The enterprise portal is the latest in a long line of IT "panaceas" for corporate enlightenment, and its promise is greater than any that have gone before. Executive information systems (EIS) started the ball rolling in the 1980s, but delivered just performance-related numerical data to a select few senior managers and directors.
Business intelligence picked up the baton, attempting to provide access to a wider base of information within new data warehouses, with greater drill-down and data correlation capabilities.
Then knowledge management came along, promising to link users not just with structured data warehouses, but a host of unstructured information in documents, and beyond that to tap the huge base of tacit knowledge residing in human brains.
Quite how this would be achieved was not always clear, but in any case the enterprise portal has emerged as the single, unifying focal point for accessing and managing all sources of information and knowledge, at least at a high level - beneath the covers the data will still reside in different locations and formats.
Furthermore, unlike earlier panaceas, the enterprise portal is designed to integrate internal and external sources of information within the ubiquitous URL-addressable Web structure. For this reason an enterprise portal must have a Web interface, although it does not necessarily have to be a Web site itself - it can be packaged within a more traditional PC client application.
As a concept the enterprise portal cannot be faulted, but to deliver on the promise much has to happen behind the scenes. A portal may have the best search engine in the world, but unless it provides access to the right information sources, which in turn are kept up to date, it will be useless. And even if the portal has all the right connections and ingredients, it will still fail to deliver significant benefits if it fails to win the hearts and minds of users. Nick Beard, e-business services director of Computer Aid, says, "We learnt during the pilot implementations of our Knowledge First package (based on software from Cambridge-based Autonomy) that if you just go in and install it, you won't get any productivity gains."
Recipe for success
To be successful, a portal needs good personalisation services, so that it can be tuned to the needs of each user. The easy part of personalisation involves giving users a unique home page that provides links to information sources they want. The harder part, requiring more intelligence, involves monitoring users' actions so as to deliver information they may not have asked for but that may prove useful. This second aspect of personalisation draws on knowledge management, but clearly can only be effective with regular usage of the portal.
But the hardest part of all is getting users to put relevant information up on the system in the first place and to keep it up to date. Of course, nothing can be done about external sources of information, but for many enterprises most of the knowledge and information required is internal at present.
Any frequent surfer of Web sites, whether external or within their company, all too often encounters documents that were created several years ago, with no indication whether they have been revised or if they still represent the current situation. Equally common is finding documents that only partially resolve a query, yet fail to identify the individual who created them or anyone else who could fill in the gaps.
There is only one answer to this conundrum of ensuring that information is timely, accurate and relevant: to give users ownership of their data. This represents a big break from previous business intelligence and data warehousing systems, where the IT department took charge of the data, even if they were not responsible for creating it.
So the message is: users have to be involved both as consumers and maintainers of enterprise portals and the associated knowledge management facilities. This requires a combination of training and incentives to encourage staff to use the portal and, where relevant, to keep information up to date so that documents are reviewed periodically and, if necessary, either deleted or updated.
An important aspect of portals (see BG case study) is the ability to create segments within the intranet to support project teams or workgroups, perhaps on a temporary basis. So while each user will ideally have their unique portal, they would be able to click on an icon to reach their workgroup or project portal providing access to information shared just between members of that group.
In many cases the same core technology used in enterprise portals, in particular intelligent search engines from the likes of Autonomy or RetrievalWare, will be found in public external portals, such as Yahoo. The question then arises: why not save yourself some money and make use of such a public portal rather than build your own? After all the major public portals also provide personalisation services so that they can present each user with a home page highlighting links and information sources of interest to them.
The answer is that for smaller enterprises this solution may well be sufficient. But for a large organisation, a public portal could not be tuned sufficiently to the multiple requirements of many users and workgroups. If you own the portal, you can not only personalise the front end to individual user needs, but also tune the engine itself to suit the nature of the business and the kind of information required, so that, for example, it focuses on a specific group of Web sites.
The result is that a well-constructed enterprise portal is more likely to find information relevant to the users sufficiently quickly, which is the key point. And according to Bharat Mistry, technical director of portal vendor Hummingbird, a dedicated portal will even speed up the process of searching the indexes of public portals. "We can search Yahoo quicker than it can search itself," says Mistry. This is assuming, of course, that the Hummingbird Enterprise Portal software has been correctly configured to the needs of a particular company and its users.
The ASP option
For some companies, though, the effort of building an enterprise portal may be too great, but yet they would like their own private solution. For them the application service provider (ASP) model offers a third way. The Knowledge First package from Computer Aid is delivered on an ASP basis, coupled with consultancy and training in use of the software.
In effect the enterprise portal is doing for knowledge management and information access what the Web browser has done for the user interface, in providing a standard model for the industry to work around. But it is not a universal cure for all the integration and cultural problems facing the IT industry.
How we got there
Case study: BG (formerly British Gas)
BG has given knowledge management a high priority and views the enterprise portal as an increasingly important part of that overall solution called Kite (knowledge and information to everyone), particularly for organising information around project teams.
"If you have an enterprise portal for a function, it should be their one-stop shop to go for everything they need to know to do their job," says Tom O'Connor, BG's head of knowledge management. "Certainly we try to make use of some of those things in BG, so for particular functions, skill sets, projects, you go to that part of the Web."
BG's workgroup-centric approach to enterprise portals can be contrasted with an even more granular system where each user has a personal portal, providing links to all the virtual teams they belong to from one place. But O'Connor sees the two approaches as complementary, with the workgroup approach being a step towards the ultimate goal of individual portals which, in effect, are just windows on to other portals that may relate to specific projects or skills.
Although portals may be the centre of the knowledge universe, they are not the substance of it, and O'Connor emphasises the importance of training and incentives in getting users involved both with maintenance and exploitation of the system. Such incentives are not necessarily financial, and include a mixture of old-fashioned courtesy and efforts to deliver the information that users really want.
On this front BG is extending Kite to Palm and other mobile devices, so that travelling staff can be alerted to important new information identified as relevant to their function. This can be either internally- or externally-sourced information. "For example, we pay for a press cuttings bureau to assemble relevant press cuttings data, so our people can see what's in the news about BG," says O'Connor.
To begin with the mobile service has been restricted to about 200 senior managers, and requires synchronisation of Palms with desktop machines within a BG office to obtain updates. But the system is being extended to more junior staff, and to incorporate wireless access for delivery of updates. The key point, especially when delivering to Palm devices with limited display and memory, is to allow users to define what information they want so that they can hone it down to their own needs.
Case study: ONdigital's helpdesk
Enterprise portals have proved most successful so far when they have been set up for specific functions or groups of users, where they fulfil a particular business need. One such function is the helpdesk, which for some time has usually had access to online information about both customers or users and previously reported problems.
The UK digital TV services supplier ONdigital has set up a portal to support helpdesk staff, based on Sunrise Software's enterprise help desk software. According to ONdigital's head of information services, John Barcock, the company had outgrown an initial helpdesk system set up in 1998 to support the first phase of the company's development.
The two radical features of the new system, according to Barcock, areboth customer-related.Firstly helpdesk staff have much faster access to records pertaining both to customers themselves and progress made with a particular case.
When customers call in or log on to a Web site, the system grabs what information it can, such as details of location, e-mail address or telephone number.
It uses such information to extract records of a customer or how a particular case is progressing and makes these available automatically to helpdesk staff. This saves time dealing with customers' calls for, as Barcock notes, many calls are fairly straightforward billing enquires.
These can be dealt with much more quickly if the relevant details come up on screen automatically.
Secondly, the system provides a direct portal for customers into selected parts of the helpdesk environment, allowing them to browse databases of known faults and solutions and also download upgrades without having to trouble helpdesk staff.
The ethos therefore is where possible to keep customers away from helpdesk staff altogether, and if a call has to be made to deal with it as swiftly as possible. Customers should preferably be neither seen nor heard.