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.