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Decision Support: Consider these issues before building a smart portal

What to take into consideration before implementing portals


Workers spend as much as 25 to 35 percent of their time searching for information they need, according to the META Group, a Connecticut-based IT research firm. Many companies are reducing that time, however, by linking content management systems, portal technology, and application servers to create “smart portals.”

This year, META predicts that many companies will shift from building their own solution to packaged solutions. Already, a consolidation is occurring between portal and content management systems, according to META Group analyst Andrew Warzecha, senior vice president of META’s Electronic Business Strategies division. In some cases, vendors are collaborating to create packaged solutions.

“As you take a look at the business landscape today, however, and as you kick tires on products, keep in mind that many vendors who are currently in this space will not survive over the next 12 months,” Warzecha said.

Before you invest, here are the issues you need to consider when investing in content management systems and portal solutions.

The push toward smart portals
During a recent e-seminar, META Group analyst Andrew Warzecha explained why the best practice for company intranets and extranets is to use a three-part combination that uses content management systems, portal technology, and an application server. See parts one and two of this series,  “KO your agency’s information disorganization” and “Build a business case for smart portals,” for more information.

Content management questions
Gone are the days when one Webmaster could post the occasional Web page, designed for viewing on two very similar browsers and two screen sizes. As companies move toward wireless solutions, employees may also be accessing Web content via a handheld unit or mobile phone.

The first step in assessing your needs is to consider your content. Warzecha recommends that you ask the following questions:
  • What are the sources of content, and how is content created?
  • How can the content be aggregated and filtered?
  • How is this content going to be assembled and published?
  • What devices will the content be delivered to? Is it strictly for a Web browser, or will employees also access it through WAP-enabled phones, Blackberries, and other types of mobile devices? “We would argue that putting in place an infrastructure that does not support wireless devices, even though the needs may not be readily apparent today, is a huge mistake,” Warzecha said.
  • Does it need to be rendered into PDF so it can be printed out?
  • And most importantly, how can you personalize this content?

Traditional Web content management systems focused on delivering content that was created for the Web and public. Most second-generation enterprise content management systems are designed for e-commerce or dot coms and are therefore geared toward business-to-commercial production. Increasingly, these vendors are beefing up their offerings to support business-to-employee and business-to-business uses, which means, among other things, that you are faced with supporting the need for business documentation, Warzecha noted.

Enterprise content management system products can process “unstructured content” that’s not Web-ready, such as images, documents, reports, streaming media, catalogs, or transactional data. This ability is “absolutely critical,” Warzecha said.

You want to think about content management as technology that’s designed to empower business users to create content. The system also needs to provide a way to manage that content over the course of its life cycle, Warzecha said.

Portal vendors
Most currently available portal vendors focus on the business-to-employee market, though products are emerging that support B2B and B2C use on a common framework. Products that can be used for all three purposes will help you leverage collaborate capabilities, so you can realize a quicker return on investment, Warzecha said.

Like Web content management, the portal market is still maturing and consolidating. So what are the key issues to examine when considering portals? Warzecha recommends that you examine the following:
  • Content from an aggregate standpoint. Take a look at what type of content you’re going to be dealing with as an organization, particularly the unstructured content. That means that in addition to your databases and data marts, you’ll need to consider business documents, such as financial reports and your competitor’s Web information. It’s important to test the cataloging capabilities of the portal tool. Ask what types of filters it uses—and realize that vendors call filters by different names, including agents, brokers, and crawlers. You should also know what type of search engine is embedded in the system. Is it their own or someone else’s engine?
  • Collaboration on content. Putting groups of like interests together is becoming very important to organizations, Warzecha said. A portal can help you break down these geographical boundaries, identify subject matter experts, and share best practices. Look at its categorizing capabilities. How does it categorize people and content?
  • Integration issues. Portals are a strategic investment that will affect the entire enterprise. It’s likely to become the desktop interface your employees will use. Is the solution robust enough to meet your needs? What support is there from the vendor for scalability and integration capabilities? Will it tie into your mission-critical applications and expose that information? Also, what type of gadget, portlets, connectors, etc., are supported by the vendor? “At a minimum, you’re going to want support for your mail and messaging environment,” Warzecha recommends. “Ideally, you’re going to want support for your back-office and front-office applications, i.e., an SAP, a PeopleSoft, a Siebel. You want the vendors to provide integration into those common applications.” You may still have to customize support for your applications, but don’t assume this is so. The vendor may be able to get you 80 percent of the way there, Warzecha said.
  • Syndication. Your portal will not exist in a vacuum. If employees are going to view your portal as the launching point for their work, you’ll need to offer more than company news. So ask what type of syndication facilities—newsfeeds, competitive intelligence, and other types of information—the provider supports. Since you’ll also be creating content, ask what type of outbound syndications capabilities it supports that would allow you to repurpose content for your business partner to rebrand and use on their own sites? And while you’re looking at syndication, be sure to ask about security. Ask what relationship, if any, do they have with single sign-on solutions. “The hard part, when you’re looking with these portal products, is you’ve got to take a hard look at how they’re dealing with the security aspects, the single sign-on issues,” Warzecha said.
  • The users’ needs. The most important consideration is how this technology meets the users’ needs: It must deliver relevant content in context of each individual employee and what he or she does.

Consolidations
In a written analysis published in META Delta, Warzecha notes that consolidation and merger is happening in all three technologies used to create these smart portals. As smaller vendors begin to cooperate and create partnerships, costs will be driven down, and that means that smaller, nonaligned vendors could be driven out of business.

META believes most vendors will choose to build rather than acquire these technologies, because they’ve found the infrastructure to support collaboration is already in place and it will be easier to add components than entire suites. This will further encourage collaboration among vendors.

As a result, the vendor’s components will increasingly work together, and in the later part of this year, you should be able to buy complete solutions. However, mature offerings won’t be released until 2003, when META predicts larger vendors, particularly from the application server field—Microsoft, Oracle, and IBM—will roll out robust suites at reduced prices.

If you can’t wait for the complete suites, META recommends you use best-of-breed products where needed and leverage application-server-based components where possible.

“The current mixes we see in the field favor Interwoven and Documentation for Web content management; Epicenter and Plumtree for portals; BroadVision, Art Technology, IBM, and BEA for personalization; and eRoom, Intraspect, and Inovie/SDRC for collaboration,” Warzecha stated.

To ensure your interests are protected in the interim, Warzecha recommends that you look for companies that are public and doing well or companies that are well funded on a private side.

The promise of smart portals
Do you agree with the author’s take on the emergence of smart portals? Send us some mail or post a comment.

 

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