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Portals offer personalized windows to corporate knowledge

Intranets are making their mark as an interactive repository for corporate information.

By Kim Ann Zimmermann

Portals got their start as a user friendly way to present knowledge in the corporate world, and have evolved into truly interactive knowledge environments. The trend now is toward personalization of portals in the way that a Web surfer can pick and choose information as well as the format for its presentation, personalizing a search page like YAHOO.

The difficulty has been managing all the information that business portals access. As they are used to conduct business and respond to customer inquiries, it is increasingly important that the data is up-to-date, accessible and accurate.

"The first generation of these portals were used for storing pretty stagnant enterprise information," says Dan Agan, senior VP of marketing and corporate development for Convera. "Personnel policies and phone directories certainly have a place on the corporate intranet. But we're starting to see people thinking bigger, using the portals for enterprisewide knowledge management initiatives. Companies are starting to transition portals into the next generation where they are really a business tool as opposed to a piece of business communication."

Simply depositing information onto a corporate intranet is not enough, according to John A. Prego, general manager of U.S. operations for Hyperwave. "Portals have become, and need to continue to be, more knowledge management-centric," he says. "The real value in portals is collaborative knowledge management, not a library created for sake of a library."

What is driving the move to portals, according to Agan, is the desire for corporate users to surf for internal information in a similar way to surfing the Internet. "Everything has become portalized because it represents a more intuitive and Web friendly way to present information," he says.

Agan points to one of Convera's customers, British Gas, as a prime example of how portals are being used to cull information from a vast corporate database.

"They were doing exploration and came across some rare crested newts,” he says. “They had to stop and get someone to relocate the newts. Each day they were stopped, it cost $100,000. They were able to do a search and find that someone in the company was licensed to remove the newts, based on a story that was written about him in the company newsletter."

As companies become more global, that ability to quickly search the corporate knowledge database is increasingly important.

"Companies are becoming geographically disbursed,” Agan says. “A company may have an office in Tokyo that has all the information regarding available capital sources for international energy development. The portal is an accessible way to interface with information. These systems give users the ability to go back to and create a virtual work group, none of whom may be a part of your department."

Portals incorporate various media types. Agan explains, "Video is becoming an important media for the capture of knowledge. Imagine being able to get the chief scientist on tape before he or she changes jobs or retires, then being able to pull up that video when searching on a topic related to their expertise years later, even when they are no longer with the company."

A main driver of portals, according to Hyperwave's Prego, is the need to incorporate all kinds of documents and knowledge as part of a searchable network of information available to corporate users. "It’s not just the portal,” he says. “The portal provides an environment that allows users to build, deploy and combine content management and information retrieval. Corporations want to spend less time worrying about gluing together these disparate information systems and technologies."

Hyperwave recently added an e-learning suite that fosters learning through integrated e-mail, chat and discussion forums that are tailored for each course. The Hyperwave eLearning Suite lets users create private or public notes directly in the course content and then send them to the respective tutor for a response. The question as well as the answer can be saved and made available to future course participants.

Prego points to BMW, which used Hyperwave's KM system to engineer the new Z3 model. "There was a lot of collaborative information as part of this portal, including engineering documents, spreadsheets and memos that are all searchable," he says.

An essential feature for portals is openness. "They have to be easily integrated into an existing environment,” Prego says. “You can't justify installing portal technology to drive a $10 million project if you have to get rid of your underlying infrastructure." Cadbury Schweppes, a global beverages and confectionery company, will deploy a Plumtree portal for 10,000 employees in human resources, manufacturing, distribution, and sales and marketing. By providing a single point of access to a range of application resources and content from different company intranet and Internet sites, Cadbury Schweppes anticipates a reduction in operating costs and increase in employee productivity.

"We are confident that the Plumtree platform will increase the effectiveness of our people in performing their roles, giving us a single point of access to a wide range of business-relevant information, as well as many of the core SAP-based enterprise applications and Lotus Notes databases at the center of our business," says Ward Crawford, director of knowledge management at Cadbury Schweppes. "The Plumtree Corporate Portal will allow our staff—wherever they are located—to collaborate and share information on sales, manufacturing, marketing and also on company news and direction, and its scalability means that our portal can grow as we expand as a group."Staffers can use the portal to access SAP enterprise data that was previously difficult for them to access, along with dozens of Lotus Notes databases and consolidated news and content from multiple Internet and intranet sites.

While companies are deploying portals to share information internally, often the drive is to improve communication with those outside the company, such as suppliers or customers.

Car maker Audi Audi has selected Hyperwave's portal for a knowledge management system at its Audi AG Customer Care Centre. The new system will help representatives respond to customer queries faster and more efficiently, ultimately resulting in shorter processing times and better service for customers and prospects, according to Audi.

Currently, 8,000 documents are in the system, including customer service information, technical vehicle specifications, sales manuals, and press and marketing documents. Only the Customer Care division is using the technology so far, but Audi plans to expand its use to other departments inside and outside Germany.

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

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