The Inside Dope on Corporate Portals

So, how many intranets has your company had that were announced with great fanfare and then flamed out in a few months? A lack of sustained management attention and fresh, compelling content is usually the reason.

Now, companies are building "corporate portals" to give employees a desktop window into a variety of corporate applications, such as human resources, enterprise resource planning and business intelligence software. How do you keep the portal from falling into the same traps that intranets did? To find out, Computerworld asked Heidi Collins, global IT manager for knowledge management and decision support at Air Products and Chemicals Inc. in Allentown, Pa. She's also the author of Corporate Portals (Amacom, 2001), which provides guidelines on how to plan -- and get approval for -- a business portal.

Q: What went wrong with corporate intranets, the precursor of portals?

Heidi Collins of Air Products and Chemicals Inc.
Heidi Collins of Air Products and Chemicals Inc.
A: Actually, intranets were too successful, because people put hundreds and thousands of pages of information out there. When intranets were small and people could navigate them easily, they were extremely useful. But then several things happened: the sheer mass of information; the difficulty of navigation; the lack of standard tagging or indexing; and people needed more than Web pages, they needed data and reports, too.
Plus, people might switch jobs and the new person wouldn't keep the content up-to-date. So you had current content and not-so-current content. And these things led to the portal, [which includes] not just Web pages but applications and other data sources ... better navigation, a user profile and a taxonomy for better search results.

Q: How do you select portal software?
First, figure out what you're trying to accomplish with the portal. For example, maybe you want a business-to-employee portal so employees understand all of the HR benefits available to them. Then you'll need an easy interface so that the employee who's having a baby or getting married can deal with HR. There may be a scenario-based wizard to walk them through that process step-by-step -- even though they may be using numerous systems behind the scenes.
Then you'll want to look at your HR system -- is it PeopleSoft? Then you might look at the PeopleSoft portal. Is it spreadsheets and Word documents? Then you look at a company that sells a content-management system like Vignette.
So match up what you want to do with the products out there. Of course, that means you could end up with four different portal products in your company. There isn't one portal product out there that meets 100% of a company's needs. Then you need to have a development team tie them all together into a single user interface that everybody uses.

Q: Are there any "gotchas" to watch out for?
Single sign-on for portals can be hard to get working correctly, because different products have different security models. So you want to ask whether that portal product's security model will map into your company's IT security model.

Q: How do you make sure employees don't abandon the portal after six months?
You should organize the portal around work processes that have to get done -- then the portal will get used. Look at work processes where there's a hand-off from one department or business unit to another. The portal is a great place to deal with those critical points or decision points in a work process.
But processes change, content changes, people change, technology changes. If someone isn't constantly reviewing the process and the content in the portal, it gets out of date. You need process owners and information owners for each content window. You need a Portal Support Center that knows those owners and keeps that community alive and active and updated.
Like anything else, things that start out sexy just aren't after awhile. You can't just deploy it and walk away"

Q: Should a portal have relevant news feeds and competitive intelligence?
It's extremely important to bring that sort of external information in, especially for certain departments or jobs, such as market research, sales and partner relations.

Q: What's your strongest opinion about portals?
I'm passionate about getting companies to have one portal. It's easy to bring in 14 portals, but you're not going to get the overarching benefits. With 14 portals you have different security models, different navigation schemes, multiple products to support at the help desk. ... It's too expensive.

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