Enterprise Portals: Reborn and Transformed by the Social Web

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Filtering the River

John Newton, chairman and CTOof Alfresco, says the problem has been recast from one of aggregationto one of filtering. "The problem for portals today is failure of thefilter. So now the role is to provide a filter." Web 2.0 was marked bythe ability to publish information to the web. With that ability,wikis, blogs, and, more importantly for the corporate space,collaborations have recently come of age. The need, identified byNewton and others, is that employees want to put their work inperspective by looking at information from outside the company. Thisbodes well for the dismantling of what was once called "siloed"thinking, as workers operate in a less-isolated environment than theirpredecessors did.

Indeed, the online world today is a vastlydifferent place from that of even as recently as 5 years ago. Whereasin the early heyday of portals (1999–2003) when managers of enterpriseportals worked at crawling through web content to find a few sources ofuseful information to incorporate into their portals, the new onlineworld is so replete with content that a searcher cannot get a completegrasp of all the sources for any single topic.

Open sourceevangelist Tim O’Reilly cautions web surfers in the new age: "Don’t tryto drink the river." Given the vast amount of content out there, thequestion then becomes how do we organize, vet, and sort the flow ofinformation that is readily available but not always usable now.

Sohow will that affect portals? From a Web 2.0 perspective, there aremany ready solutions. Cheung of Liferay says, "I think portals willneed to provide faceted classification services in addition to search,tagging, and content management and make it very easy to accesscontent." He believes that "the classification of content as it isentered also needs to be automatic or require minimal effort becauseusers can’t spend all day entering facets manually."

He adds,"Some of the facets, for example, frequency of use, by whom, duringwhat period, should certainly be automatic." Cheung points out thatApple has done some automatic tagging in its OS X release and in iTunesby using customer ratings combined with organic criteria such asfrequency of play or download to generate Genius Bar playlists.

Newtonof Alfresco says that a better taxonomy for today’s enterprise portalsis what he refers to as "folksonomy," explaining, "Often people are thebetter deciders of taxonomy." He believes that people who are connectedin an institution or in a field know whom they wish to follow. "Thekey," explains Newton, "is relevance. So do I want to see what peopleare saying all over the web, or do I really just want to know what myboss is tracking?" This extends to understanding not only what datastreams the bosses are tracking but also what their comments are andwhat customized reports they have created for their portal pages. Allof this is relevant to the employee who wishes to align his or herknowledge with that of his or her superior.

Twitter hasbrought something new to the internet that search and contentapplications had lacked until now: real-time data. Sapient’s Fordepoints out that as a news source, Twitter trumped Google for coverageof the "miracle plane landing" in the Hudson River in New York City."The Twitter posts were real time, whereas Google was just an archiveof historical documents," he explains. Though the news reportersworking on the scene hardly imagined they were making historicalarchives, the difference in lead time from reporting to publication wasdramatic. "Soon, employees will begin to demand this kind ofimmediacy," he adds.

Volume of mentions has moved fromsomething that only search developers saw to something that usersexpect as valuable input in a decision. Twitter, together with LinkedInand Plaxo, has brought volume of mentions to the forefront. Now,thought leaders are ordained based on the volume of mentions of theirnames. Volume has also become an important tool for PR agents andpolitical analysts. Newton points out that as a relatively new sourceof status, volume of mentions is also a source of fun, citing a threadon the blog TechCrunch in which Robert Scoble and Guy Kawasaki wereribbing each other over who had the higher Twitter-volume rank. Appliedto a corporate context, however, volume will provide a clear indicationof what is on the minds of managers at a given moment.

Passive Activity

Despite the potential for radical change with new technologies today, Forde sees a great deal of value in making small changes to existing applications to make them more usable inside the enterprise. Sapient was hired to look at helping an asset management company update its knowledge management system; the company felt it had a lot of intellectual property that could not be tracked or found. "One of the great pitfalls of collaborative systems," explains Forde, "is that you have active contributors and passive readers. Often, the passive players are the established experts. … [T]hey do not want to get a deluge of requests so they sit out." The question that Forde set out to answer was, "How do we make sure the technology does not exclude the passive people?"

Sapient decided to add a feature that captures the activity of passive players. Every time an employee saves a document on his or her workspace, it will appear in the system. Forde explains that Sapient developed a system that records activity by analysts and researchers even if they do not post data to the system. It allows their name as an author of a report to appear as a headline when someone is looking up information on a given subject. He explains "We want to create a direct connection to the people with the information."

Forde adds that merely providing a better view into a critical application can be of great value. "What we added that was really useful was three views into Outlook: Received, Ticker, Person who sent email," and he found that the customer feedback was very positive from making this relatively small improvement.

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