In the real world, a portal is a door. A door by itself doesn't provide much value, nor do we call it "door technology": It's what the door provides access to that matters.

Though the definition is imprecise—and what emerging software technology isn't?—the phrase "corporate portal" sounds like it should let employees get their hands on everything they need from their companies. But the first few generations of portals have delivered only disconnected parts of that misty vision. As a result, the traditional problem of portals—you built it, but they didn't come—is still an issue for many companies. Remember "stickiness"? It's back, but now it's in your own backyard. What Management Needs Chart

You can blame the technology, but the fact is many companies never built what their employees really needed in the first place. Portals should streamline communications between management and employees, help employees collaborate more easily, and give employees personalized access to the information and applications they need to do their work well. And portals should do it all in a cost-effective manner that lets companies save money by consolidating both servers and applications.

But early portals were really just an assemblage of Web pages—little more than glorified corporate newsletters, typically labeled "intranets"—delivered through a plethora of individual servers that popped up all over the corporation. IBM claims that at one point it had 8,000 individual intranets. That's a lot of overhead. Analysts and users maintain that the first generation of portals didn't really provide much business value for users or management. That's because a portal is really more a management approach than an explicit set of technologies or services. If your approach is that a portal should be designed by management to do little more than communicate uninteresting information to disinterested employees, it won't work.

For a portal to provide value to employees, it has to be more: more interactive, more adaptable, and more useful, giving employees more and more of the tools they need to do their work. But that depends on exactly what services the portal provides.

Analysts say that the ability for both management and employees to manage content is a must, because employees need access to communications and critical information from management and vice versa, and they need other sources of information both inside and outside the company. Personalization is key, so employees can tailor information and services to their own needs. And integration with ERP and other applications is essential: The portal might, say, streamline a customer-support process by linking directly to the appropriate pages in a series of Web-enabled enterprise applications, such as checking an accounts-receivable ERP application, an e-business server database and a trouble-ticket database. But tight integration on the back end is also critical: Who wants to have to log in repeatedly, or re-enter a customer's information over and over again? It's like calling your bank and being asked to provide your name and account number every time you speak to someone new.

Beyond these basics, says Heidi Collins, author of Corporate Portals, full-function portals add a variety of services such as identity management, security, collaboration services and administration tools that allow portal support staff to perform tasks such as monitoring portal usage. Every portal vendor, of course, spins the list of offerings to match what they can provide. The goal? "It's to move beyond superficial user-interface integration, and go behind the scenes to make sure the elements on that screen are linked in logical and useful ways in the background," says Dwight Davis, vice president and practice director at Summit Strategies Inc., a Boston-based research firm.

Ask Your Employees:

What information from corporate management do you regularly need to do your job better?

Ask the Business Units:

What Web-based applications are your people using, and could they use them more effectively if they were better integrated?

Ask Your IT Staff:

Given the answers to the above questions, do we even need a portal?

This article was originally published on 12-23-2002
eWeek eWeek

Have the latest technology news and resources emailed to you everyday.

Click for a full list of Newsletterssubmit