As with any development project, making the right decisions on pilot project, vendor, product and project team can make the difference in the success or failure of a product implementation.
There are many products available that purport to provide a one-stop shop for offering application integration through a common interface. Add to that the number of vendors supplying products offering additional functionality and the options open even further.
The level of integration made available through the new generation of portal technologies can be quite daunting for corporate IT managers. Yet, according to recent research by Butler Group, there does appear to be a trend towards using a browser-based portal as a basis for a common working environment.
So why is there a trend towards the enterprise portal? The potential advantages in using a "desktop in a browser" are obvious to the beleaguered IT manager: a simple client desktop to manage, with all the heavy transactional and delivery work being performed on various servers. However, the advantages may not be so apparent to the power business user.
There are several nebulous terms floating around, such as "collaboration" and "communication", which appear to describe the benefits, but they do not really do justice to the capabilities of a portal. The real benefit, particularly to the medium to large-sized business, is enabling real-time access to services, content, people and, in essence, knowledge. This can
However, potential pitfalls may only become apparent after an implementation. The transfer of information and knowledge that previously was simply not available could have potentially harmful effects on workflow, as users attempt to comprehend the enhanced capabilities a portal implementation can pass on to the unsuspecting user.
Having discussed the potential advantages and pitfalls that may occur when considering a portal, there
Many vendors offer portal-based technology, from full-blown enterprise-level capability down to categorisation and search engine technologies. However, if these are split into groups by looking at the targeted or intended user base, the number reduces significantly. In general, there are really five broad types of portal available:
- The decision portal is aimed at power business users, allowing them to make the type of decisions that affect the flow of business. A decision portal is not transactional, and pushes content to the intended audience. However, as with all portals of this genre, it is intended to provide the type of business intelligence through specialist tools within the portal.
- The publishing portal is generally aimed at the employee, although that could include the employees of your suppliers, clients and partners in the extended business model employed by most enterprises. Within this type of portal there is an emphasis on workflow and document management, offering powerful search and retrieval capabilities.
- The collaborative portal is aimed at the workgroup, whether a single project team or multiple teams spread across the organisation. Collaborative portals offer the ability to exchange data and an intelligent means to bring like groups together, again through a common gateway.
- The process portal aims to emphasise and extend a business process, or simply to emulate it, providing the ability to perform a function such as reorder supply. This portal is highly transactional, and linked heavily to back-office and legacy systems, since it offers a front-end interface to the processing power behind the scenes.
- The structure of the framework portal is inherent in all portals, since it supplies the foundation to all of them. It is not really aimed at any specific group. This form of portal offers the bare framework and not the content, and is true "pure-play".
When considering the type and format of the portal to be put in place, Butler believes there are 10 areas of functionality. Each area may hold more or less importance depending upon the level and complexity of implementation and the intended audience. As the level of importance may be different for each instance of a portal, the 10 areas of functionality are listed in alphabetical order:
This is a function to provide the means to manage the portal, its content and users - preferably through the portal structure itself - to facilitate the capabilities remotely. This is an essential function for an enterprise-level portal.
This broad function should perform two tasks. It should offer the means, by liaising with existing security tools, to provide a single sign-on. It should also hold and manage the user's profile to verify and open any applications within the portal (depending on the individual user's profile). This is an essential function for a portal.
3. Collaboration tools
This series of tools allows one or more users or groups of users to work together by sharing information such as documentation, calendars and e-mail, and offer tools such as discussion groups and shared areas. This is another essential function of a portal.
This is the ability to build-in the capability to use existing and legacy systems. This is a very broad area of functionality and may be essential to some installations. But providing a means to offer one-way (non-transactional) content may be the only reason for implementing a portal, so it may be that in some installations this does not have to be considered.
5. Knowledge base
This is the capability of storing and indexing both the collected data of an organisation and the information available to it through third parties. The knowledge base may not store the data physically, but it has the capability to know where it is and how to access it through a particular index. This metadata storage is essential to a portal.
6. Search and navigation
This area of functionality works hand-in-hand with the knowledge base and provides the means to move through collected corporate data, so that a desired research stream can be accomplished successfully. Without the capability to navigate and search the corporate database, the portal loses one of its fundamental uses, so this area of functionality is essential.
As a relatively new function to the portal implementation, these tools build upon the navigation of a corporate database, by tying together a tree-like structure of categories to actual data references. This allows the seamless transformation of a conceptual research stream to actual data. While this is not an essential tool within a portal, its presence adds a considerable level of value to the knowledge base.
This function set allows the customisation of the portal experience by the user. While this may sound grand, the function resolves the question of delivering the relevant content in the right format at the right time, to the right user. This is essential to a portal implementation.
9. Presentation and rendering
This toolset is responsible for putting together the delivered content in a format that can be understood by the recipient device. In general terms, this function performs a translation of content in such a way that it can be used. In the majority of cases for a portal implementation, this will mean pushing HTML to a browser.
However, if mobile or wireless communications are a large part of the technical infrastructure of the target organisation, these devices have to be considered as well. The portal does not work without this function, and so must be present within a portal, at least for rendering within a browser.
10. Publishing and content management
Once a portal is in use, the basic management of what is delivered is an essential function. At its simplest level, this might be the means to publish materials to the portal. Depending on the level of complexity of the implementation and the intended use, there may be a requirement for full document workflow management. Even at the basic level, this is an essential function.
How to choose a portal Part II
Darren Lightfoot examines the criteria for creating a successful corporate portal.
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