Drawing a crowd

Companies typically plan and deploy software portals to provide employees, customers and suppliers with a single, Web-based access point for data, content and both new and legacy applications across the enterprise.

But things don’t always go as planned. Too often, companies build portals, but users just don’t come.

“So many firms with less-than-hoped-for portal results repeat that story that it has almost become a cliche in the industry,” says Nathaniel Palmer, an analyst at The Delphi Group. In a December Delphi survey of 500 companies spanning 20 industries, 37 per cent of the companies that had installed portals said they were disappointed by the lack of “adequate interest among target users”.

According to Delphi’s findings, the reason people aren’t using portals is because there isn’t a strategy or life cycle for keeping people involved — what Delphi calls change management, explains Palmer. “There’s a lack of strategy beyond the technical architecture,” he says.

Indeed, too many companies got caught up in the techie hoopla surrounding portal technology, focusing mostly on implementation and integration issues, according to Delphi’s analysis of its survey findings. Meanwhile, critical usability issues, such as educating users about the portal’s capabilities, training them to use it efficiently and marketing the value of using the portal, haven’t received the necessary attention.

“It seems obvious, but time after time, I have seen the enterprise value proposition for a portal be that it’s going to save everyone in the company 20 minutes a day,” says Bill Ives, a partner at Accenture. “That’s a little fuzzy,” he says. “What are they supposed to do with that 20 minutes?”

Start at the top

Another problem many companies have is failing to involve top management from the very beginning of a portal project. It’s critical to pay attention to the requirements of top managers because they are often the busiest of potential users, and they’re frequently on the road or located remotely, making them among the hardest to bring to the portal.

“Bringing the portal to them through off-line access and proactive notification is one of the best opportunities for successful portals,” notes Palmer.

Experts estimate that project portal teams need to devote 30 to 40 per cent of their time gathering business requirements and getting top managers involved from the start. “The difference between portals which succeed and those that don’t is clearly the amount of business involvement the portal project receives and the level of integration with the business,” says Bob Rugare, a portal consultant at Cap Gemini Ernst & Young.

Portal project teams should be always looking to add value to the business, Rugare says. That often begins with addressing a very specific business problem.

At Du Pont’s $US3.8 billion Performance Coatings group, the issue was content management.

“We have a very large number of documents for marketing: brochures, press releases, warranty information on products and general support content for our distributors and [car repair] body shops,” explains Catherine Marchand, the group’s e-business strategy manager. “Our salesmen were driving around with 50 pounds of obsolete literature in their trunk.”

Du Pont opted to deliver the information through a Web-based portal, using technology from Bowstreet, a US-based portal software and Web development tools company. Du Pont wanted the ability to customise information about its half-dozen coating brands. It also wanted each of its 2500 distributors and repair shops worldwide to see the relevant customised brand information displayed in almost 4000 different site views, which the technology would allow it to do.

Beyond custom content

Few disagree with the content management value of portals. “The two go hand in hand,” says Ives, who tells of call centre staffers all working off the same page when wireless call plan information is consolidated in a portal.

“Commonality of content both increases business efficiency, because it’s cheaper to do it once, and increases the effectiveness of the information, because it’s consistent across multiple channels.”

Since the content capability was initiated, Du Pont’s site has grown rapidly. The body shops can now get training, benchmarking tools and car paint colour formulas via the portal. There’s also a job-posting and resume service, Marchand says. And for the distributors, Du Pont is researching adding order-tracking and order-accuracy capabilities.

It’s also important to think enterprise-wide, not merely department by department. “Clearly, if you can implement a portal that’s integrated to your supply chain, your suppliers and partners or distributors, or to your customers, the value goes up almost geometrically,” Rugare says.

Connie Winkler writes about the management of technology from Seattle and is Computerworld’s former New York bureau chief

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