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Dawn of the Dead: Portals' Revenge

By IT Jungle
Published: January 23rd, 2012

Portals are not dead. They've just been sleeping. Almost all highly hyped technology eventually moves into reality, where the effects of market consolidation and sometimes technology commoditization can dull a formerly bright star. But this could be a better time and place for portals thanks to social media and cloud computing. The big guys-- IBM, Oracle, Microsoft, SAP, and a few others are poised. While some smaller vendors are featuring lighter weight and lower cost products.

We're still in the midst of a major hype storm that's dumping huge amounts of propaganda concerning social media and cloud computing. That's not said to condemn these technologies, but said as a warning to keep your shovels handy. When it comes to portals, at least there's a track in the snow to follow.

"I think the portal hype has diminished in the past several years," says Gartner portal and Web technologies expert Jim Murphy, who talked with me last week. "There is a lot of frustration with portals not necessarily meeting the promise that companies were led to believe they would get. And now there are some disruptive factors like social environments. Companies are wrestling with the idea of creating a Facebook-like mechanism with the goal that it can or should replace the traditional portal."

Don't automatically blame portal technology for project failures. Murphy believes many portal projects didn't deliver expected results because of the "push-only" nature of their implementations. In many instances, companies began their portal projects with internal goals using their employees (B2E) as the beta group. This was a good strategy from the standpoint of easier integration compared to an external (B2B) portal with bigger data integration issues to resolve. However, the common tactic of forcing employees to change their routines and handle their interactions with their employer in a self-serve fashion for items like payroll, vacations, and expense reports led to some disastrous results.

One thing that's changed since portals made their debut is the expectations of Web users. Employees, for example, may resist using an internal portal typically set up for human resources because the portal doesn't fit their ideas of easy collaboration and knowledge management. In the case of portals designed as a place to work, employee resistance can make the portal an expensive mistake.

Similarly, on a B2B level, many of the portal projects took the "force a captive audience" approach. Wal-Mart was the most publicized of these, and maybe the most successful, too. Others didn't go so well.

I received some similar feedback from Marcel Sarrasin, product manager at BCD, which has had a portal product on the market for years. He said the common problems with portal projects was not fully understanding the purpose of the portal and what content will go into it before getting under way with the portal construction.

"People sometimes have a hard time picturing what the portal will look like and what will go in it," he says. Some iSeries shops that are new to the Web have a hard time picturing what a portal is since in the green screen world the login is built in and menus are very basic. I always recommend people start with pencil and paper and map out how they see the navigation, what type of menu, how many pages, etc. Really think about that up front rather than just jumping in and creating pages."

"Know your user so you know how to design it," advises Sarrasin. "For example, if a typical user doesn't access the portal often, use high-level navigation that the user can drill into. For frequent users menu-tree navigation works well because those users like to access information in one click. Conversely, a long menu tree can make information harder to find for users who aren't familiar with the content. Additional things to consider early in the planning stage are ease of administration and how much content is shared among different users. Define groups of users if your portal supports user and group authority. That way when you add content and can assign it authority at the same time, rather than doing it after the fact."

There are four provisions that a portal must provide, according to Murphy. For a successful project, attention must be given to security administration, integration and interoperability, personalization, and content management or aggregation. The emphasis on these elements will change depending on the audience, which means whether the portal is built for B2B, B2E, or B2C.

Security has a different characteristic, for instance, depending on whether the audience is internal (employees) or external (business partners or consumers). B2E portals have different workloads that are weighted toward knowledge management, collaboration, dashboards, and perhaps self-service enterprise applications.

With B2B portals, there tends to be large quantities of shared transactional data that requires heavy-duty data integration capabilities. Without integration, the power of the portal fades. It is not uncommon for the lack of interoperability to be the weak link in the chain.

"A portal is meant to offer a number of means for integrating," Murphy says. "Sometimes it happens in a duct tape way that might serve a temporary purpose. It offers a presentation of data from various sources to a user, but it is not a deeper-level integration that involves back-end systems. There are all types of complexities involving different types of data with different formats. There are many nuances that affect data coming from a specific database compared to data from an application or a document. In a B2B, you can't count on everyone having the same types of data and sources of that data, but also the way they describe data. This can be much less of a problem when building an internal portal where control is easier."

Although integration and interoperability is a critical aspect of a successful portal project, some of these capabilities are beyond the scope of the portal itself and require a separate investment. Uncertainty about the data that will be going into the portal, as Sarrasin pointed out, often leads to costly mistakes and dissatisfied users.

Another example of expectations falling short is in the area of business process management. A portal won't magically create BPM when none exists outside the portal.

"In some situations, portals are used like duct tape," Murphy says. "It can be a hodge-podge when it comes to integration. When integration is done only on the front end, or at the glass, it can be hard to deal with in the future as the portal gets upgraded. It can be the old saying of putting lipstick on a pig.

"One issue is performance. When trying to access systems from diverse places and various formats, you want to ensure good performance out of all the existing systems. It's not a good situation to be insulated from the complexity that is going on in the back end."

Murphy is doing several sessions at the upcoming Gartner Portals, Content and Collaboration Summit in Orlando, Florida, March 12 through 14. His sessions include Using Generation 7 Portals to Attract and Engage Customers, Employee Portals: The Revenge of the Intranet, andSix Portal Pitfalls and How to Avoid Them. He also is moderating a case study featuring portals in the cloud and leading a workshop on best practices for employee portals. An agenda of educational tracks and sessions can be viewed at http://www.gartner.com/technology/summits/na/portals/agenda.jsp.