Portals have been around as a means to access "personalised information" for a while now. Yahoo! users have been able to put together their own front-end since early last year and many ISPs are now following suit.
That enterprise portals can bring real business benefits seems to be accepted. Not only do they improve efficiency, reduce administrative workload and improve productivity, they can also have a direct impact on the bottom line. Return on investment has been measured at more than 5,000% over five years.
The business benefits are obvious but how does a business make the most of portals to achieve this?
The concept of the unified front-end appears to have decision-makers in many enterprises baffled. What would users want to access through a portal? What would it be productive to give them? Would anybody actually use it?
User acceptance is particularly crucial to enterprise portals, so how do you persuade your partners, customers and staff that this new application is not just the IT director's latest fad?
How can you prove that it will actually add value? The directors will be sold if you can show that it boosts productivity and efficiency. The user won't. Efficiency and productivity are management phrases that mean little to most of your workforce.
It is the staff that you have to win over. Education will go a long way to getting people on board, but what really makes a difference, as any psychologist will tell you, is identifying what people want and then giving it to them.
This may sound simple, but it actually requires a shift in the way you think - you have to learn to think outside of the work environment. A user will take to an application because it makes their job easier and/or their working life more pleasant. And this is where we should turn to the human resources department for advice. What is it that staff want? Company cars, private healthcare, free lunches, more holiday?
Actually, what most working people suffer from is a lack of time - time to see the bank manager, book a dentist appointment, check on the kids, top up the pension. All those day-to-day tasks that sit on a personal to-do list for weeks on end.
And it is here that the portal can really add value. It isn't just the work-related applications that the portal can provide access to. The portal can be a gateway to all manner of things, from online banking facilities and stock prices to the latest sports scores and theatre tickets. That is why portals are expected to help reduce absenteeism - particularly on big match days.
Even within the work arena there are areas where a portal can really make a difference. By bringing human resources into the portal environment for example, you can also provide users with the facilities to book holidays, submit expenses and book the car in for a service.
But, the contents of the portal must be relevant to the person using it. This is where personalisation comes in. There is no point offering car servicing facilities to an employee without a car or links to a sport Web site to someone who can't stand sport.
A perfect example of personalisation is a medium-sized distribution company in the US whose staff included a high number of young mothers. The stress of balancing children with full-time employment was effecting morale and productivity.
The company found a local creche and offered free placements to any staff who needed them. Nothing unusual in that. As an addition however, the company also installed Web cameras around the creche and made the images accessible to the parents through their portals.
This had an immediate impact on morale and productivity and also ensured that the portal became part of everyday life for the workforce.
Portals are that rare breed: technology that saves money, increases productivity and improves the work/life balance for employees. It would be a shame to see a technology with such potential go the way of so many others.
To make the portal a technology that will improve the way we work, we need to understand how it can add value to every user, starting with the employee. This requires knowledge of your workforce and what makes them tick. Without this, it won't even be a funnel, just another well-intentioned idea sitting on the shelf.
Tara Allison is marketing team leader at SAP