Today, implementation depends on what you've already done. Tomorrow, the buzzword will be architecture.

No portals in place? Your biggest decision is whether to build or buy. Many users are still implementing basic portals by developing their own applications. But there's a lot of rapidly maturing off-the-shelf software out there, and vendors are partnering up quickly to fill in the blanks in their offerings. "The issue at this stage is not determining what hammer to buy; it's where to put the nail," says Simon Hayward, a research director at Gartner Inc.

Companies with portals already in place have a different problem. Many companies have implemented portal software from numerous vendors, often away from IT's watchful eye. To avoid the risk of Balkanization, one important concept of the coming generation of portals is "federation"—the idea that services and processes can be coordinated across the enterprise. That's a tall order, especially for large companies. But there's also a clear business reason: Letting separate business units—and sometimes even small workgroups—make their own technology decisions creates substantial costs. French Caldwell, a research director at Gartner, says one client migrated from 24 different portal applications to one, saving $8 million in the first year alone.

If you can justify the cost of rolling out a portal based on its general value to the organization, more power to you. That's the process Whirlpool followed, says Gil Urban, lead director for global enterprise management systems. The company provided a set of generic information services and self-service applications to employees, serving as the foundation for specific workgroup applications in the future.

Not everyone can make the financial case for such a broad initiative, however, so most people will have to focus more tightly on smaller wins. "It's much better to start small at the department level, find the low-hanging fruit of those who can most benefit from portals, and then grow it to a global function," says Davis of Summit Strategies.

But none of this work should occur without an overarching portal architecture for the enterprise. Even small portal initiatives need to be connected to a larger vision of how the organization intends to manage centralized user services, or they'll run the risk of creating the same kind of runaway implementations that early adopters are now saddled with.

Ask Your Staff:

Do we really know how many intranets and portals we have?

Tell Your Business Constituents:

Let's sit down and get a clear picture of what, where, and how communication needs to happen with employees.

Ask Your IT Architects:

How can we design a portal that we can efficiently expand in the future?

This article was originally published on 12-23-2002
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