After B2B - now it's B2E

Could the business-to-employee portal being developed for Bank of America herald the future method of corporate information...

Could the business-to-employee portal being developed for Bank of America herald the future method of corporate information sharing and spell the end for the company intranet? David Bicknell reports

It was only a matter of time before a new idea emerged to follow business-to-consumer and business-to-business electronic commerce.

A new model emerging from the US focuses inside the business, on company employees, with the creation of "business-to-employee" - or B2E - portals.

One major US corporation, Bank of America, has announced plans to create such a portal for its staff to enable them to create an interactive "self-service work environment". The service will offer direct access to a string of relevant tools and information, including workplace communication, training services, financial services, travel services, industry news, stock quotes, and e-commerce.

In other words, when you are at work, forget leaving the office, because everything is reachable from your PC. The portal will even personalise your content, allowing, in the jargon, "employees to manage their careers and personal lives in the way that works best for them".

For large blue chip companies, it is suggested that corporate portals can be a means of making the corporate mindset more akin to that of a start-up dot com.

At Bank of America, more than 156,000 staff - or "associates" as it calls them - will benefit from the venture.

Bank of America's B2E portal is being created in a joint venture, dubbed Newco, with personalisation software specialist Broadvision. Broadvision will provide a suite of applications called One-to-One, and will provide the maintenance and support. Other partners include Hewlett-Packard, which will provide the hardware platform, and travel group Amadeus, which will provide online booking and ticketing.

The new company, which will start providing operations later in the year, has significant spin-off possibilities for both Broadvision and Bank of America. Its B2E portal, to be sold to subscribing companies, will see the bank become the main provider of banking and financial services, creating a new distribution channel for its products.

According to Bank of America executive Jim Dixon, B2E portals will become an extremely important business tool that will be implemented by a string of enterprises over the next few years. Research group Gartner believes that by 2001, more than 80% of enterprises will seek to share a B2E portal as the predominant method for sharing information across a company.

The move towards corporate portals such as the Bank of America model could see the beginning of the end of the corporate intranet. According to Oliver Muoto, who runs US corporate portals specialist Epicentric, the intranet offers a view of what company executives believe is important for their employees. But it is rarely designed with "user experience" high among its priorities, with no options for employee personalisation.

In contrast, the B2E portal is a starting point for everyone in the organisation but, instead of having one look and feel, like an intranet, it could have up to 10,000 different "start pages" for each of the 10,000 employees. In addition, it is unlikely to incorporate simply work-related material, but is more likely to reflect the interests of the user as an employee, parent, and consumer.

US B2E advocates believe, from the point of view of the IT department, building a corporate portal can take 30 days to deploy - in reality it will almost certainly take longer - against a possible enterprise software implementation benchmark that can stretch towards nine months.

Broadvision's founder and chief executive Pehong Chen believes the corporate desktop is one of the last untouched frontiers for the Internet. The question for IT departments in Europe, where senior management may not be as forward-thinking as Bank of America's in making life at work easy and productive for its associates is, what priority will creating a B2E portal have?

For IT directors already trying to wrestle with e-marketplaces, and how their company can benefit from them, the B2E portal may just turn out to be a question of "nice idea, no time to do it".

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