The Business Forum

"It is impossible for ideas to compete in the marketplace if no forum for
  their presentation is provided or available."         Thomas Mann, 1896


ENTERPRISE PORTALS
The Convergence of Information, Application and Technology


Author: Corey Smith
Contributed by Kanbay Inc.

 

It is a single window onto the combined knowledge and processing power of the enterprise”

Without information architecture you will simply build stove-pipe Legacy systems at Internet speed.”

“Strategic IT Planning allows you to identify and prioritize the components of the portal to be implemented.”

 

The Vision

The Enterprise Portal is the desktop for a new age, the information age.  It is a single window onto the combined knowledge and processing power of the enterprise.  To enhance the experience of customers, employees, suppliers and partners the Enterprise Portal must provide a convergence of information, application and technology.

This convergence differentiates the Enterprise Portal from a collection of web sites by offering universal access to information, role-based personalization, cross-application workflow, common content management, centralized user management and a framework for future application development. 

Organizational benefits are derived from improved customer service, increased employee efficiencies, opening new markets and reduced costs for internal and external business transactions.

The Reality

It is useful to view an Enterprise Portal as an Information Architecture and not an application. The architecture establishes the foundation for a common view of the data, plug and play applications and a common management interface for content and security.  The real power of the Enterprise Portal comes from the convergence, not from the web-base display mechanism.

It is not practical to implement an Enterprise Portal at one time, so it must be implemented as components.  Components include one or more departmental portals (self-service HR or Business Intelligence) and infrastructure components (Directory Services).

The architecture is the guiding hand that allows you to implement web applications and departmental portals with confidence that they can be tied together later.  Without information architecture you will simply build stovepipe Legacy systems at Internet speed. 

The Strategy

Strategic IT Planning allows you to identify and prioritize the components of the portal to be implemented.  Planning ensures that the components will fit together to create a cohesive platform.   

  • Business goals and objectives are analyzed to determine if the Enterprise Portal architecture will help the business meet its objectives. 

  • IT objectives are set to drive the work to be accomplished.

  • Strategies to meet each IT objective are prioritized and selected. 

  •  Tactical Plans, including budgets and milestones, to implement the strategies are developed.

  •  Business Measures are identified so that the value of implementing the strategies can be judged against the cost of implementing them.

Introduction

This document is intended to define an Enterprise Portal and to show how it can provide value to the organization.  It will also identify several considerations for planning the implementation.   It is intend for an audience with a basic understanding of the Web and consumer portals such as Yahoo.  However, this document is not intended as a definitive guide to this ever-evolving aspect of e‑Business nor will it provide specific step-by-step instructions on the care and feeding of your Enterprise Portal. 

What is an Enterprise Portal

The Enterprise Portal evolves from the consumer portal as represented by the popular My Yahoo model.  From Yahoo, a consumer gets a single view of the information on the Internet.  It provides searching capabilities, a customizable interface and categorized content to deliver exactly what the user wants, without a lot of browsing. 

The enterprise portal seeks to provide the virtues of the consumer portal to the organizational user while expanding the offering to meet the needs of the user community.  In this context, the user community includes employees, suppliers, partners and customers of the enterprise.  We can broaden the consumer portal definition to say that the Enterprise Portal is a single window onto the combined knowledge and processing power of the enterprise. 

But what does that mean?  The idea of a single window (or gateway) implies that there is one place or location that users can go to access all the enterprise information they need.  To accomplish this, the portal will need to know who the user is and what their information requirements are. 

The combined knowledge and processing power means that there is a convergence, or integration, of information, applications and technology resources. It also means there is a convergence of people - customers, employees, vendors, and partners - who are a crucial part of the knowledge and processing power. 

Even The Enterprise is not as clearly defined as it once was.  In the emerging e-business model, the enterprise can encompass information and people beyond the legal boundaries of the corporation.  The portal may include shipping information from a vendor, financial data from Dow Jones and current inventory levels from your customer. 

Within this context, what differentiates an Enterprise Portal from a grouping of web sites or a consumer portal?  It is essential to focus on seven key concepts that characterize an Enterprise Portal:

1.      Universal access to a broad range of information in both structured and unstructured formats from a variety of devices. 

The Enterprise Portal needs to provide the right information to the right user at the right time.  The system must provide a variety of access methods.  Besides the standard web browser, personal digital assistants and web-enabled phones are emerging as important access methods.  Universal access places greater demands on the networks and servers to support greater volumes of traffic through more channels.

The Enterprise Portal must allow greater access to structured and unstructured information.  Current systems tend to provide structured information like customer information or account balance from database systems.  The portal needs to provide access to unstructured information like images, email or discussion groups. 

2.      Personalized presentation for each user based on their role or function within the organization. 

An Enterprise Portal must go beyond the personalized content provide by a consumer portal to offer role-based customization.  Personalization allows an individual to control the presentation based on personal preference.  By contrast, role-based customization delivers content based on your role in the organization or your participation in certain groups. 

Take an example such as performance appraisal reminders.  Any employee designated a manager, for instance, will have appraisal reminders placed on their personal calendar automatically.  The reminders are only for that manager's staff and the reminders are removed as soon as the manager is designated as a non-manager. 

3.       Support for extended business functions that cross applications, functions and even organizations. 

Cross-functional workflow is an essential component of the Portal’s convergence of information and application.  Consider all the components of a new employee process within your organization: payroll, insurance, 401(k), building security, parking permit, PC procurement and office supplies. The portal must facilitate and monitor the extended business function. 

Further, in the evolving e-Business framework, processes don’t merely cross-functional boundaries, they cross organizational boundaries.  In the new employee example above, the 401(k) and insurance enrollment tasks of the process may be handled by a HR outsourcing firm. 

4.        Knowledge Management by encouraging and capturing person-to-person collaboration. 

Capturing collaboration is the key to organizational learning, but systems rarely facilitate this process.  Collaboration covers a significant range of human interaction that includes co-production of documentation, email, online whiteboards, video conferencing, online forums and project management tools. 

Facilitating the collaboration allows distributed teams to come together virtually, to work together more effectively and to produce better results.  Capturing the collaboration allows for an organizational memory of the process to be reused later.  For instance, a product vendor and a channel partner can work together on a sales effort for a particular customer.  The portal can support online meetings as well as allowing the concurrent development of sales material and contracts.  Once the sale is complete, the implementation team can access the materials to ensure the delivery of the product and a new sales team can reuse the sales materials on a different customer in the same vertical market.

5.        A standardized means of content creation and management.

In becoming the new desktop and single window for all information, the Enterprise Portal must facilitate the creation and management of content by all users.  Consider the following four items:

         Content publishing tools must be available to all users so they can create and maintain information in an open format.  With the portal as the new desktop, desktop productivity tools that publish to the portal are a requirement.  In addition, users must publish in a format that the audience can accept.  There is no guarantee that the sales agreement you created with WordPerfect can be read in MS Word by your partner. 

         Content management is the responsibility of individuals not of the webmaster.  Which individual or individuals will be responsible depends on the situation.  A user should be able to control content in their personal areas.  In a team setting, all team members can edit documents for group use, but are not allowed access to external facing documents.  In HR, any team member can edit the document, but the VPs of HR and Legal must approve changes before they are officially published.   

         Change control must be available when needed.  Some documents, particularly those developed in a collaborative environment, need features to control and document revisions as well as ensuring the availability of the “official version” to all users. 

         Categorization schemes need to be established to help users find information in a consistent manner.  While many look to super search engines to solve the information glut problem, it is unlikely that such tools will help the average user in the near term.  The value of the Yahoo portal is that you don’t search for “travel agents”, you go to the travel category and then to the “travel agents” category.  A search for “travel agents” could easily return tens of thousands of hits.  Returning ten thousand hits does not encourage productivity.

6.        A comprehensive, centrally administered information security policy that defines each user’s access to all applications and data. 

Your organization needs a robust information security strategy whether implementing an Enterprise Portal or not.  Therefore, this point does not imply that there is a difference between security for an Enterprise Portal and a traditional computing environment.  Instead, it acknowledges the general overall weakness of security implementations.  This point dictates that the shortcomings of your current security infrastructure must not be migrated to the Enterprise Portal.

A robust security infrastructure starts with a comprehensive information security strategy that guides the development of policies and practices.  Information security is a complex mix of business and technical issues that must be reconciled to produce the strategy.  Additionally, rigorous security policies are complex, but the complexity must not be compounded by the method of administration.  Centralizing security management reduces administrative complexities, redundancies and inconsistencies. 

7.        A framework to allow for new applications to plug into the Portal in the future.

If change is a constant then there is an implicit requirement to build a flexible framework to encourage further development of portal applications.  Adopting an Enterprise Portal is adopting a new computing platform.  New applications will be added to the Portal while existing systems will need to be enhanced or converted to run in the portal.  Given the current trend in purchased applications, it is essential that software vendors be consulted for their development strategy. 

An open framework also encourages the inclusion of 3rd party information and tools.  For instance, a group of money managers might be delivered financial data from Dow Jones News Service. 

The Enterprise Portal’s Value Proposition

The true value of the Enterprise Portal comes from the convergence of information, application and technology.  Without the convergence, the migration to the web is largely a conversion of the presentation layer of the application.  It is difficult to imagine that significant value can be realized simply by changing the look and feel of the application, again.

The issue of value will vary from organization to organization, but common themes which should be consider include:

  • A server-based portal allows the organizations to consider migrating from a fat client to a thin client.  While complete elimination of PCs is unlikely, it does open the option to not have a PC on every desk, thereby reducing the cost to support the equipment and users.

  • Allowing universal access by a variety of devices supports distributed and mobile users better than the standard desktop model.  First, you break geographic boundaries that restrict interaction.  For example, the collaboration features can allow a technical subject matter expert to participate in a sales proposal without the cost of travelling (or less travelling).  Second, users are provided a device that better fits their usage patterns.  A laptop isn’t necessarily a practical tool for outside sales and service.  A Palm Pilot may provide greater access to information at a reduced cost to the organization.

  • Better information security is more efficiently provided through the implementation of consistent security policies that are centrally managed.

  • Customers and partners realize reduced costs of doing business and improved service because the Enterprise Portal provides them the information they need simply and easily.  This extra value encourages loyalty and increases business.  Such features include an online catalog, real-time order tracking, technical and sales support, distribution of marketing collateral and personalized data warehouses.

  • Easy access to accurate and timely information will increase employee productivity which leads to reduced costs and reduced staffing needs.  Self-service HR systems offer the employee the ability to quickly and accurately perform routine HR tasks, freeing the HR staff to perform higher value tasks.

  • Efficiencies will be recognized through workflow that spans applications, departments and even organizations.  The process is integrated and documented, easier to monitor and is completed more accurately.  Facilitating cross-organizational processes through workflow tools reduces the need for handholding to ensure completion of the work.

Portal Examples

As mentioned earlier, an Enterprise Portal is more an architecture than an application.  Therefore, the examples mentioned below are not Enterprise Portals but instead they are components.  Taken as a whole, along with the underlying infrastructure, they help to form the Enterprise Portal.  The following three examples have emerged as popular choices for an initial portal offering based on the value and experience gained.

Self-Service Human Resource Portal

The self-service HR portal is intended to provide the employee with direct access to their payroll and personnel information.  Employees can check on vacation and sick leave totals, update their 401(k) deductions, contribute to the United Way and see when their next appraisal is due.  If the employee is also a manager, they can view appropriate information regarding their staff (performance, salary).  They would have access to personnel procedures for hiring or long-term disability claims and can post a new job opening. 

The services are directly tied into the existing payroll and personnel systems to allow transactions to be completed online by the employee.  If an outsourcing partner supports a function, then the portal must integrate with the partner’s system. 

Benefits include greater access to information, less paper shuffling, reallocating HR staff to higher value work and increased compliance with policy and procedure. 

Web Housing Portal

The Web Housing Portal is a web-enabled reporting system or data warehouse.  To differentiate, a reporting system would provide reports on data from a transactional system at a point in time, whereas, the data warehouse provides access to consolidated information about a fact presented over time. 

Using the online reporting system, users will find all their reports consolidated to one place, easily viewable when they need them and available for printing on demand.  An enhanced system can offer a database of transactional data for ad hoc reporting.  In this situation, the users can develop and run the reports they want, whenever they want.  Data warehousing goes beyond simple reporting and provides information to support investigation into areas such as sales trends, resource utilization or manufacturing quality.  From the portal, users will find pre-defined queries as well as tools to create ad hoc queries.  Again the users can find all the information consolidated into one area and is empowered to create and modify queries as needed. 

Expanding on the reporting options, users may see real benefits from a dashboard implementation of the reports and queries.  The dashboard concept places key decision making data onto one page, much as a car dashboard contains all the key operational data about the car.  When paired with an alert mechanism, users can specify that they be alerted when certain threshold criteria is met (inventory falls below two day reserves, cash balances drop below $35,000.00, etc). 

Benefits include savings from reduced printing and shipping costs.  The users are empowered to create the reports they need to do their job without the waiting for IT.  When the data warehouse is integrated into the portal more users (employees, customers, partners) have access to the data to improve their decision making.

E-Procurement Portal

The cost of processing purchase orders is very high, whether for standard office supplies or key resources.  Many firms are realizing significant cost savings as they move procurement online.  In an online system, users have access to the necessary catalogs and can place an order directly online.  The business rules around ordering and approvals (who can order how much against which cost center with whose approval) are built directly into the workflow.  The system ties into the supplier’s order system as well as the company’s own Accounts Payable and Receiving systems.

Benefits include increase purchasing power through consolidation of orders, better order tracking mechanism, reduced errors through online ordering and workflow enforced business rules, faster processing, reduced paper shuffling and more efficient use of staff.

Strategic Planning for Enterprise Portal Development

Given that the Enterprise Portal is an architecture, it is neither practical nor desirable to attempt to implement a full Enterprise Portal at one time.  Cost and complexity are major roadblocks, as are cultural issues and the lack of mature technologies.  But if you can’t implement it all at once, how can you ensure that the components will fit together when they are implemented?  The answer is to develop a long-term Strategic IT Plan. 

Strategic IT Planning methods have been around for sometime but have been under used due to the tactical nature of IT.  While IT Planning methods vary, generally they are composed of setting mission and objective, identifying strategies for each objective then defining an action plan to achieve each strategy.  A mechanism for providing feedback into the next planning cycle is included.

When Business Drives Technology

1.       Business Alignment

The first question to be answered is whether an Enterprise Portal architecture offers the kind of features that support the stated business strategies.  Business strategies that call for integration, process improvement, efficiencies, enhanced communication, better relationships or global expansion are consistent with the convergence and accessibility that an Enterprise Portal offers. 

If there is no compelling business drivers for an Enterprise Portal then IT objectives should be refocused.  If the business community seems to be unaware of the possibilities that new technology enables, IT should provide education as an input to the business planning cycle (see “When Technology Drives Business” below).

2.       IT Objective Setting

This step identifies the objectives to be accomplished by IT during the planning period.  Planning methodologies (IT and Business oriented) generally suggest three to five objectives for any given planning period.  The explicitly stated objectives of the Business Planning process will drive most of the IT objectives.  It isn’t particularly difficult to turn business objectives such as “cost reduction through inventory control” or “superior customer service through enhanced communication” into strategic IT objectives.

There are, however, a number of implicitly stated needs and it is incumbent upon the IT group to focus one of its Objectives on the architecture of the Enterprise Portal.  For instance, a B2B portal for channel partners carries an implicit need for security.  Likewise, a request for Knowledge Management carries an implicit request for a standard taxonomy to categorize information.  If the architectural foundations (tools, languages, protocols, standards and computing platforms) are not established, then convergence will never be achieved.

3.       Select Appropriate Strategies  

  

In this phase a series of alternate strategies to accomplish each objective are identified.  A ranking and prioritization scheme is use to select a strategy or strategy set that is deemed the most appropriate based on pre-determined selection criteria.  The primary consideration to use a consistent set of criteria so that the rankings of one strategy can be compared to the rankings of another. 

A common method is to map the value of a strategy against the ability of the organization to implement the strategy (see diagram at right).  Strategies that fall into the upper right quadrant are the strongest choices because they offer the most organizational value with the highest likelihood of success.  Selections in the upper left and lower right quadrants are marginal choices that can be improved by increasing the ability to implement or increasing the value of the project respectively.

The preferred method of ranking the value is to have the business community or Program Management teams[3] perform that function.  This is especially true for those strategies that might be used to implement the architecture of the Enterprise Portal as described above.  Because the requirements for such features are implicit, the business community may not value such strategies very high.  It is critical for IT to help them understand the value of centralized security or categorization schemes in the context of their explicit needs.  Without the proper support from the business community the strategy must be ranked lower on ability to implement because user support is a critical component in project success.

4.       Define Action Plan

The Action Plan is the means to implement the selected strategy or set of strategies.  Standard project management practices dictate that project teams are staffed, milestones are established and critical success factors are identified.  Again, the use of a Program Management team to ensure the success of the entire portfolio of projects is an increasingly common technique.

5.       Identify Measures of Success

In this final phase, performance criteria are established to determine if the objective has been achieved.  The criteria will include both financial and non-financial measures so that the value of achieving the objective can be judged against the cost of achieving the objective. 

When Technology Drives Business

The prescriptions in this document stress the need to align IT initiatives with the business goals to ensure that IT is delivering value in business terms.  There are, however, times when advancements in technology open up new possibilities, creating a situation where Technology drives Business. Acting as an internal consultant, IT must be aware of the potential for technology to change business and present these ideas as an input to the business planning process.  Let’s call this the Technology Education role.

It is important to differentiate the IT Strategy Planning role with the Technology Education role.  IT Strategies must remain focused on facilitating the goals and objectives of the organization as they exist.  Attempting to influence the strategic direction of the organization through IT implementations is the tail wagging the dog.  Significant resources, both time and money, are wasted on systems that don’t work, aren’t used or can’t support the full business functionality.  Ultimately, the credibility of the IT organization is diminished.

Take an example where the IT executive is aware of a general concern within the corporation that it is in a saturated market and is facing a stagnant market share.  Using standard web technologies, the IT executive believes the company can expand into foreign markets.  Wearing her Technology Education hat, the IT executive can use benchmarking, competitive analysis, case studies and prototypes to show the VP of Sales how the corporation can move into foreign markets.  The IT executive should not, however, set a strategic IT objective of developing a Spanish language catalog and order entry site until the business has decided to enter the market place. 

The e*Path Model for Planning and Implementation

There are various methods to accomplish the planning and implementation of an Enterprise Portal as described above.  One such method is Kanbay’s e*Path™ solution.  e*Path is a three-phased approach (shown below) for transforming a business into an e-Business.  It focuses on the deployment of new and legacy application to the web in a timely and cost effective manner. 

The Envision phase defines the strategies to move to e-Business.  Kanbay uses an e-Business Education step to enlighten the business community on the possibilities that technology offers before moving into the Business Strategy step.  Envision also offers Technology Strategy sessions to ensure alignment with the Business Strategy.  Envision also addresses two topics mentioned only briefly elsewhere in this document: Impact Analysis (cultural change) and Security Assessments. 

The Enable phase is the implementation phase of e*Path.  The strength of the Enable model is its ability to leverage existing investment in information infrastructure.  This decreases implementation time and offers a better return on the investment.  Using the Envision planning sessions as a guiding hand, implementation (new development, conversion, migration) of the components can be done with confidence that they will work together.

The Excel phase encourages growth through innovation by providing the necessary feedback on the business and technical performance of the system.  The performance measures allow for system modification or enhancements that improve the return on the investment.

Conclusion

An Enterprise Portal is the convergence of information, process and technology to provide a single window onto the combined knowledge and processing power of the enterprise.  It is defined by its universal access, role-based personalization, extended business functions, knowledge management features, ease of content creation and categorization, centralized security administration and application development framework.

An Enterprise Portal is an integrated architecture and not a single application, which means it is neither feasible nor desirable to implement as one entity.  In fact, an Enterprise Portal as defined here may not be suitable for your environment given its stated business objectives at this time.  It is important to identify and implement those components of the integrated architecture that do add value to your organization.

An overall plan, developed through Strategic IT Planning, is needed to ensure that the components of the Enterprise Portal (applications and infrastructure) are integrated to form a cohesive platform and that Enterprise Portal contributes to the goals of the enterprise.


Bibliography

An evolving body of knowledge (BOK) is much like the “take a penny, leave a penny” tray at the cash register.  In addition to my personal experiences, and those of other Kanbay Associates, I found the following to be excellent references from which to take a penny.

Blount, Sumner (2000, May). Secure Portal Management. EAI Journal, 44-49

Eckerson, Wayne (1999, July). 15 Rules for Enterprise Portals. Oracle Magazine

Finkelstein, Clive & Aiken, Peter (2000) Building Corporate Portals with XML. New York, NY:McGraw Hill

Grammer, Jeff (2000, March). The Enterprise Knowledge Portal. DM Review.  ID=1940

Hawes, Larry (2000, May 15). Portal Fusion. Intelligent Enterprise, 49-56

Rosenfeld, Louis & Morville, Peter (1998). Information Architecture for the World Wide Web. Sebastopol, CA:O’Reilly and Associates.

Schroeck, Michael J. (2000, January). Insights from the Front Line: Enterprise Information Portals. DM Review. Available at

Wiseth, Kelli (1999, November). Portal Power. Oracle Magazine

Without pointing to specific articles, periodicals such as DM Review - Intelligent Enterprise http://www.intelligententerprise.com and EAI Journal http://www.eaijournal.com are recommended because of their focus on IT convergence and integration. 


Editorial PolicyNothing you read in The Business Forum Journal should ever be construed to be the opinion of, statements condoned by, or advice from, The Business Forum Institute, its staff, workers, officers, members, directors, sponsors or shareholders. We pass no opinion whatsoever on the content of what we publish, nor do we accept any responsibility for the claims, or any of the statements made, within anything published herein.  We merely aim to provide an academic forum and an information sourcing vehicle for the benefit of the business and the academic communities of the Pacific States of America and the World. Therefore, readers must always determine for themselves where the statistics, comments, statements and advice that are published herein are gained from and act, or not act, upon such entirely and always at their own risk.  We accept absolutely no liability whatsoever, nor take any responsibility for what anyone does, or does not do, based upon what is published herein, or information gained through the use of links to other web sites included herein.                                                         Please refer to our:  legal disclaimer


The Business Forum
Beverly Hills, California, United States of America

Email:  [email protected]
Graphics by DawsonDesign
Webmaster:  bruceclay.com


   Copyright The Business Forum Institute - 1982 - 2015  ** All rights reserved.
 The Business Forum Institute is not responsible for  the content of external sites.

Read more