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The Next Generation of Portals

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Kalakota and Robinson explain why the current fragmented approach to web portals is flawed and why enterprise portals built on service platforms are needed to deliver better ROI.
This article was adapted from Ravi Kalakota and Marcia Robinson's book, Services Blueprint: Roadmap for Execution (Addison-Wesley, 2003, ISBN 0321150392).
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Enterprise Service Platforms Are Here to Stay

Controlling complexity in information systems design is not a new challenge. In his landmark 1962 paper "The Architecture of Complexity," Herb Simon, who later received the 1978 Nobel Prize for Economics, discussed his finding that hierarchy and modularity are core design elements in dealing with complexity.

Simon illustrated the need for modularity by offering a parable about two imaginary watchmakers named Hora and Tempus. Both were highly regarded in the community, and the phones in their workshops rang frequently with new orders. However, Hora prospered, while Tempus became poorer. What was the reason? According to the story, the difference lay in the design of their watches. Each design involved 1,000 parts, but the similarity ended there. Tempus's watches were assembled one component at a time. Hora's watches were organized into subassemblies of ten parts each. Hora would combine ten subassemblies into larger subassemblies, and these in turn could be combined to make a complete watch.

The difference between the two watchmakers' process designs became crucial in the larger context of their businesses. Customers would call constantly and interrupt their work. These interruptions didn't bother Hora, who lost at most whatever subassembly he happened to be working on. Tempus, on the other hand, lost an entire watch. Since he didn't use modular subassemblies, the unfinished watch would fall apart into its elementary parts. Because interruptions were common, Hora would complete many more watches than Tempus, whose business suffered in terms of productivity.

Hora used building blocks to manage complexity effectively. Tempus didn't. The same pattern is repeating in corporations as they build next-generation portal applications. As we move from enterprise portals based on the web channel only, to multi-channel, multi-constituent enterprise portals, some very interesting dynamics are beginning to play out.

Problems with First-Generation Enterprise Portals

Too many businesses today have web sites that masquerade as portals. Some organizations literally have hundreds of such sites, but many are beginning to consolidate their myriad web sites into a handful of enterprise portals. In response, the portal market is quickly evolving from a fringe free-for-all to a more controlled core enterprise activity.

Consolidating enterprise portals isn't easy. Most of the first-generation web portals were based on inside-out thinking: "Let's take our current processes and deliver them quickly through a web portal." Time-to-market pressures ruled over long-term thinking. This type of approach led to multiple problems—lack of flexibility, limited process integration, fragmentation.

Most firms now realize that the first-generation approach doesn't work well in a multi-constituent, multi-channel setting, where the process has to be customized to the channel (brick, web, kiosk, or mobile) and the user segment (employees, customers, partners, or suppliers). Multi-constituent, multi-channel portals necessitate an outside-in paradigm; that is, "We will provide what users want, in their channel of choice." This change in perspective is forcing change—from an enterprise applications mindset to an enterprise service architecture mindset. Evidence of this shift can be seen in the strategies of leading companies such as SAP, IBM, Sun Microsystems, Siebel, BroadVision, Plumtree, BEA, Oracle, and PeopleSoft.

The movement toward enterprise portals is fueling the need for modular service platforms. For instance, companies creating employee self-service portals want a single service platform that drives all portals. Similarly, customers and partners who don't want to visit multiple web sites to do business with one organization need a single point of access powered by a single service platform for all of the company's electronic information and services.

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