Guest column: making a portal of your intranet

I've been having a debate with some of my fellow analysts. I say a company can have multiple intranets; they say as long as the wires are hooked together, there is really only one intranet.

We're both right.

As long as the network administrator has to deal with only one server, one LAN and one set of user registration headaches, technically there is only one intranet. But as long as departments create local Web sites on that intranet, each with its own look and feel, different search tools and a variety of user profiling mechanisms, then, for all practical purposes, you might as well say you have multiple intranets.

Sooner or later, you're going to have to go through a rationalisation and integration exercise. You'll have to impose order on the chaos. The problem will make getting e-mail systems to work together look like child's play.

For this you will need a strategy. Not all of us are as savvy as Microsoft, which has already created an internal network of intranets called MS:Web, with some common standards for authoring, look and feel, and management. My own company, for instance, is just now going through a two-fold effort: we're developing a common taxonomy -- essentially the outline of our content and keywords -- to make searching across our Web sites more effective. We're also analysing the best features of our several dozen Web sites around the world for setting corporate standards. Hey, at least we're on the right path.

The first and easiest thing you can do is develop a common look and feel for your multiple internal sites -- some common logos, page layouts and so on. Let's call this a common user interface. Then establish linking to a central home page that becomes the embryo of your first real "portal". One of the first things you'll want to add to this portal, of course, is personalisation features.

But enterprise portals will have to come in flavours -- you can't optimise for everything a portal can potentially do. Some will be front ends to applications, like human resources and enterprise resource planning systems. Some will be front-end knowledge bases and collaborative systems, while others will primarily be publishing systems. Each portal becomes an archipelago of what were once separate Web sites and application islands.

The final linking will take more courage and more money. It will establish a single search mechanism, a single or nested taxonomy, a structured authoring system and meta data and context management across all those internal portals. At this point we aren't just fooling with Web sites anymore -- we are hiring people, buying software and rewriting code in our legacy applications and databases to make all this work together. Ultimately we may even be redesigning those databases, transaction and decision-support systems that feed our commonly administered network of portals in order to run our businesses better. We'll "dot.com" the enterprise, making information access truly seamless.

This isn't something that will move in Internet time, but as soon as you have one or more intranets, no matter how you define them, you need to start designing for the next level of integration. You'll need to start on the migration path from being a company with lots of internal Web-enabled applications to being a Web-enabled company. You can't do that without a strategy for creating a coherent whole out of the sum of all those Web-enabled parts.

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