Drowning in a Sea of Information

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Digitizing Because You Should
Just because you can digitize content is not a particularly good reason to do so. Thus, examining your content is another critical early component of effective integration. Look for information that should be added to a portal because it adds value. Forget the notion that everything resident within an organization and acquired externally deserves to be on a portal. It reminds me of a "Doonesbury" cartoon from a few years ago where Mike Doonesbury stays up all night to put company data on a Web site and, in the early hours of the morning, bleary-eyed and indiscriminately putting everything he can lay his hands on up on the Web site, he scans in and posts the menu from the local Chinese restaurant. Clearly, this is not mission-critical information.

Although meant to be funny, the cartoon accurately points out the pitfalls in not having what information professionals might call "a collection development policy." This defines what types of information an organization would consider relevant and timely to its employees. Given individual reasons for accessing the company's portal, the definitions of relevant and timely can vary greatly. Sales and marketing will appreciate internal information on customer relationships company-wide, as well as external industry and competitor data. Scientists, on the other hand, need the latest information in their area of research. While this will normally be available through externally acquired information, such as that from ISI, American Chemical Society, or Elsevier Science, private research data from other scientists within the company can lead to important scientific breakthroughs without the danger of wasteful overlaps in the research process.

The growing usage of audio and video content can help foster a learning climate within organizations. Watching how other employees do their job and listening to them explain why they are doing what they are doing is an enormously valuable training tool. Consider the complexities of automobile design: for a diverse team of people combining their individual areas of expertise, being able to search through spreadsheets, engineering documents, emails, 3D drawings, and memos related to previous design efforts, coupled with videos of an actual production line and insights voiced from line workers would undoubtedly shorten the design timeline, reduce duplication of efforts, and result in a better car.

Beyond Repositories
There's more to the content integration effort than building information repositories. Like the traditional library, too many enterprise portals, though elegantly engineered, are built from the perspective of information "storage" rather than information "access." Collections are placed online because of a just-in-case, rather than a just-in-time, mindset. For libraries, this is a valid theorem. They are intended to combine storage and access. Research libraries, particularly those in world-class universities, such as Harvard, or those intended to serve the national interest, such as the British Library, should preserve information sources even if they are not accessed on a daily basis.

Justifying an enterprise-wide portal that employs the same criteria misreads the purpose of information within an organization and may be the reason why information industry research and advisory firm Outsell found that intranets rarely lived up to their promise. In fact, in too many instances Outsell researchers were hard pressed to find employees using them at all. The common sense idea that content integration should really mean integrating content that people need to access rather than what is easy to integrate somehow got lost in the shuffle.

All Users Are Not Alike
Every enterprise will have somewhat different requirements. What's more, departments within the enterprise will have different requirements. While marketing may be interested in news on competing firms, human resources may not care at all. The finance department may watch the stock market closely, while the staff in research and development has no interest.

Keep in mind, too, that not everyone needs to—or should—know all the information that can be made available. Security levels should be built in to any enterprise portal. Would you want everyone to have access to salary data? How about confidential details of an impending acquisition of the company? Or lab notebooks for a highly secret scientific research project?

A trade or professional association will have a different tack on information needed than will a profit-making company. The Newspaper Association of America, for example, uses Convera's RetrievalWare software to integrate its own documents, text files, multimedia presentations, discussion forum lists, and electronic bulletin boards. The association's primary reason for doing this is not to satisfy internal staff needs (although that's an important by-product), it's to share information on technical issues affecting the newspaper business with its 2,000 member companies.

To create an enterprise portal that people will not only use, but love and depend upon, provide compelling content. Compelling to the users, that is, not necessarily to the designers. If what will bring users to the portal is the menu for the local Chinese restaurant, then maybe "Doonesbury" wasn't so far off the mark. If that's the only place employees can check how many vacation days they have left, they will probably use it. If their boss consistently uses the portal, then employees are motivated to use it as well.

Pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, which has a portal called myELVIS (Eli Lilly Virtual Information Service), uses Plumtree with Semio Corporation's Tagger software to automatically categorize information on its Lotus Notes network and its Documentum databases. Additionally, current news from Web sources, personal productivity tools, and collaboration enhancers come with the portal.

Search and (Maybe) Ye Shall Find
Today's employee should, generally speaking, be familiar with Web searching. Although they rarely attain the proficiency of information professionals and may not be able to distinguish the differences between Google, WiseNut, Teoma, and AltaVista, they do believe that search is an integral part of the Web experience. Therefore, when an enterprise portal looks like a Web page, people expect it to behave like a Web page. They expect it to be searchable.

This represents a bigger problem within organizations than on the public Web. Specialized vocabulary, industry jargon, company acronyms, and legacy formats for documents conspire to obfuscate rather than illuminate. Numerous taxonomy companies, among them nStein, Semio, Inxight, and Quiver, will happily march in and create an ontology customized for your particular organization. The question here is how well they do it and how fast they do it. It's a good idea to have a sample set of information available. Make the set reasonably large so that manual overview to skew the results is impossible. Compare results among the vendors. Inquire about upgrade policies and service level agreements.

If your organization already has a search engine for its intranet, such as Autonomy, how well will it work in a portal environment with taxonomy vendors? If you need to amplify the portal with a different search utility, you'd better be prepared with a detailed cost-benefit analysis. Remember that enter- prise portals exist to facilitate communication, speed up work processes, encourage collaboration, and promote cost- savings. Correctly engineered, integrated content on enterprise portals can become the critical success factor for your organization.

With information surrounding us like salt water surrounding the Ancient Mariner, integrating information so that it is accessible, searchable, and relevant is crucial. Look for a clear sailing path and avoid obvious hazards. Whatever the albatross might be in your organization, ensure that you avoid damaging it. You wouldn't want to be wandering the landscape, telling your tale of woe to passing strangers. No, you'd rather be proud of an enterprise portal that people deem necessary to performing their jobs, that has the right information, from a variety of sources both internal and external, delivered in a fashion that makes sense for the organization's denizens, and integrating relevant and timely information.

Companies Mentioned in This Article
Convera: http://www.convera.com
Documentum: http://www.documentum.com
IBM Lotus: http://www.lotus.com
Inxight: http://www.inxight.com
nStein: http://www.nstein.com
Outsell, Inc.: http://www.outsellinc.com
Plumtree: http://www.plumtree.com
Quiver: http://www.quiver.com
Semio: http://www.semio.com
theBrain: http://www.thebrain.com
Vignette: http://www.vignette.com

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