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Implementing E-Portals: the Business Issues

In the first of four articles on e-portals, e-business consultant Michelle Johnston looks at the reasons more and more companies are choosing to implement e-portals, and how IT personnel can ensure that such implementations are a success.
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What Is an E-Portal?

An enterprise information portal (e-portal) is a single gateway through which to gain access to all the information, data, systems, and processes used by stakeholders of an organization. Stakeholders of an organization may include employees, customers, investors, or business partners (suppliers, distributors, resellers, agents, franchisees and so on). The user's experience of the e-portal is uniquely tailored to his or her individual needs, and the user can access the e-portal via the corporate intranet (typically employees only), extranets, or the Internet.

Although IT spending is down considerably, spending on e-portal software continues to be relatively high. Here are some of the vital statistics:

  • According to a June 2002 report by IDC, the e-portal software market will reach more than $3.1 billion by 2006, from $550.4 million in 2001.

  • The BEA Weblogic Portal won more than 60 customers in the three-month period ending July 31, 2002, and as a result is now installed at 650 customer sites.

  • Plumtree Corporate Portal is licensed by more than 300 customers for more than 5 million users, and as such is the most widely deployed portal in the industry. At the end of August 2002, Plumtree announced the Plumtree Portal Solution for Employee Services, an online employee-relationship management (ERM) center designed to help organizations deliver content, services, and systems to employees, retirees, and their spouses. However, more recently Third Quarter results announced in October 2002 for Plumtree were not good at all.

    Figure 1Figure 1 The Plumtree ERP solution.

  • According to a recent Giga Information Group Inc. report, employee portals will become a ubiquitous and indispensable element of the employee's daily work experience by 2003. "Companies planning to deploy employee portals should strive to create a compelling site that encompasses a broad range of content and services. Achieving this goal will require leveraging portal technology that enables powerful features such as personalization and content aggregation. Integration with core ERP applications, such as HRMS and financials, is critical," the report says. ("IT Trends 2003: Employee Relationship Management," IdeaByte, Paul Hammerman, 26 Sep 2002, Giga Information Group Inc.)

So why are e-portals so popular?

Benefits of E-Portals

Portals have been shown to provide these benefits:

  • Improved levels of customer interaction with an increase in customer service

  • Improved customer and business partner loyalty

  • Full understanding of new web visitor information

  • Improved employee communications and productivity with enhanced business processes

The following is a list of perceived business benefits achieved by those who have implemented Yahoo!/Tibco Portalbuilder:

  • $9 million single-year return on investment (ROI) at Honeywell

  • 100%+ increase in customer web interactions for health services at CIGNA

  • 100%+ increase in customer web interactions for retirement services at CIGNA

  • 25,000 McDonalds restaurants linked for the first time with locally personalized portals

  • More than 50 unique HR applications unified into single portal access interface at Honeywell

  • 1.3M–3.75M member target audience for self-service economies at CIGNA

  • 30% reduction in travel-related overhead costs at Honeywell

  • Elimination of tens of thousands of intranet sites and associated costs at all firms

Organizations believe that e-portals can enable them to keep ahead of their competition.

By providing stakeholders with more effective and efficient access to business information and enterprise applications, they believe they'll be facilitating improved collaboration and communication, integration of information and applications, increased document flow and workflow, smarter decision-making, and increased productivity. They want ways in which to reduce information overload and improve information quality, while reducing the bottlenecks involved in information creation and quality control.

Some organizations believe they may also gain competitive advantage by enhancing their relationships with key suppliers or by increasing their customer base through customer service improvement. E-portals can be used to trace behavior of customers and suppliers in order to allow for constant service enhancements.

Personalization features of e-portals enable the user to select the information sources in which he or she is most interested, and often the colors and format in which the information is displayed. This often means that users are more likely to return—presumably making the e-portal more effective at achieving its aims.

Ultimately, the aim for business is always increased return on investment. On e-business systems, employing e-portals (whether indirectly or directly) can lead to reduced EDI costs, postal costs, and travel costs to meetings, as well as reduced administration/paper costs. It can also come from reduced error rates (because decisions are made based on more up-to-date information) and reduced staffing costs (because customers can take advantage of self-service features and so on).

The challenge of the e-portal is to reduce information overload by presenting only the information the user requires, preferably at the time when the user requires it.

E-Portal Rationale

Businesses often decide they need an e-portal for one (or both) of two reasons:

  • They already have a number of intranet/extranet sites or other sources of information that need management. Managing these sites means ensuring that the information is correct, up to date, and received in a timely fashion. Reducing the amount of duplication and redundancy throughout the organization is also important.

    Many banks and financial institutions, for example, require their brokers to use information from a number of sources at the same time—tickers with current sell/buy prices, Reuters newsfeeds, calculations from spreadsheet macros, email, messages, and alerts must all arrive in a timely fashion—if not, the consequences could be very costly.

    Organizations that want an e-portal for information management require a solution that's strong on content-management features providing quality control, as well as archiving and versioning of the content. They also need strong enterprise-application integration to enable the creation of content from numerous sources and source types—newsfeeds, databases, XML sources, web pages, email, documents, etc.

  • They already have a data warehouse full of information. In this situation, the business would like to make select data available to different stakeholders, but it's crucial to prevent the data from falling into the wrong hands.

    Sainsburys Supermarkets in the UK, for example, had a large internal data warehouse containing sales, forecasts, and product data in both historical and geographical data sets. It was crucial that their suppliers obtain timely, up-to-date information from these data sets about their own products, but it was equally important that no supplier could access another supplier's data.

    Organizations that want an e-portal to provide external access to the data warehouse require a solution offering strong security and access-control features.

Of course, organizations looking for both sets of features require a solution that provides all these features.

Businesses have realized that only 10% of the data of the organization resides in structured corporate databases: 90% of the data exists in word processing documents, web site files (HTML or XML), newsfeeds/tickers, spreadsheets, email, graphics files, text files, and stand-alone databases on PCs. This information has been largely inaccessible in the past, but e-portals potentially make this data accessible using metadata and XML to integrate structured and unstructured data seamlessly, for easy access around (and beyond) the organization.

E-Portal Software Packages

Businesses want to simplify the development, deployment, and management of enterprise-wide portals. Prebuilt portal applications theoretically reduce the amount of development required to create a portal, reduce the amount of time and effort taken to deploy the portal once it's created, and reduce the overhead of content management, performance management, and so on for production portal systems.

E-portal software vendors are adding support for collaborative services, content management, integrated security services, web services, and so on to their products, which makes them even more attractive.

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