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Portals: not just a one-way street


Once just a place to access documents, portals are now giving back

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

Portals have been a place where knowledge is stored, and their ability to provide Web access to all types of information has been attractive to companies. But unless people knew what information was available on the portal, they weren’t likely to go there. Now, portals are showing their true potential. They're becoming more interactive—not only informing users when pertinent information is added to the knowledgebase, but also actively scouring for information based on a user's shifting interests and priorities.

When paired with other technologies such as content management, collaboration and business intelligence, portals can improve business processes and boost efficiency within and across enterprises.

“I can’t make the point strongly enough that there has to be a reason for users—both inside and outside the company—to keep coming back to the portal,” says Bob Rugare, VP of technology consulting at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. “We’ve seen companies take the knowledge and databases they have in their own organizations and open them up to business partners and suppliers in an effort to try to build community.

“There is a desire to make those communities worthwhile and draw people back to the portals. There is a real need to branch out of the enterprise with portals. The return on investment is more important than ever, and the companies having the most success are the ones that are taking their portals and knowledge management efforts outside of the enterprise.”

Rugare continues, “There is a need for portals to do some interpretive guessing, if you will, on quality trends, for example.” Portals could interpret information—such as detect an increase in complaints about a particular part—and communicate that information back to the supplier through the portal, according to Rugare.

Matt Calkins, president and CEO of Appian, says, “It used to be that portals were a place where you could catch a lot of information, but now the role of portals is to ferry that information to the users.”

Personalization technologies, which have been popular among users of commercial Web sites to tailor information to the needs of individual users, are now becoming part of the portal environment, Calkins says, “Companies have the advantage in that they know who inside the organization is working on a particular project or who is in a particular project. The information can be much more targeted.”

Calkins points to the U.S. Army as an example of the use of a portal for providing targeted information. “There was a group of soldiers who had been given vaccinations that were out of date. The portal helped to find those individuals and get the information to them,” he says. Had the information about the out-of-date vaccines only been posted on the portal without actively sending information to the affected soldiers, some would not have known about the outdated vaccine.

Observers agree that portals should adjust seamlessly to the needs and interest of the users, rather than relying on users to fill out forms about the types of information that is relevant to them. An example of that type of proactive knowledge management at the portal level is Tacit’s “hotlists” technology, which is an automated search agent that continuously looks for people working on related topics and invites them to coordinate their work.

“Some of the biggest issues facing companies that want to foster collaboration internally and externally is first figuring out whom to collaborate with and what to collaborate on,” says Andrew Dunning, director of marketing for Tacit. “The next level is really making that happen in a dynamic fashion—routing communication and filtering and personalizing information based on what the user is working on. A portal at a pharmaceutical company could recognize that John is doing research on a particular drug and will draw in other experts and information that is relevant to his project,” Dunning explains.

Aventis Pharmaceutical recently piloted Tacit's portal with 435 people across three global sites. In one example of success, a scientist was trying to develop a macrophage assay by culturing macrophages and using cell sorting. Normally he would have spent up to two weeks searching through literature to find examples of different protocols on various methods for culturing, and an additional two weeks to identify appropriate cell sorting technology. Tacit's KnowledgeMail provided nearly immediate access to other scientists who were able to provide the information and relevant experience he was seeking.

Portals shouldn’t be limited to the knowledge stored by the individual users, according to Jim Pitkow, CEO of Moreover. “Portals can provide aggregated business intelligence from the Internet," he says. "We scrape information that is of interest to you, as a portal user, and give you the headlines."

Leveraging knowledge—both internal and external—is the key to using a portal as a centralized database of best practices that can be applied across all departments and all lines of business within a company. The information gleaned from working with a client on a particular project is invaluable, but that value can only be realized when the information is available to others in the organization who working on a similar project.

SevenSpace, for example, is an outsourcing company involved with the management of a number of Web sites, including sites for Tiger Woods and the British Open. The company has developed an internal portal for sharing knowledge across the enterprise that can be applied to more than one project. The portal is called Managed Application Support Tool, or MAST for short.

“The goal of an information portal is to share best practices in an automated way,” says Brian Winter, VP of sales and marketing. “That’s how we can take a site like the British Open, which required 19 people to manage, down to six people, using shared resources.”

MAST currently holds about 1,400 individual network and application remediation procedures that customer support staff use to head off system problems and avert complaints.

In addition to trouble-shooting, account managers at SevenSpace pull client network and application management trends, based on past incidents, from MAST to analyze the level of service being delivered and make recommendations regarding best practices moving forward.

The next step, according to SevenSpace’s CEO Peter Weber, is to open up the company’s best practices portals to outsiders for a fee. “We’re exploring ways to open things up to our clients without putting competitive information at risk,” he says.

Kim Ann Zimmermann is a free-lance writer, 732-636-3612, e-mail kimzim2764@yahoo.com.


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