Drowning in a Sea of Information

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Today's information landscape reminds me of the line from Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" poem, "Water, water, everywhere, nor any drop to drink." Today, we find ourselves adrift in a sea of information. This, the bedrock of successful business, surrounds us, but integrating essential information and making it usable poses a formidable challenge. For the Ancient Mariner, the rub was that he was surrounded by salt water and only salt water. When it comes to information, our situation is complicated by the varieties of formats, storage mechanisms, and styles. There's information all around us—on our hard drives, our organizations' databases, the Internet, printed documents, commercial publications, emails, subscription-based services—yet we're frustrated when trying to locate and use it.

Our businesses are awash with Word and WordPerfect documents, PDF files, Excel spreadsheets, PowerPoint slides, relational databases, flat ASCII files, email messages, and audio video materials. And that's only the recent stuff. Many organizations are also inundated with legacy information in formats they no longer understand nor can access. (What do you do with documents created on Wang word processors?) To add to the confusion, not all of the information is internally generated; external data is being acquired in even more formats. And to complicate this even further, some external data "appears" to be internal if it's licensed for use on an intranet, but it has usage limitations based on the licensing contract.

Unlike the Ancient Mariner, who was "alone, alone, all, all alone," companies offering solutions to the information integration problem lay siege to the information professional. The number of com- panies that claim to handle all the variant types of information resident within an organization, integrating them into an easily accessible repository, indexing them automatically with a taxonomic structure custom designed for the organization, and putting them on a enterprise-wide portal is staggering.

First Thing First
Before picking a vendor to solve your content integration problems on an enterprise-wide scale, it's wise to determine exactly what your problem is. Does your organization have an enterprise portal already in place? Or perhaps, there are several, for different parts of the enterprise. Frequently, there is an organizational culture issue in play here, particularly in larger companies. If the culture encourages decentralized decision-making, it's entirely possible that multiple portals have been chosen and co-existence of these portals must be factored in when you are looking at an integration effort. You may find that one department swears by Plumtree; another is devoted to the knowledge sharing aspects of theBrain. Vignette has made great strides in convincing another unit of its superiority, while Convera is the portal of preference elsewhere.

With multiple portals, you have three choices. You can scrap them and put one new enterprise-wide portal in place. You can decide on one of the existing portals as a standard and migrate content on the other portals to the chosen standard one. Or, you can live with the existing multiplicity of portals. The first option will annoy everyone who is wedded to the portal they've learned to use. No one is enthusiastic about learning something new when they have a working option in place and don't see the rationale for the change. The second option will thrill the users of the existing portal you choose as a standard, but will annoy those whose portal was rejected. The third option will please users, but may create technical problems in coordinating data so that it is accessible on various platforms.

Overall, it's easier to convince people of the value of the collaborative tools provided by enterprise portals if you haven't antagonized them in the beginning. On the other hand, the ideal situation is to introduce something new and useful (that may actually offer improvements over any of the solutions in place) without having to deal with the mechanics, not to mention politics, of multiple portals. Starting fresh can provide not only a single point of access, but save time and money in the bargain. Ball State University, for example, employs Vignette V6 software to unify the Web sites created by various departments spread across campus. Each department maintains its own site, but the look and feel is consistent, with the same navigation procedures and uniform graphics.

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