So You’ve Built It, Now What? The Corporate Portal Dilemma

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An incredible number of companies today have corporate portals, yet despite widespread deployment, they remain an enigma. According to a January 2003 Jupiter Research Executive Survey, an amazing 90 percent of respondents indicated that they have a business-to-employee portal deployed or in the works. Unfortunately, according to a February 2003 report on the current state of the portal market issued by the portal vendor, Plumtree, between 20 and 30 percent of portal deployments fail due mostly to what Plumtree calls "the empty portal" syndrome where the portal framework is in place, but nobody is updating the portal with fresh content.

Yet portals are expensive investments with long development cycles involving many different resources across the enterprise. Portal projects often require the help of a variety of vendors and consultants to help climb difficult technological hurdles. Even with this huge commitment of money and resources, companies often find that their portals remain underutilized. How can so many companies be involved in such an all-encompassing effort with so many hurdles to overcome and yet still have no clear vision of what they're building, what they'll use it for when they're done, and no clear sense employees will actually make use of it? This article takes a look at the corporate portal market and what companies need to do succeed in a portal implementation.

Of Being and Nothingness
With few standalone portal vendors left in the marketplace, vendors try to define the portal within a broader framework, often related to other types of business they want to generate. This has led to a multiplicity of ideas regarding just what a corporate portal is supposed to do for a company and bred confusion among customers. Tim Thatcher, program director for Web Sphere portal marketing at IBM, perhaps puts it best when he says, "The portal is a single point of personalized access to content, applications, business processes, and people. It is where people go to transact business, to turn to find information, and where people will turn to collaborate." Yet if the portal is supposed to do all of this (and more), how come it is so difficult to make the leap from implementation to employee adoption?

Dan Carmel, the vice president of marketing and business development for iManage, a content management software company, thinks it's because portals too often lack focus. He says, "When people say, ‘I have a portal,' I believe you are going to find some disillusionment with the end result. I believe when people say, ‘I have a blank portal,' that they put an adjective in front of it. I believe you are going to find greater success." To illustrate this point, Carmel cites some examples such as a human resources portal where people come when they need to address a human resources issue or a regulatory compliance portal and where people can go to find out rules related to a particular industry.

Another problem, according to Mary Corcoran, vice president and lead analyst at Outsell, is that it is difficult to design a corporate portal where one size fits the needs of all people in the organization. She agrees with Carmel's assertion that the more narrowly focused the portal, the more successful it is likely to be, and she uses Bain & Company's (management consultants) Knowledge Management Portal to make her point. She explains that the Bain portal is the central place for starting client work, and since all the users are involved in client-centered activities, it is easier to design a portal around this process. She says, "There are other kinds of organizations where it's a lot more complex." For example, in the pharmaceutical industry, even though there is a common product development cycle, Corcoran points out that the processes are very different for the various parties involved, such as research, development, sales, and marketing. She says, "Even though companies are building therapeutic area portals directed at the pharmaceutical market, the places where people work tend to be narrower functional areas."

Job Performance Made Easy
Companies seem to be building portals without a clear goal. Then after making such a significant investment, they find that employees aren't using the portals in their daily work. Many employees may resist the portal idea because it's just another step in their work process and unless companies use the portal to make it easier to do their jobs, they won't use it. According to a January 2003 Jupiter Research report, called Enterprise Portals: Selecting a Vendor, low user adoption was the chief hindrance to portal success.

IBM's Thatcher says that when people are under pressure, they may be reluctant to try something new unless you provide a reason for them to come. He says, "It really comes down to—is the portal solution you are providing them compelling?" Outsell's Corcoran agrees saying, "You have to start with users and design [the portal] around their work, and if you don't do that, it's not compelling, it's just a go-to place."

Corcoran also points out that the ability to personalize your portal start page is not necessarily what makes the portal compelling for individual workers in spite of what portal vendors may say. She says, "The portal guys will say you can customize and make it anything and make it yours." Yet her research has shown that less than two percent of users are taking advantage of customization, so it's really up to the company to provide information and services the user needs on a daily basis inside the portal.

iManage's Carmel says, "I personally believe that the way to ensure success of a portal project is to link it to a business process or a core function in a company. We refer that to a portal with a purpose." Eric Smith, lead analyst at technology consultants Conchango cites a healthcare portal they created as an example of the type of successful portal to which Carmel refers, and how this project made it easier for the client to do the job.

Conchango had a healthcare client that had difficulty coordinating patient information from a variety of locations within a system of providers. He says, "There were lots of "bottlenecks and breakdowns in the system. We used the portal to provide the avenue to input information from individual hospitals." Prior to the portal implementation, the information was faxed from individual locations, input into a spreadsheet, and formatted and emailed for executives. Smith says, "All those steps were eliminated by using the portal to enter information into database forms and that data being readily available for viewing for those who have access to it cut down on process and standards variance."


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