An open door to business?

Portals offer an opportunity for trading partners to get past the door and into the back office, but is the welcome mat rolled...

Portals offer an opportunity for trading partners to get past the door and into the back office, but is the welcome mat rolled out and ready for them, asks Antony Adshead

Corporate portals are widely regarded as the one of the next strategic steps for corporate IT. International heavyweights such as Ford and BP-Amoco have begun portal rollouts in the past year and analysts have documented a frenzy of activity in the portal software sector as suppliers vie for position.

Industry watchers have viewed the portal phenomenon as the next evolution of the graphical user interface. Supplier marketing literature gushes with the possibilities.

And, it's not just hype - industry observers and savvy IT directors know that corporate portals can bring cost savings and business benefits. Massively improved business process efficiencies and savings in maintenance are possible, but the suppliers are less forthcoming about the hidden challenges necessary to make a portal worthwhile.

Trailblazing companies have warned of initial user resistance to portals and how they can highlight shortfalls in existing IT systems.

At SAP's Empower user forum last week the BBC and BOC, the gasses company, spoke of their experiences in portal implementations.

The BBC is in the process of its implementing its Portal for All project. The corporation has 23,000 staff and carries out 180,000 business transactions a month with an estimated 150,000 suppliers. Its systems are vast and disparate - financial data is held on 29 different systems.

But the benefits of tackling such a minefield are well worthwhile, said the BBC's head of financial operations, Peter White. "We have many local systems which have arisen on an ad hoc basis so there are many ways of doing the same task. The portal gives a single environment, making it easy to use."

But the sheer scale of the implementation of the portal posed a challenge, he added.

"The browser's look and feel is something users are used to so they do not worry about familiarity with different systems. Having said that we had problems implementing - but that comes with being at the cutting edge. It has taken us six months to produce something useful for 2,000 employees," said White.

BOC is also in the throes of both internal and external portal implementations and has recently gone live with a portal for 3,000 customers in the UK and New Zealand and Australia. The company is confident that a portal will enhance customer satisfaction and loyalty.

In its BOC2B project, customers will be given access to purchasing catalogues, account details and technical information tailored to a company profile, such as industry sector.

In addition, when full integration is achieved the company will benefit from having a unified infrastructure. Content will be centrally controlled and made available to 42,000 BOC staff in 50 countries around the world.

But while BOC sees the benefits of moving to a portal environment, the company recognises the significant challenges exposed by a portal implementation.

A portal works because it brings together information from a variety of data sources in and outside the business and makes them available on one screen. The user can then control processes by dragging information between, say, catalogues and customer lists.

As David Johnston, BOC's e-business manager, said, "A portal is like a door to your house - it is up to you whether you want to open it. It is straightforward from a technical point of view but you need to make sure the house is in order because when you open the door you may find a big mess inside."

Indeed, the tasks thrown up by an ambitious portal project can be manifold. Chris Harris Jones, principal analyst with Ovum, said, "Beginning a portal project is often accompanied by a horrendous realisation that your systems don't talk to each other and of the extent of incomplete and dirty data held by the business."

There are also cultural challenges to be faced in getting users to use a portal, adds Harris. "One surefire way is to put their e-mail in it - that way they can't avoid using it."

Simon Bragg, an analyst with ARC Consulting, said tensions between subsidiaries can also arise as a result of portal projects that integrate data from different countries.

"You need standard cost structures if you are going to compare performance of every plant across the world. Companies have managed to integrate regions, but very few large [top ITer organisations] have achieved true global integration," he said.

Portals, then, do promise to revolutionise the way we do business. Being able to instantly draw and act upon data from systems inside and outside the business via a user-friendly browser is surely the next step in business computing. But, as in a revolution, behind the triumphant flags lies a battle-torn landscape.

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