Intranets and Portals: Vive la Difference!

A feature of the very successful Intranets 2004 conference was the number of presentations that were given on portal application development. One of the best of these was given by Hewlett Packard's director of knowledge and intranet management, Barbara Williams, who indicated that the HP HR portal was generating savings of around $50 million a year from the investment in the portal. That is a very encouraging ROI.

The subject of portals was also on the agenda at the ECM (Enterprise Content Management) Plaza event in Rotterdam in November, organized by Eric Hartman of Hartman Communicatie. This event attracted more than 200 delegates—a figure that would translate to an audience of about 3,000 in the U.S. No doubt attendees were attracted by the opportunity of hearing Bob Boiko and Tony Byrne in action, but for me, probably the best paper of the meeting was on the topic of migrating an intranet to an enterprise portal by Peter Hinssen, a Belgian consultant with vast experience on this topic.

Of course, a few years ago all the talk was all about Enterprise Information Portals in the wake of a seminal report on the topic from Merrill Lynch. But just a few years later, the number of EIP vendors has dropped from a peak of perhaps several hundred to just a handful, of which Plumtree is arguably the sole surviving pure-play portal vendor now that Epicentric has been "integrated" into Vignette. It was not that the technology did not work but that there were unsustainable expectations of what an EIP could do.

IT managers, who were the primary purchasers, saw EIP applications as a way of joining up all disparate legacy database applications onto a single desktop. What they failed to realize (and sadly some still do) is that the greatest volume of information in an enterprise is unstructured—drawings, photographs, email, and much else—and that this volume is also growing at a significantly faster rate than data held in tidy SQL databases. Until very recently, portal applications were heavy on presentation and light on content management, but then they were not designed to manage the creation of content, just to display it.

As Hinssen pointed out at ECM Plaza, portals are very good at certain tasks such as facilitating single sign-ons, the personalization of information presentation, and the integration of a wide range of applications. But just delivering these functionalities is not enough. Employees want access to the wide range of text content that typically is found in intranets, and they want to be able to work collaboratively. Hinssen highlighted that this is also a strength of portal technology, although the extent varies between vendors.

Another feature of most portal offerings is search functionality, but here there is a real problem. There are no search engines that can search across both structured and unstructured information resources and integrate the results. Asking questions such as "How many large projects in Europe resulted in profit margins in excess of 15%?" requires the search system to be able to define "large," work out which countries represent Europe (the number could vary between 15 and 30-plus), and then calculate profit margins. One day perhaps, but not any time soon!

Going back to the HP HR portal presentation, Williams emphasized the need to sort out the intranet before starting on a portal deployment, and this is excellent advice. Hinssen and I have both seen many portal applications where nothing has been done about content quality, and so all the portal highlights to users (often painfully) is the inadequacy of content, and in many cases, conflicting information on the same subject.

The intranet should be treated as not only one of the resources that can be accessed through a portal, but as one of the most important. Any portal strategy (and you do have one, of course) should really look across the totality of enterprise information resources and establish which are best suited to access through the portal and which can be integrated more fully into the portal environment. There is a difference.

Another issue that is often overlooked is that relatively few employees actually need to spend their day looking at a multi-window portal, or indeed a portal of any configuration. There are documents to write, presentations to prepare, reports to read, and long emails to digest. All of these require the portal itself to be closed down onto the tool bar. Remembering to open it up again takes a degree of effort.

If your intranet is not being used now, then go back to basics, and find out why. Adding a layer of technology with a portal application as a fix could either be the most expensive mistake you will ever make, or the most visionary. Wouldn't it be better to find out before you spend the money?