in increments, providing users with real-time information while reducing the amount of time required of intranet developers to maintain incremental updates.

"While today's corporate portals represent the triumph of human library science over the encroaching chaos of electronic documents run amok, tools like intelligent taxonomy generators will become a mainstream component of tomorrow's content management arsenal," the Delphi report opined.

The comments highlight the main problem with portals -- the need to keep information current with minimal IT resources. It typically takes large staffs of technicians and content managers to maintain Internet portal services.

Lacking these resources, experts advise enterprises to invest in a corporate portal with extensive automation functionality so it can automatically incorporate new information as it is put up. Otherwise the portal will be brilliant until the first time the enterprise updates its content, then will rapidly decline in usefulness as each new addition is made to the site.

No Magic Solution

Above all, an effective portal relies on a strong infrastructure, Sussman says.

"If you think you can go out and buy a portal and put it into your organisation and it magically starts making all the connections, you're wasting your time.

You have to have the infrastructure, you already have to have electronic documents. You already have to have Yellow Pages, you already have to have the infrastructure in place, and the portal is there to intuitively make the connections between the two objects.

"It is not a first-stage activity, it is definitely a second-stage activity," Sussman says. Get the infrastructure right and the portal can serve as the vehicle for making connections intuitively. Get it wrong and you might as well forget the whole deal.

Portals on Trial

Before their merger both Price Waterhouse and Coopers & Lybrand were strong Lotus Notes sites. But as new merged entity PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC) moves to an infrastructure that includes the Web, it is increasingly looking to an intranet portal called KnowledgeCurve for information delivery.

KnowledgeCurve is designed to connect staff to people, data, and ideas, providing a powerful global platform for sharing knowledge. It will keep PwC professionals current on client events, industry trends, and competitive issues; let them stay on top of breaking business news; and allow them to locate and quickly tap PwC's worldwide expertise.

"It's like giving a brand name to the concept that [by] using the intranet portal within the organisation, you'll be able to -- from this internal site -- look for information globally and locally by geography, by market segment or by internal line of service," says Tax and Legal Services knowledge manager Helen Routh. "Whatever we're looking at in terms of what's important to our clients .

. . this will become the prime way of making sure that you can find all the information."As well as leveraging internal information such as phone directories or human resource materials, the intranet gives staff access to a wide range of external information sources such as Dow Jones News Retrieval and Wall Street investment houses. Consultants can personalise their pages, and research staff constantly vet public Web sites to decide which ones are worth linking to.

Content development is to be essentially continuous. PwC plans to deploy KnowledgeCurve globally during the course of this year on a country-by-country basis. Ultimately the entire worldwide organisation will be able to access the intranet. But that is only one part of PwC's two-pronged strategy for knowledge delivery. KnowledgeDirect, PwC's extranet strategy, will apply the concept to an extranet designed for clients to access.

Routh says sections of the global organisation in different regions have been delivering services to clients on a one-on-one basis for more than a year. "Now to support this brand concept and enterprise approach to things, we're pulling all of that together as a single extranet strategy called KnowledgeDirect. The various sorts of components underneath it can then be accessed by, certainly their individual microsite addresses, but also can be accessed in different ways through a whole KnowledgeDirect framework," she says.

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