TMCnet - The World's Largest Communications and Technology Community
ITEXPO begins in:   New Coverage :  Asterisk  |  Fax Software  |  SIP Phones  |  Small Cells
 

E-Sales E-Service Feature Article
August 2001

 

Sailing The Seven "Cs" Of Successful Corporate Portals

BY TIM KOUNADIS, HYPERWAVE


Ever since a 1998 Merrill Lynch report proclaimed that enterprise information portals (EIP) "will eventually reach or exceed the investment opportunities provided by the ERP market," established software vendors have repositioned themselves and new suppliers have staked their claim in the rapidly growing portal market. Many are still viable, while others have fallen victim to shaky business models and a declining venture capital and business market.

Regardless, a high percentage of remaining vendors are focusing on aggregating internal and external content and offering access through a browser interface. However, providing access to corporate information is really just part of the value of a real corporate portal. Why? Because unlike other technologies, people understand and gravitate to portals; they find value in them and are intrigued by their personalization features. Used creatively, this presents a great opportunity for IT, business and executive management. Provided they deliver a portal with compelling content alongside of role-relevant applications and content, the portal can truly become the place for people to work.

What's more, portals have been called one of the first compelling knowledge management applications. They address the issue of broadening the peripheral vision of organizational teams by exposing them to content, applications and experts that they might not be aware of, especially in large organizations. But given the broad acceptance of portals by end users, a portal can also become the focal point for people to share what they know and experience, and collaborate with experts and peers across the extended enterprise.

With that background, here are the seven "Cs" of corporate portals, which describe crucial characteristics that portals should exhibit to add value to knowledge management initiatives. These key words are:

  • Contributive
  • Consistent
  • Comprehensive
  • Contextual
  • Collaborative
  • Customizable
  • Compelling

Contributive
Thinking of the corporate portal as a contributive interface might seem odd at first. Odd, because the concept is a rapid departure from a corporate portal's Internet mega-portal ancestor (my.yahoo.com and other variants) along with most current offerings in the market. But if you agree that the corporate portal is the first "killer application" for knowledge management, it makes absolute sense. Sure, it's important to have a corporate portal to access information -- but better than simple access to information is to see the portal as providing a single point of exchange. Such a personal workspace would not only enable individuals to see information relevant to their job function regardless of where the information originated, but it would include modules where they could go to contribute and share relevant information with others in their functional groups, the organization as a whole or with customers and partners alike. Moreover, the system should automatically manage the dynamic interrelationships between content, security, users and navigational hyperlinks. In this manner, the portal becomes, in effect, the corporate knowledge desktop.

Consistent
Most portal solutions handle access to content and applications quite well. Often times, though, it's not enough to merely access files stored in different repositories. A portal should use the underlying storage capabilities of a database that stores all object representations (e.g., document, collections, folders, hyperlinks, users) and the relationships among them.

To understand this better, consider the following example. An organization can easily spend hundreds of thousands, and possibly millions, of dollars deploying a corporate portal. The portal is used to provide access to information in disparate systems. But what happens when people start using the portal? A basic corporate portal has absolutely no ability to assure the quality of the underlying information. Bad information going in guarantees bad information coming out. This fact has been the downfall of many a corporate portal project.

In addition, consider that a portal is a launching point, whereby users click on links to information on http servers or Web-enabled applications. Oftentimes, clicking on a link produces the famous "Error 404 ' file not found" message. We are all familiar with this from surfing the Web, and typically it is not a problem. However, when it happens in an environment (corporate portal) that is meant to make it easier to discover and leverage information, this result becomes problematic.

Both of these examples make it clear that you cannot consider deploying a corporate portal without considering content and document management, and overall information and navigational integrity.

Comprehensive
For a corporate portal to be an application that provides true business value, it has to take a comprehensive look at information. When people talk about information, they sometimes categorize it into "structured" and "unstructured." Structured information is stored in columns and rows, typically in relational database tables, and unstructured information is everything else -- Microsoft Word documents, Acrobat files, multimedia files, etc. In addition, it is important to consider that information in the portal will be coming from external sources, such as the Web, and free and for-fee content providers (news, stock, etc.). For a portal to be effective, it must tie together these different information types into one neat package. It should access, aggregate and work with various forms of internal and external information. To summarize, this would include:

  • Documents including text, spreadsheet, presentation, scanned, PDF, audio, video, etc.
     
  • Structured data in relational databases, ERP systems and even legacy systems.
     
  • Groupware content from such messaging and groupware systems as Lotus Domino and Microsoft Exchange.
     
  • Web content from any URL that users deem relevant to their job functions.
     
  • Relevant industry news, research and top stories from news providers.
     
  • Extensible markup language (XML) encapsulated information.

Providing access to these different information types and syndicating applications in the portal is vital. There is another component to the corporate portal, however, that makes it a comprehensive interface, especially in a knowledge management framework: e-learning. Although a somewhat nascent application, especially in corporate environments, thinking about providing continuous learning through a portal makes sense. Providing access to e-learning content completes the portal and makes it the place to go to access what is known within the organization, who knows it and what a given person in a given corporate role should be learning. In addition to that, providing continuous learning to end users is vital in making them feel they are a valuable and vital part of an organization, and that the organization is helping them improve their skill sets. In the end, this might result in being even more valuable to the individual than it is to the organization.

Contextual
Accessing and contributing to the knowledge base of the organization is vital. Just as important is providing some context around the information presented in the portal. Context should be provided in a number of ways, including functional and personal relevance. Both should provide the ability to view disparate information in a way that is appropriate for a user, based on personal preference or functional role.

This typically takes the form of a tabbed user interface where different tabs in the browser correspond to projects, departments or the role that a user is associated with, along with personal tabs.

Collaborative
If accessing information is all there is to a portal solution, then it totally misses the mark. The reason is because people work with people. People are innately collaborative, preferring collaboration with peers and experts to wading through volumes of documents. The human mind is the ultimate knowledge base, offering quick recall and an ability to identify patterns and trends that supercomputers are not even close to matching.

Within the portal, users should be able to explore the tacit and explicit knowledge within the organization. There are a number of ways this information can be collected. For starters, individuals can specify their personal skill set and expertise, or have peers and even management add to their personal profile. In addition, an expertise profile can be derived by analyzing the content a user contributes to the corporate knowledge base. For example, if a user has consistently contributed documents pertaining to launching telecommunication services in the Pacific Rim, that information can be captured in an expertise profile. A user's profile can also be tied into a human capital or training system that gets updated when a user successfully completes a given course or achieves some career goal.

All of this rich profile information should be accessed through the portal. A user looking for an expert in a given area should be able to access the expertise system and retrieve a list of individuals who meet the criteria. From that list, a user should be able to specify how he or she would like to engage that individual. Depending on the urgency of the situation, users should be able to choose from chat interaction, inviting a group of experts to a discussion forum, simply sending an e-mail message to experts or -- dare we say it? -- call them on the phone. Again, the portal is the starting point to knowledge exchange within the organization.

Customizable
The fact that Internet portals are in such broad use mandates a certain level of customization for corporate portals. They should therefore offer both user personalization as well as comprehensive flexibility for application developers.

Along with the ability to personalize and customize the look and feel of the portal, it is important to consider that corporate portals must address the needs of globally dispersed organizations. Users should be able to set a language preference and have it impact not just the menus and user interface, but also which version of a multilingual document should be served to a given user. In our predominately English-biased business world, this is a facet of customization that is often overlooked.

Compelling
Now, given the length of time that corporate portals have been in the spotlight, we are starting to see some patterns of success and failure. One of the causal factors in a portal implementation's demise is the lack of compelling content and applications. What exactly does that mean? Although vendors will not often tell you so, corporate end users are reluctant to change. There is inertia that keeps them comfortable with the status quo, especially when it comes to IT. As a result, for a portal to be accepted by end users and provide value to the corporation, it is vital that it be compelling. It should give end users an experience that they cannot find anywhere else, and one that will keep them coming back for more. It needs to help them do their job faster and easier, but it has to recognize that people want to have fun. Organizations should not hesitate to incorporate features such as weather, sports, top general news, stock information and other fun public content alongside an applet to ERP systems.

Is There Another "C"?
Although it might not be a critical factor in determining the success of a corporate portal within an organization, be aware of telecommunication, specifically mobile support. As we move into the brave new world of always-on mobile devices, it will become increasingly important for people to be able to access information within the corporate portal from devices such as PDAs and mobile phones. In fact, soon we will view our PDAs as providing real and proactive assistance. "Assistance" does not merely refer to delivering stock reports and sports scores to a mobile device. It means having these devices be an individual's sentry to events happening in the office and allowing the individual to take some action based on occurrences.

Approaching a corporate portal initiative is no trivial task. The first place to start is with the strategic objectives of the organization. Technology projects within organizations should always be aligned with strategic objectives; otherwise, they run the risk of turning into solutions looking for challenges. Starting with the objects assures that will not happen. As it pertains to portals, many organizations today have strategic objectives to leverage their existing knowledge assets and use these to address the needs of a rapidly changing market. The portal can play a vital role in achieving such an objective, but only if you view it as more than merely access to information. That is where the seven Cs can help.

Combined, the seven Cs describe a comprehensive corporate portal solution that offers a single point of exchange, providing access to relevant information sources, including both structured and unstructured content as well as an organization's topical experts, while simultaneously assuring that users can easily and securely contribute to the corporate knowledge base.

With literally dozens of corporate portal solutions available on the market, the seven Cs describes one manner to distinguish truly useful ones from the rest.

Tim Kounadis is vice president of North America Marketing at Hyperwave, a company that provides enterprise-class knowledge management, corporate portal and e-learning software to enable customers to better collect, manage, organize, store and deliver electronic information both within the enterprise and to suppliers, distributors and customers.

[ Return To The August 2001 Table Of Contents ]


Upcoming Events
ITEXPO West 2012
October 2- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
MSPWorld
The World's Premier Managed Services and Cloud Computing Event
Click for Dates and Locations
Mobility Tech Conference & Expo
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas
Cloud Communications Summit
October 3- 5, 2012
The Austin Convention Center
Austin, Texas

Subscribe FREE to all of TMC's monthly magazines. Click here now.