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Enterprise portals: adding value through workflow

By Brian McDonough

Demand for enterprise information portal (EIP) software is growing rapidly as companies seek to address the unique information and application access needs of many different constituencies inside and outside the enterprise. Customers, suppliers, employees and partners are provided with unprecedented access to information and applications. Productivity and effectiveness improvements are being realized by portal adopters in nearly every facet of the organization. But substantial opportunities exist to further increase the effectiveness of the enterprise's ability to adapt rapidly to market changes by using portal software integrated with workflow capabilities.

Choosing from among the dozens of available EIP software offerings can be daunting, because the investment decision will impact the enterprise for many years as the role of the portal organically expands. Portals that simply provide access to content today need to incorporate new, more intelligent functionality for the business user. The EIP also must integrate with more sources of information and more types of applications as it becomes the platform for enhancing productivity among the work force.

Workflow will play a substantial role in realizing that productivity gain and can enhance return on the portal investment by coordinating the applications and content that is delivered to a knowledge worker for execution of tasks. For example, application services and related content for decision support can be delivered to a knowledge worker when a customer service request is initiated. The knowledge worker no longer needs to sift through several separate applications and information silos to achieve an appropriate resolution. Companies must anticipate the future requirements of their users and IT departments, and choose an EIP offering that can support changing needs with a flexible platform.

Designing and implementing automated business processes across company departments and corporate computing resources is crucial to enhancing the effectiveness of knowledge workers by providing decision support when and where it is needed. It also allows decisions to be actionable. With increased process management capabilities, companies will not be limited to delivering content and applications in silos. Content can be delivered in the context of a business process, and employees can interact as needed with appropriate applications. Application services can be combined with content in a single view to better suit the needs of the business user.

For example, structured data can be routed to appropriate employees based on business rules. If sales managers need to know when orders in their territory are falling, they can create a workflow that generates an e-mail alert based on information from an order processing application. Tasks can be automatically assigned to relevant team members to expedite the execution of business processes, or marketing content can be delivered to support sales efforts. Those processes can be refined continually by the sales manager to improve sales effectiveness. Business process management functionality allows rapid design and implementation of enterprisewide or team-specific processes, enabling best-practice sharing, process consistency and enhanced productivity.

Simple workflows for managing marketing collateral development to more complex processes involving multiple applications, multiple employees and business partners and multiple sources of content can all be integrated with a process layer, essentially creating highly adaptive e-business applications. Opportunities to provide more intelligent computing resources to the right people at the right time develop through the integration of business processes and EIP software.

As EIP software manages more business-critical processes, potential buyers must consider several factors before committing to a vendor. While current functionality is important, future business requirements, such as the ability to manage processes through the portal, also should be considered. Flexible offerings from viable vendors who can focus resources on developing future enhancements will lead the marketplace.

Separating business rules from the application layer enables companies to rapidly adjust their processes as the market demands. That can also reduce the risk of vendor lock-in. When business rules are managed and maintained by legacy systems, for example, process change becomes more difficult and costly to execute. Capabilities spanning security, process management and presentation of information will be increasingly delivered through the portal.

The enterprise portal software stack

Many current portal offerings lack business user-oriented process design and integration capabilities. Role-based views of information and applications are useful, but do not mirror the way in which people work. Knowledge workers begin, continue or complete many projects with varying time frames and priorities throughout the day. Providing applications and content in the context of those business processes enhances the productivity of knowledge workers. And less reliance on e-mail-based communications to complete projects improves knowledge capture and transfer.

Business process know-how or expertise should be captured, automated and repeated. With employee turnover, companies face significant risk of losing intellectual capital. Capturing best practices improves operations and reduces business risks associated with turnover. As know-how is implemented as automated business process, it becomes an asset to the organization. Making it available to the enterprise through the portal improves the enterprise's ability to scale its operations.

As the portal becomes the primary platform for managing access to applications, business processes and information, the enterprise will define the portal as mission-critical. Knowledge workers will rely on the portal to automate tasks and reduce the amount of time spent searching for information. Workers will be increasingly able to focus on more strategic functions of their jobs, such as managing exceptions to business rules, collaborating, innovating and ultimately improving the value of the enterprise. With the role of the portal expanding and becoming increasingly valuable, the IT department must keep up with demands from business users for new functionality.

As the number of touch points between applications and business users increases, administration, application development and integration can become more complex. The IT department’s need for productivity-improving software will grow in relation to the complexity of the enterprise computing environment. Using software from multiple vendors to support that process would increase training time and add yet another layer of complexity to the job. Therefore, new, company-specific Web-based applications, delivered through the portal as portlets, should be developed with high quality assurance.

The EIP software market is rapidly evolving to cater to the needs of both the IT and business user populations. As functionality requirements grow, process integration will be increasingly important to vendors seeking to compete in the EIP software market. Portals that simply provide access to content today need to incorporate new, more intelligent functionality for the business user, while reducing the impact on stretched IT resources. Integrating process management capabilities with the portal addresses those requirements. Presentation of tasks in the context of relevant content and applications creates efficiencies for knowledge workers. Highly focused teams will more rapidly execute business objectives as they participate in business processes delivered through the portal.

Business orientation

Portals that provide business user-oriented process design and integration capabilities help:

  • IT and business users focus on achieving corporate goals; ;

  • business users spend less time searching for corporate resources and more time making decisions and executing job duties;;

  • IT users more efficiently coordinate the development, testing and launch of new functionality into the portal; and;

  • coordinate efforts, leading to improved productivity and job satisfaction.

Brian McDonough is research manager, Enterprise Portal Solutions, IDC (idc.com), e-mail bmcdonough@idc.com.

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