The Business Portal
In my last column I talked about the importance of vertical portals (vortals) in creating communities of trade. But many readers asked how they could use the idea of a portal to get their own house in order before stepping out into the world of partner and supplier portals. In this article we will look at how the warp-speed developments on public Internet portals offer a set of clues to the beginnings of a radical new phase of computing, which will transform the entrepreneurial organization's use of information in the early years of the coming century.
Wall Street's year-long mania with Internet shares has brought many new company names and business plans to view, none of which have received more intense attention than the Internet "portal" companies: Yahoo!, Lycos, Infoseek, and Excite, and the "other" broad-based portal players, a diverse group including such prominent names as Netscape, AOL, AltaVista, and Microsoft. Many Web surfers now integrate portal visits into their online experience -- but the concept of a portal is just as fascinating for entrepreneurs challenged with charting the future of their own information strategy with less than adequate resources to create highly customized desktop applications.
It may seem unlikely that some of the hottest names on the World Wide Web are pointing the way to the next phase of information management for the wired corporation -- particularly since much of the information content on these sites is fundamentally of little or no value to businesses. But the solution to many of the challenges that fast entrepreneurial companies face lies in the idea of the portal.
While large enterprises may easily customize information management solutions and systems by using vast staffs of programmers and developers, small business has always found itself at a distinct disadvantage when it comes to deploying internal information systems. The result is a hodgepodge of desktop applications that often create as much frustration as they do benefit. What, if anything, can these public portals teach you about creating more effective information systems inside your organization?
Let's first look at why public portals have become so popular.
The initial value proposition was simple: No one could hope to find anything in the vastness of the Web through "conventional" means. Offering a full-text index of Web content provided a great leap forward and a chance to take advantage of the new hyperlinking capabilities built into the Web.
Next, portals became "navigation sites" as it became apparent that developing professional researcher skills to find weather information was not high on the average user's priority list. To address user frustration and reduce the average "seek time" to obtain relevant information, navigation sites added the function of categorization -- filtering popular sites and documents into preconfigured groups by the meaning of their content (sports, news, finance, etc.).
Today these sites not only provide search functionality and navigation, they also offer community (e.g., Yahoo! Financial's threaded discussions) and personalization of content by the user (My Excite Start Page). Face it, no one wants to surf 500 channels of broadcast television any more than they want to visit 500 Web sites to make a decision. This is the reason many popular public Web sites have a "My.com" version of their interfaces.
Psychologists have long known that as the noise factor around us increases, our filtering mechanisms also increase -- this is a basic survival skill. It is what scientists and engineers refer to as signal-to-noise ratio -- the same principle that SETI uses to sniff out intelligent life by scanning the chaotic radio noise of the cosmos for a discernible pattern of intelligence.
As the background noise of our world increases, we need to become better at identifying relatively weaker and weaker signals. Yet filtering, without an accompanying focus, can be a dangerous proposition - the equivalent of blinders on a raging plow horse.
Search, navigation, and personalization: These make perfect sense on the World Wide Web, but are the needs of internal knowledge workers in your organization fundamentally different? Clearly not. How do you create this sort of rich environment without a programming staff of hundreds? It is here where corporate portals intervene and remove a world of pain for the entrepreneurial enterprise.
Aside from the basic accounting systems that every business needs to have in place, the remainder of the information systems in a small business are highly individualized collections of content and applications. In the fast-paced and constantly understaffed world of small enterprise, there is no single, centralized, predetermined information system. In simple terms, individuals share the responsibility for defining the organization of business-critical information. By the time a formal IT group defines most applications, it is time to move on and redefine. On the other hand, as workers come and go, the continuity of their tasks is subject to enormous disruption since the hodgepodge of information systems they used to get their job done is virtually incomprehensible to anyone else.
Corporate portals make it possible to both create personalized work environments without extensive IT support and share these work environments with coworkers.
Corporate portals allow you to bring together information sources, applications, and Web resources from nearly any source and integrate these into a single comprehensive desktop. Imagine a customized instrument cluster holding all of the vital signs of your organization -- markets, suppliers, customers -- and you start to get the picture. Best of all, there are 40 separate corporate portal products on the market to pick from!
With a corporate portal in place, anyone in the organization can create a personal view of the processes, tasks, customers, and market conditions that are most important to them. For example, a salesperson may create a sales portal that shows the current correspondence, inventory levels for outstanding orders, payment history, phone log, and the most recent press release for that customer. And it is all done with no programming other than clicking or dragging a mouse a few times.
Most portal products also come with a large library of what are called gadgets, nuggets, or components, which are already programmed to work with most popular applications, from spreadsheets to databases. Users simply check off the components they want to use in their portal. (OK, there may be a bit of programming needed to set up the components so that they work with your applications, but this is done only once and is usually trivial compared with programming enterprise applications -- most of which probably couldn't come close to offering personalization anyway.)
For the small- to medium-size business, a corporate portal can be heaven sent, providing users with a level of sophistication and integration that even the largest enterprises would envy.
Thomas M. Koulopoulos is president of Boston-based Delphi Group and the author of five books.
© 2000 Delphi Group
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