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Collaboration and portals team up for enterprise workplace

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This article appears in the issue June 2006, [Vol 15, Issue 6]

What is a sure way to lose the attention of customers or prospects? Tell them that you want to sell them more IT infrastructure. That can be very challenging because of the amount and complexity of infrastructure that has already been purchased and deployed over many years. Most organizations that need infrastructure already have it, while the others tend to have the same reasons now as they had in the past for not buying it (with cost and lack of IT resources topping the list).

Collaborative technologies such as e-mail, calendaring, instant messaging, unified messaging, conferencing and team worksites are increasingly considered to be part of the overall IT infrastructure rather than standalone applications. Enterprise portals have always been considered part of the information and application access infrastructure. So what's a vendor or channel partner or IT evangelist selling those types of infrastructure to do?

The key is to focus on upgrading to a unified infrastructure, rather than merely adding to or replacing existing infrastructure. There are three steps to accomplishing that for collaboration and portals.

Step one is to recognize that collaboration and portal products and services involve mature technologies with extensive track records that are already part of the infrastructure. As a result, explaining what collaboration and portals can do separately for an organization should no longer be the focus. Most organizations have seen sufficient evidence firsthand or in customer case studies to understand the value that collaboration and portal functionality provide in supporting information workers. What organizations need to hear is how moving to the latest versions of collaboration and portal products will significantly increase line of business worker and team productivity while decreasing IT demands on IT resources for installing or subscribing to and managing the new versions.

Step two is to realize that collaboration and portal products and services are going to play more supporting and fewer leading roles in the future. The old collaboration model, which is still present in many workplaces, requires workers to move between silos of collaborative and business applications. The resulting fatigue caused by context switching is a primary obstacle to improving worker productivity and work quality. The new collaboration model consists of technologies embedded in the infrastructure that help empower teams to share information and otherwise work together more effectively within the context of line of business applications and processes.

The old portals model consisted of consolidating multiple intranets into a single launching point for business content and applications. It had a one-size-fits-all model that did not provide a good fit for everyone in the organization. The new portals model consists of technologies embedded in the infrastructure that help individuals and teams solve business problems by automating business processes and providing quick and easy access to exactly the right information and application functionality. This model is designed to accommodate multiple business processes and multiple business users, providing the user with greater flexibility in choosing how information will be displayed and delivered. The portal intelligently and automatically provides the right information, tools and workflows based on the particular task or process at hand, regardless of when and from where the access takes place.

Step three is to push convergence of collaboration and portal technologies to the limits so that upgrading one of those infrastructure technologies also upgrades the other. To accomplish that, the two should always be available as a well-synchronized team. Collaborative functionality and information should be available from within portal products and service in the form of portlets or composite applications that deliver just the right amount and type of functionality and content. Leveraging rich Internet application development approaches such as AJAX and Flash will give portal-based collaboration users the fruitful experience they expect.

Portal functionality should be available from within collaboration products and services in the form of personal, team and organizational sites for collaboration and accessing other business applications and content. The embedded delivery of both collaboration and portals translates into fewer collaboration and portal vendors active in the market. Merger and acquisition activity continues among vendors striving to provide full-featured ecosystems for information workers with collaboration, portal, content management, search and retrieval and business intelligence capabilities.

By following those three steps, collaboration and portals will move closer to what is required of them in what we call the enterprise workplace ("The Enterprise Workplace: How It Will Change the Way We Work," February 2005, at idc.com).

The enterprise workplace consists of the following elements:

  • a natural, intuitive and adaptive user experience;
  • an aggregation of interoperable application services determined by user roles and tasks;
  • a cohesive server-side platform for resolving multiple interfaces that takes advantage of the convergence of services across the server-side stack and information infrastructure and renders it in new ways; and
  • an infrastructure and interactive environment to support the intersection of people, processes and information.

The enterprise workplace represents the future user experience for information workers and suggests a change in enterprise architectures to meld service orientation and "contextual collaboration" together for the user. The goal ultimately is productivity and better business decisions. The enterprise workplace promises a means to quickly and efficiently execute business processes by navigating seamlessly across applications and information sources.

An enterprise workplace solution architecture also abstracts the application-specific services and expresses them in a common, more modular way. Business logic and rules that existed separately in each application are extracted and abstracted and run on a common application infrastructure that supports the operation and execution of application-specific services. That modular architecture allows extension and customization in the multiple underlying layers, yet it hides that complexity from the information worker.

The enterprise workplace delivers a consistent environment for information work. The user experience may be personalized; it may adapt to the specific style and needs of each information worker, his or her role, and the relevant contextual security and access controls conferred to him or her, or it may be formally designed to support a specific task or workflow. Regardless, it is always the same familiar work environment, unifying access to both the supporting applications and the collections of information within the enterprise.

The interface and user experience are not specific to each application, as is the case in today's work environment. This means that the information worker can perform a variety of tasks without having to switch from one context to another. Today, information workers often must perform a single task using several applications. The commands and interface change as users switch from one application to another, cutting and pasting, reformatting and conforming to the demands of the application. In contrast, the enterprise workplace should conform to the demands of the job, and to the user. Through creation of a single familiar environment, many unproductive, repetitive efforts can be eliminated.

The applications that underlie this user experience employ an integrated, single set of modules that form the supporting infrastructure. Rather than having each application contain a separate workflow or business process engine, search engine, user interface or collaborative tool, the unified infrastructure eliminates software duplication and confusion by supplying common functionality that behaves identically across tasks. Because those modules are all standards-based, they can be extended or swapped in and out to support the differing demands of each enterprise.

The enterprise workplace provides a different perspective on the infrastructure conversation. It is designed from the user perspective and makes it easier for the information worker to access and gain greater value from a company's infrastructure assets. By not forcing the user to think within the context of how applications, collaboration and portals work in order to complete tasks, the user operates within an environment that is more in tune with the logical workflow of day-to-day business activities.


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