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Any portal in a storm?

Web portals are all the rage for small businesses, but before implementing them, companies have to figure out a few details first — like what they are, what they do, and why on earth you’d need one.

An e-mail from a former client crossed my screen a couple of days ago that brought back memories … six people seated around a conference table, three top administrators (including the CEO), two IT people, and myself. The topic was Web portals. I thought everybody was briefed on the subject. In reality, the situation was inherently tense: The administrators knew next to nothing about portals; the IT people knew too much. Being the consultant, I was called upon to open the proceedings with a statement about portals. Hoping to add a little color to the discussion I said: “A portal is somewhere between a multimedia performance and a subway. It’s a point of access on the Web where you want people to enjoy the show, yet you also want them to avoid traffic and find the quickest route to other places.”

The array of blank faces on the administrative side of the table was terrifying. I might as well have said, “The bryllig flixes are uncomphagre.” There are days when I wish I had telekinetic powers to strangle certain people from afar, in this case two IT colleagues. The agenda said we were supposed to come to a decision about a Web portal. Nowhere did it say that first there would have to be a seminar on what the heck a Web portal is.

A portal is not a simple thing

This meeting took place almost three years ago, when Web portals were a fresh idea, the dot-com bubble hadn’t burst, and smaller companies like this one had just picked up the idea on their radar. No doubt the CEO heard somewhere that it was good to have a Web portal. Two minutes into the meeting and he was already looking at me like I’d just been flown in to explain the mating habits of sand fleas.

The give-and-take that followed was often painful. The IT guys, recognizing that they hadn’t educated the administrators, launched various information attacks. The administrators did their best to defend their lack of knowledge behind a wall of skepticism. We probably should’ve adjourned for some hands-on portal experience and user training; but things being what they are under competitive stress, the CEO was determined to get a yea or a nay by quittin’ time.

We managed to hammer out a rough definition of a portal: A single point of access and interaction with the company’s data, software, and general information. I think everyone embraced the idea that the Web and Web browser provided a unique (read: cost-effective) environment for employees (and others) to access and share business-related information. These two points of agreement belied uncertainty with the details and what it meant for this particular company.

What’s in it for me?

The lingering issue, also in the literature about portals, is how they are distinguished from a regular Web site. After all, if it isn’t significantly different, then why all the fuss? Among the many perspectives, I encourage thinking like the user–an employee or business partner. What do they find at your company’s portal that they can’t get at the Web site?

I recall one of the IT guys at the meeting putting it remarkably well: “We want the portal to be a big part of an employee’s work environment: A place they go to find company and business information, communicate ideas, collaborate on projects, fill out forms and reports, and generally participate as a member of the community. Right now most of these things exist in scattered fragments; a portal gives us a chance to make all these things more convenient and hopefully easier–and at the same time make it more effective for the company.”

A corporate Web site targets the public; a corporate portal targets insiders; that’s a big difference. As I tried to emphasize in the meeting, a portal looks like a Web site but has to do more of many things. It needs more security to protect the access to corporate information, more focus on aggregate data, more collaboration tools, much more integration with company applications and workflow systems, and, above all, much more attention to personalized interaction. The employee needs to feel that a portal is his or her portal–relevant, focused, and responsive.

Not a large economy-size portal

I remember in particular a question posed by the CEO: “We have two fulltime people working on our Web site. I think they make more than I do. Can they do the portal, too?” As far as I was concerned, the CEO was addressing a core issue for this company (and, in fact, any small- to medium-sized business): staffing.

There are portals and then there are portals. Ford Motor Co. has a portal with more than 300,000 Web pages, a couple of hundred thousand users, and links to more than 1,000 applications and locations. Of course, they have an army of people for the care and feeding of this monster. The situation is different when a portal may have only a few hundred Web pages, a couple applications (portlets), and a few dozen users. Whether employees or contractors, at this scale the cost of personnel is much harder to swallow.

Consequently, the answer to the CEO’s question is usually, “No. The portal will require additional people.” Why? Obviously, it’s more work; but primarily because of portal software, which is a complex amalgam of portal-specific programs, database systems, and integrated applications. It’s not the same mixture as a standard Web site. A portal requires specialists, or at least people who are familiar with the portal software and approach. Some of the cost of this specialization has to be borne whether the portal is big or small.

Big words, bigger deeds

A portal is very visible; if a company makes big promises, the results or lack thereof are on prominent display. Portals often entail significant changes in the way a company does business, which can be difficult. The e-mail I mentioned at the top of this column hinted at this.

What my IT contact said was, “We started on a project with some of our employees, using the portal as the common link to a couple of sales applications. The links we had running in a few months, but we discovered that the employees on the road and the ones in the office had different ideas about what should happen at the portal. We are still working on that.”

A portal was built. It cost, so far, about $300,000, plus a yearly contract for hosting (staff and equipment). Officially, it’s been very useful in connecting employees with company news and policies. Unofficially, it’s doing about 10 percent of what had been projected. Cynic that I am, this sounds like a successful IT project to me.

Now’s the time

Despite some of the cautionary things I’ve said about enterprise portals, and even despite what you might hear about individual companies’ experiences, there has never been a better time for smaller companies to explore using a portal. How so? We’re over the hump in the technology curve; the bleeding edge has become the routine. Most of the hype and starry eyes are gone. Vendors of portal solutions are mainly survivors and their experience helps. Scalable solutions (those that start small) are more common. Components of a portal, particularly portlets and Web services are also more common, competitively priced, and convenient.

In some ways the cornucopia of approaches and products still presents a problem. There are literally hundreds of portal packages, ranging from do-it-yourself kits to we-do-it-all hosted approaches. In addition to numerous portal specialists, all the big software vendors have their own portal solutions. Expect to spend a lot of time and effort on due diligence while wading through the options. Spend even more time and effort on deciding what kind of portal your company may want and what it should do for the company.

As the company I worked with discovered, portals are almost a world unto themselves. It’s a cultural thing. My big question for small- and medium-sized businesses is: How far do you want to step into this culture? For small companies, for example, where everybody is in shouting distance, a portal may make little sense. Yet a company of any size that has (among other things) a lot of data to analyze, partners to manage, or locations to administer can find portals–even small ones–invaluable.

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