Last September, I was invited to return to the Intracom conference in Montreal that is run with great enthusiasm by Claude Malaison and his colleagues from the Association des professionnels en intranet (API, the Quebec Association for Intranet Professionals). This year, nearly 200 delegates turned up, mostly from Quebec, to hear some excellent papers on a wide range of intranet topics, mainly in French. Howard McQueen and Gerry McGovern gave the keynote presentations. Overall, it was an excellent conference, and well worth attending if you are located on the East Coast of the USA. Later in October, there was a mirror-event in Paris, and there are plans to enhance this event in 2003.
One of the papers at the conference highlighted an issue that has been a concern to me for some time, and now calls for consideration in this column. The case study presented was of an intranet newly accessible through an Enterprise Portal Implementation.
EIP technology has some important attributes, including links to other business applications in order to be able to provide a single point of access as well as the ability to provide powerful personalization functionality. The end result is, however, a desktop with more panes than a Georgian Era window. Remember, all that glistens is not gold. There was a recent special issue of Consultants Advisory (a UK IT magazine) on portal technology and applications that did not contain a word about intranets in any of the feature articles. The emphasis throughout was on access to structured information, and also to email, with no apparent consideration of providing access to unstructured text information. And yet the general consensus is that the volume and value of unstructured information is growing more rapidly than structured.
Certainly the ability to provide personalization could be an asset, but in reality this can also be provided through many content management systems. Moreover, I have seen little evidence that staff actually want to spend time fine-tuning their views of the enterprise information universe. Most require substantial training not only in what is available, but on how to gauge the information's usefulness. It might be easy to bring up a customer database on the portal and not realize that the given information only relates to certain types of customers or periods of time. The users of the database in native format will know this while others in the organization may well be unaware of the data integrity, and make the wrong decision.
EIP vendors delight in pointing out that employees will be alerted to new information as it becomes available. This presupposes two things: The employees have the time to act upon the new information and that they have not minimized the portal or cleared the desktop to make room for other applications. It is also unlikely that all required applications will be available through the portal at the outset and, as long as this situation continues, employees will have to close the portal window, only to then have to spend time going from pane to pane checking on new messages, and breaking news and information.
This assumes that they can see. What I mean is that there could be a substantial issue regarding how staff with visual and other disabilities can cope with portal technology. Section 508 in the USA and similar legislation in Europe seem not to have been considered by EIP vendors or users. Indeed the presenter of the case study in Montreal said that they'd not taken these issues into account prior to the launch of the portal interface to the intranet.
Two final issues: Most of the EIP products do not have strong content contribution functionality, so they provide links to CMS applications. However, not all EIP vendors link to all CMS vendors, so the choice of CMS could be limited based on which EIP application was selected and vice-versa. I also have some concerns about usability. Over the last couple of years there has been a significant and welcome increase in the understanding of the importance of usability. But in the EIP implementations I have come across, usability testing is not undertaken. And, given the ability to personalize at the desktop, such testing would be difficult to accomplish and benchmark.
In general, I think that using EIP technology to provide one-stop access to enterprise information should be very carefully considered so that gains in integration are not offset by losses in usability and utility.