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The joys of enterprise portals: establishing a successful enterprise portal can help businesses manage company information, databases, and records more easily and efficiently.

At the Core

This article

* describes portal uses and capabilities

* examines how to successfully determine which functions to target for portal technology

* reviews crucial elements of portal implementation

Even though the term "portal" continues to be an industry buzzword, it is a technology that is widely misunderstood and misused. Delphi Group, a Boston-based business and technology advisory group, defines the enterprise portal as a single point of integrated, personalized, online access and further states that "it is important to establish that the business portal is not a thing, but an application deploying a broad set of technologies following a highly customized information design." Another, simpler description of a portal is: a Web site offering a broad array of resources and services for members, such as e-mail, forums, search engines, chat groups, and online shopping malls.

Lured by strong sales pitches and the desire for immediate results, many companies bought into the financial promise of portals without fully comprehending the necessity of identifying applicable functions within their businesses or the role of a solid, executable strategy for portal implementation. As a result, companies abandoned the process and are left with disorganized, unmaintained, and unused Web pages that provide less-than-adequate or less-than-desirable information.

To say that enterprise portals have made their way into the corporate mainstream during the past few years would be an understatement. In fact, portals have become big business. It would be hard to find a major company or organization that has yet to incorporate a portal structure for its business practices or, at the very least, begun to explore the realm of possibilities with portal technology.

According to recent research by Delphi Group, the combined enterprise portal software market is expected to reach $957 million worldwide by the end of 2003, an anticipated growth rate of more than 20 percent over 2002. In fact, growth has been in double and triple digits since 1999, when Delphi first started monitoring the enterprise portal software market. So the relevance of enterprise portals in today's marketplace cannot be understated.

If portal technology has become so commonplace and leading companies have stretched their budgets to accommodate portal implementation within their corporate structure, why are some portals drawing more criticism than praise from records and information managers who evaluate and manage portal performance? When enterprise portals fail to deliver the benefits they were intended to deliver--increased work productivity, expanded bottom line, and improved management, employee, and customer satisfaction--the reasons typically include a lack of strategic planning and difficulty in implementation.

How, then, can information managers ensure that their employers' portals deliver maximum results for business? To understand what makes portal implementation successful, it is important to understand what an enterprise portal's capabilities and uses are.

The "Gateway-to-the-World" Model

There are many ways to describe a portal and its functions, and the definition of a portal is a moving target, which helps explain why many intranets, extranets, and basic Web sites are currently mislabeled as "portals" What truly differentiates portals from those is a portal's ability to organize both data and functions from multiple sources into a single, easy-to-use interface.

Yahoo, eBay, and Amazon.com were among the first to offer consumers the convenience of purchasing products and services online and so are common examples of successful portal technology. In a sense, such portals revolutionized the way businesses market themselves to consumers. Expanding on that trend, a growing number of companies are adapting the enterprise portal's "gateway-to-the-world" model as an efficient way to support their business efforts. Many companies' futuristic goal is to enable all employees, customers, and vendors to access the information and functions they need anywhere and at anytime via the enterprise portal.

Enterprise portals allow a central user interface to "push" and "pull" information from internal and external sources. Portals also integrate disparate internal and external business applications and provide transaction-processing support to all involved parties. These generic functions support any corporate function, from marketing to manufacturing.

In many ways, managing company information, databases, and records is simpler and more manageable via an enterprise portal, as opposed to the company's Web site serving as the recipient of all office "post-it" notices. For example, imagine that a lawsuit against a large international corporation stipulates that all information on a particular issue from four different divisions must be retrieved and handed over to the court. The reality of such a situation is that the information may be stored in countless paper files or in image and database formats located in multiple data stores all over the world. Retrieval and collection could potentially take weeks. A well-organized enterprise portal, on the other band, would ensure that all records will be accessible from one central place and potentially can be recovered within minutes. In addition to retrieval efficiencies, an enterprise portal forces the information manager to know where everything is and how it is tied together so that retrieval can be done in a timely and efficient manner.

Properly created enterprise portals also reduce the time and effort that employees, customers, and vendors need to complete particular functions, therefore increasing efficiency and productivity. A customer service representative who must access six different company directories, files, or Web sites to accomplish a particular task is able to do so all in one place, provided the portal is well organized.

In general, enterprise portals are used to reduce inefficiencies resulting from a company's use of disparate computer systems and technologies, paper-intensive processes, and outdated manual procedures. From a consumer perspective, portals offer convenience similar to drive-up ATM machines. Bank customers appreciate the convenience of quick account access and withdrawals without having to enter the bank. From the bank's perspective, employees can perform functions other than serving the customer's basic needs, saving both time and money. The following are recent examples of how successful portal technology implementation has increased efficiency and productivity.

* Halliburton created a portal to manage data from its application portfolio and helped improve customer service while reducing personnel costs. The company said it has increased sales by $10 million and reduced support and selling costs by $280,000.

* Hewlett-Packard implemented a human resources portal, resulting in first-year savings of $50 million.

* Whirlpool said its business-to-business portal has helped it handle sales growth from $7 billion to $10 billion without having to add stall to process orders.

The Role of Strategy in Implementation

Portals are like any other computer application and should be created using methods similar to those information technology (IT) professionals have used successfully for application development over the past 40 years. Having a strategy in place and executing it methodically is paramount to portal technology's successful implementation. Portal development must be broken into manageable chunks that allow the entire process--from selecting the business function to receive portal support through implementation--to be achieved in six months or less.

John Bartz, an independent IT consultant and former chief information officer of several Fortune 500 companies, contends, "Strategy is very important, and increasingly so as the complexity of companies' organizational structures and dynamics increase. The use of portals should be defined in a strategic plan with a minimum set of standards addressing the system platform and architecture, navigation, appearance, content management, and overall support. Neglecting to adhere to a strategy greatly increases the risk of failing to meet the desired value-add."

There are six integral steps to establishing a successful portal strategy. Without careful consideration of each step, companies may be doomed to the "library-hit-by-a-tornado" effect, where corporate portals are essentially unstructured corporate newspapers produced by every department within the company.

Step 1: Select a business function that provides real benefits and one that is not mission-critical. Mission-critical business functions that are vital to the company's day-to-day operation should be avoided. Many companies start with portal support for an internal, administrative function such as self-service benefits in human resources administration.

Financial considerations are critical when determining the initial requirements for portal technology. Because portal implementation requires heavy investment upfront, companies ultimately must choose functions that have a big bang for the buck. Hence, the benefit derived from the portal must be great enough to support development of the portal architecture. Technology can create significant business benefits in areas where there are inefficiencies around accessing company information or functions; for example, where steps can be eliminated and where processes can be streamlined or re-engineered. If a business process takes four steps and portal technology reduces them to one step, the return may be well worth the investment of company resources.

Step 2: Evaluate the company's requirements and plan the implementation. Based on the portal project's business case, it is important to fully define the scope of initial portal functionality by designing the business processes and identifying supporting information around them. Choosing the technology that will be used to construct and operate the portal should occur at this time. Ensuring that the project is still within the cost and time parameters set earlier is crucial before creating a prototype.

Step 3: Create a proof-of-concept prototype. In this stage, users work with IT to visualize the portal and its underlying information architecture--the types, structure, and sources of information to he portrayed. It is extremely important that initial portal users take ownership of the portal during this step. Concurrently, IT must get the technical architecture and development environment, including the portal software, up and working.

Step 4: Ensure evaluation, planning, and concept creation meet reality. This step is typically the longest phase of the project. It is sometimes hard to keep business users interested in the project during this phase of development, but it is extremely important to do so. Project managers may wish to assign users responsibility for developing training and involve them in the trials and tribulations of coding efforts.

Step 5: Test the system. During testing, the users, with support from IT project personnel, prove to themselves that the system works as desired.

Step 6: Implement the system by ensuring that the portal is available for use without shutting off current systems or business functions. It is up to the portal project's participants and business sponsors to sell it to the organization. Ease of use and responsiveness via a well-designed interface and the portal's underlying functionality are key elements to successful implementation. Some organizations have scheduled retirement of existing processes and interfaces to encourage the new portal's use.

The Challenges of Enterprise Portal Implementation

As with other types of systems development, one of the biggest mistakes organizations make in creating an enterprise portal is trying to accomplish too much in the first implementation. The average time that corporate individuals can maintain their focus is six months. Employee transfers, departmental moves, and corporate downsizing all contribute to this shortened attention span. Corporations are now measured by quarterly earnings, and annual budgets change in six months, so a timeline of more than six months begins to sound excessive.

An additional challenge is getting company individuals' buy-in for portal use. For portal implementation to work, internal buy-in must be led by executive sponsorship. Do not attempt to develop and implement a corporate portal without it.

Security offers another challenge. Should a sales representative have the same access to company financial systems as the accounts payable clerk who pays invoices? Opening information and functionality to a broader spectrum of people means that security measures previously handled by individual systems or via physical access must be more sophisticated, both internally and externally. The consequence of not beefing up security is the potential for functionality and information to get into the wrong hands. Providing portal access to customers and vendors may mean that the portal's scope needs to be limited based on security profiles set up around the portal.

The Benefits of Enterprise Portals

In many ways, enterprise portals do a better job of managing data than earlier products, such as business intelligence (BI) software and enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems.

BI software typically requires companies to merge the data before it is analyzed, which is expensive and hard to do. BI software also requires that data be converted into a standard format. In contrast, portals allow for data from multiple sources to be found and analyzed quickly.

With ERP systems, all data must be converted in order to run transactions. Conversion can cost hundreds of millions of dollars and is rarely fully accomplished. Even if an ERP system is fully implemented, resulting in a single data store, it becomes more difficult to maintain as the business acquires or divests other companies.

It is rare to find a company of any scale that has a single implementation of an ERP system. The real corporate world consists of disparate databases and transaction processing systems, and a portal enables them all to be linked. By programming portals so that they can either translate data into a standard format or simply allow access in the native format, companies get more flexibility and speed than ever before.

When it comes to maximizing electronic commerce technologies and applications, portals enable companies to increase sales, improve customer service, and expand marketing initiatives. These efforts are critical to any successful business and result in bottom-line savings for the company. Creating a modular, scalable portal architecture that allows more functionality to be added as needed enables companies to expand automation outside the corporate walls through the portal, ultimately minimizing costs.

For example, consider an insurance company that operates two call centers at significant cost--one that manages customer service and one that processes claims. The company implemented a portal to reduce costs for the customer service call center. It found that 80 percent of all customer service representatives answered the same question: "What is my deductible?" By placing the policy information on the portal, it became easier for customers to get an answer to their most frequently asked questions, and the need for representatives was reduced by 10 percent. Because a solid portal architecture was then in place, it was easier to extend portal functionality to accommodate needs in the claims processing call center, where 18 steps were required to process a paper claim over the telephone. By using portal technology, the company found a way to process claims using a centralized function, eliminating 15 steps and reducing the number of representatives needed.

Customer, Employee Benefits

For businesses with a customer base, conducting customer transactions through a portal can translate into increased sales and customer service. Via portals, customers can purchase items at midnight without needing to speak with a sales representative, thereby eliminating the requirement for designated business hours. In addition to added customer convenience, the sale's automated processing ability further reduces the need for customer service representatives.

Making a company's marketing information available over the Internet to potential customers also provides convenience and increases market penetration by promoting sales functionality. Potential customers who read the company's marketing literature and decide to purchase items or services online can accomplish the task at any time, without customer service assistance.

Also, portal technology can produce savings within a company's human resources structure. Employees who want more information about their insurance coverage or who wish to participate in a 401K plan can access the company portal instead of calling or visiting the human resources department. By eliminating the need for service people to field routine and repetitive questions, the company can focus resources on other portal functions. Many companies first implement human resources functions on the internal portal before branching out to customer-facing functions on the external portal.

Companies that achieve the greatest success with enterprise portals have identified appropriate business processes and applications. Also, they have developed a long-term strategy for implementation and improvement. Through the methodical, step-by-step process of adopting portal technology within their organizations, these companies can expect greater overall efficiency, an increased bottom line, improved management and, ultimately, employee and customer satisfaction.

Avoiding Portal Pitfalls

Using proper implementation strategy and not succumbing to the pitfalls that can wreak havoc on a portal seem relatively straightforward. So how does the technology vendor's proposed vision of central, integrated access to information and function result in chaos? Enterprise portal failure can happen in a variety of ways, including:

* Management, lured by sales pitches and promises of better bottom lines, may not have an understanding of how solid portal implementation works.

* Portals are pushed into the organization by management who see an opportunity to relay information they think employees need to know--but no one thinks to ask the employees if they want or need the information.

* Management does not initially comprehend the work required to achieve the sales pitch's promised results, and when they do, disillusionment quickly sets in.

* Hastily implemented, disorganized Web sites now known as corporate portals are turned over to IT departments or administrators for maintenance and the original sponsoring managers withdraw their effort and interest.

* Having had no resources budgeted to develop or maintain the enterprise's corporate portal, the individual portals quickly begin to run down.

Repeat this scenario for countless departments, projects, and internal organizations, and it is easy to see how many portals fail. When companies reach this point, it is time to start over and use portal technology to actually improve worker and company effectiveness and efficiency.

Working with IT Consultants

Avoid one-stop shopping for a single IT consultant to assist in portal development. Formulate step-by-step plans that will enable you to choose the best consultant for each step. Consultants hired to help formulate the initial portal strategy may not necessarily be the best choice for the strategy's ultimate implementation. To net the best results from working with IT consultants, companies need a basic understanding of the specific steps in implementing portal architecture.

When initiating working relationships with IT consultants, many companies fail to request that work be done in a step-like fashion and instead simply want an enterprise portal to be built. A more logical path is to ask the consultant to recommend the business functions that could benefit from an enterprise portal, identify the requirements of a portal's supporting technology, and develop six-month implementation chunks. Once this vision is completed, the same or perhaps a better-suited firm can be retained to assemble the architecture and provide advice on what the enterprise portal requires to become self-sustaining over time.

Approaching the creation of portal architecture as a step-by-step process allows companies to remain in control and ensures that the path to the portal's ultimate use and functionality is made clear. Companies must remember that a true enterprise portal involves continuous processes of improvement, content management, and refreshing. It is not a static technology and should be considered as an element that requires ongoing monitoring and room for growth.

When working with IT consultants on enterprise portal development, John Bartz, an independent IT consultant and former CIO of several Fortune 500 companies, advises companies to

* justify the project via the business case process, including project prioritization by the business leaders, in order to set proper expectations for both IT and business leaders

* educate the business leaders on the necessary long-term resource commitment (people and funds) for content management, depending on the type of portal to be developed

* gain the business owners' consensus on the portal's navigation and appearance

* include the portal technology as part of an approved strategic plan, ensuring the selection of the most appropriate type of technology. Companies should not shy away from the utilization of external resources during the process if this is new to them.

* implement the technology as a series of projects across the company following quality project management practices
Enterprise Portal Market Growth

Year Estimated Market Growth Rate

2004 $1.13 billion 18%
2003 $957 million 22%
2002 $787 million 13%
2001 $698 million 72%
2000 $405 million 127%
1999 $178 million --

Business Portal Software Revenue, in millions (U.S.)

1999 $178
2000 $405
2001 $698
2002 $787
2003 $957

[c] 2002 Delphi Group

Note: Table made from bar graph.


References

Chinappi, Anna. "Doorway to Gold." Association Meetings. Available at www.findarticles.com/cf_0/n0CXQ/1_12/60301102/p1/ article.jhtml?term=anna+chinappi (accessed 11 May 2003).

Delphi Group. "Enterprise Portals Bring Risk/Rewards to the Enterprise Says Delphi Group." June 25, 2002.

--. "New Delphi Group Portal Research Examines Business and Technology Dynamics Driving Investment in Portal Software and Collaboration." 14 January 2003. Available at www.delphigroup.com/about/pressreleases/ 2003-PR/20030114-portal-research.htm (accessed 14 May 2003).

Delphi Research. "Enterprise Portals: Total Market Perspective." Available at www.delphigroup.com/research/reports/total-market.htm (accessed 14 May 2003).

Jerrold G. Rose is President of Technology Consulting Associates in Atlanta. He may be contacted at jerry.rose@tca-llc.com.
COPYRIGHT 2003 Association of Records Managers & Administrators (ARMA)
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
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Title Annotation:Tech Trends
Author:Rose, Jerrold G.
Publication:Information Management Journal
Date:Sep 1, 2003
Words:3428
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