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Planning portal initiatives: Ten steps to success

Portals can be used to connect people, information, and applications, helping companies support business units and customers with online solutions. Here's how to plan and properly implement a portal solution.

By Brian Hazzard, Senior Consultant, Technical Architect, Molecular®

As the Internet has increasingly been used to connect people, information, and applications, companies have raced to support business units and customers with online solutions. But many such solutions—corporate sites, extranets, intranets, self-service applications, and the supporting infrastructure—have been developed in discrete initiatives utilizing a host of technologies.

Maintaining these "siloed" initiatives is costly, and controlling the aggregate customer experience has become increasingly difficult. As a result, the solution may not be meeting the needs of employees, partners, customers, or suppliers—putting loyalty, productivity, and revenue at risk.

Portals have gained popularity because they address these issues. Planned and implemented well, a portal provides a single point of access to diverse sets of information and applications. However, many portal initiatives fail during implementation, or quickly fall into disuse.

Portal initiatives are complex, but the reasons for failure (or success) are virtually universal. The following 10 steps outline the requirements for planning a successful portal initiative.

1. Establish your objectives. Is this an internal portal, or intranet; a public portal; or private extranet? Is it part of a larger effort to integrate multiple sites and/or applications, or are there other reasons? Your answers will guide choices of architecture, technology, and design.

Then, determine the business goals you expect to achieve with the portal. Common goals include:

  • Reduced operational costs
  • Increased productivity
  • Improved decision-making
  • Stronger business relationships
  • Streamlined business processes
  • Increased customer satisfaction

2. Build your business case. Before starting a portal effort, build your business case. Failure to identify business objectives and success criteria can lead to failure, even before you begin.

Often the assumptions behind the business plan ultimately define the success criteria for the portal initiative. Frequently, internal portals focus on increasing operational efficiency, while external portals concentrate on increasing market share, revenue streams, and customer retention.

Next, estimate the cost of the initiative. Before selecting a platform, understand the user experience, integration options, and security solutions that are required. Consider the full range of expenses, including licensing, training, design, development, testing, and maintenance costs. Costs should be revisited once the platforms are identified and a plan is established, when the investment required may be more accurately anticipated.

Finally, consider re-evaluating your approach after building the business case. Ask yourself: Is this portal needed? What is the potential ROI?

3. Plan a phased approach. Since portals generally integrate a number of applications, these initiatives tend to be highly transactional and commonly incorporate advanced security features. Don't expect to get every feature into your first release. Rather, plan a phased project—focused on the highest priority business scenarios first—to ensure initial success. Once the most critical transactions are identified, concentrate subsequent iterations on advanced scenarios and features.

4. Establish a governance structure. Because portals integrate assorted experiences and applications from dispersed business units, there can be governance issues across the enterprise. Clarity around decision-making is critical. For example, if Customer Relations owns the CRM application and Human Resources owns the intranet, what is the process for deciding what to integrate and what to link out of the portal?

Establish and secure the resources required to support the initiative. Without support from the top down, the portal initiative will always be at risk.

5. Invest in training. If a commercial portal product is chosen, realize that portal infrastructures provide a different way of architecting solutions. To efficiently leverage the platform's capabilities, you need a solid understanding of how the portal platform works. Training thus should be scheduled once the platform is selected.

To gain experience with the portal technology, consider creating a proof of concept. The proof of concept may be structured to mitigate high-risk areas and/or to validate design or user experience. This step should be taken early in the process, both to validate your technical approach and to allow stakeholders to envision what they are ultimately going to get.

Finally, the initial implementation should set standards for the user experience and the technical implementation that should be followed as future portlets are integrated with the application.

6. Establish the infrastructure. Infrastructure delays can frequently impede projects. These complexities often impose requirements on the network architecture, content management, database connectivity, application communications, and security infrastructure. Plan the portal development and runtime environments early on, possibly as distinct phases that are managed accordingly.

7. Design the user experience. The "behind the scenes" work of various applications integrated by the portal should be invisible to the user—no matter how complex. Prior to the design phase, ask:

  • What are the user segments you want to engage?
  • What are the main tasks they'll perform?
  • How will the portal impact productivity?
  • Have the project goals been reconciled against the costs?

The answers to these questions are key to a compelling, cost-effective experience. Common tools used to ensure a successful user experience include usability testing, personas, user surveys, task analysis, card sorting, and taxonomies.

8. Clarify content management infrastructure. While the goal is an integrated and seamless front end, portal content is often managed by dispersed business units, each with disparate development and workflow requirements.

In many legacy applications, a simple content change requires a striking amount of lead time; this is in direct conflict with the notion that portal success is measured by its ability to deliver timely information and services.

Content management systems can address this pain, providing business units with greater control over content and allowing non-technical users to manage content using familiar desktop tools.

Since portal infrastructures require consistent, well-categorized content in order to target relevant information for the user, many portal products feature integrated content management technology. The ideal scenario is to service the varying system requirements using a common platform. To this end, content management should be an enterprise-wide effort that facilitates the many content needs of your portal application.

9. Identify security needs. Portals generally require security services such as confidentiality, integrity, and availability. Because portals integrate multiple applications, single sign-on (SSO) is often critical for a successful user experience, as it provides security across applications using a single authentication request. Ask:

  • Must your portal integrate with sensitive external applications?
  • Is there an existing security framework?
  • Will the portal be accessed from multiple locations and devices, with different security requirements and capabilities?
  • Will it integrate with services provided by external partners with different security policies and integration requirements?

The answers to these questions will determine whether the portal platform provides the necessary infrastructure to meet your security requirements.

10. Invest in testing. Portal projects bring together a large amount of functionality. If managed improperly, integration may result in unexpected and complex issues, such as contention for system resources. Define test cases early and plan for extensive user testing to ensure a scenario that works across the enterprise.

With technology advancements that have vastly improved portal products, a portal can be a sound business investment. However, organizations evaluating portals should understand the complexities beyond technology. Because the technology frequently integrates a diverse set of content and services, portal initiatives tend to cross organizational boundaries and involve multiple stakeholders with differing business objectives. Success is determined by how well the portal is planned—and later, by the extent it is utilized. Taking the steps outlined in this article will help you prepare for this potentially rich and rewarding journey.

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