Cover story: Info storm creates corporate portal market

Buffeted by demands for fast results and efficiency increases, enterprises are beginning to turn to corporate portals as a means of creating a centralised information resource, to leverage employees' knowledge. Emily Fitzloff and staff writers report on developments.

Although the definition of a corporate portal often is "in the eyes of the beholder", according to Geoffrey Bock, a consultant at Boston-based Patricia Seybold Group, enterprise portals in many ways are just the next step after an intranet.

If the intranet was developed as a place where corporate content could reside, the portal is designed to dynamically organise that information. Substitute MyYahoo for My(company name here), and you get the idea.

According to a recent IDC research paper, entitled Enterprise Knowledge Portals Versus Consumer Portals, the key concept behind an intranet or corporate portal is that "It will provide interfaces with content, colleagues, and capabilities on demand . . . [it] must provide or lead to a state of aggregation across the corporate intranet . . . [it] should become the shared desktop for the corporation; that way, everything an individual does is inherently part of the corporate knowledge base".

A report from Merrill Lynch, released last November, estimates that the total corporate portal market will grow from $4.4 billion in 1998 to more than $14 billion by 2002.

Eyeing the market opportunity, software vendors ranging from database to knowledge management companies have mutated seemingly overnight into portal providers. Everyone wants to ride the wave.

"A lot of people are suffering from portal envy because the consumer portals have done very well as far as Wall Street evaluation," says Gerry Murray, director of knowledge technologies at IDC.

Small software providers hope to grab a piece of the action by helping business customers create corporate portals.

What has resulted from the emergence of this relatively new market is a tremendous amount of hype in which it is hard to see the wood for the trees.

IDC warns that "Depart-mental or application-specific portals that are flooding the market today are nothing more than fragments of the solution. They can in fact be counterproductive if they simply recreate existing silos of information and expertise onto the Web."

However, amidst the hype are some meaningful notions about cost-effectively sharing company knowledge.

Corporate portals offer efficient communications. Employees traditionally have spent too much time gathering the information they need to do their jobs. Corporate portals can aggregate information relevant to employees' individual roles, making them more productive, and for significantly less expense than other information-sharing methods such as paper documents, meetings, and training sessions.

"The main goal is to cut down or eliminate the need for employees to waste time searching through internal repositories or the Web for the information they need," says Mike Lynch, CEO of Autonomy, a San Francisco-based portal software provider that lists Reuters and Shell International among its customers.

IDC states: "Users simply don't have time to tell everyone what they're working on, nor to ask if anyone is working on the same project as themselves."

However, through a corporate portal implementation "individuals will be able to set up secure folders for themselves or their projects which reside on the server. With contextualisation, everything that goes into those folders adds to the context tags of the folders itself. Therefore, while the information is secure, the organisation at large can be made aware of the topics. This capability is a major breakthrough in combating the intellectual rework that is endemic in the new era of knowledge."

Also, corporate portals give companies an effective way to deliver critical internal communications regarding change management, performance improvement, and internal branding. For a while, IT managers saw push technology as the way to get this information to people, but now they view corporate portals as less intrusive than push technology and more structured than plain intranet solutions, says Andy Snider, managing director of portal developer VIS.

Corporate portal start-up costs -- including the software to build customised interfaces and aggregate enough data to make projects worthwhile -- range from $US150,000 to $300,000, Snider says. To build a project to full scope over two years, companies should prepare to spend $1.5 million, primarily on aggregating data from multiple sources, according to Forrester Research.

Calculating return on investment for knowledge-related technologies such as corporate portals is notoriously difficult. However, the costs are almost the same, whether a company builds the portals for 50 people or 5000, so the per-employee costs drop sharply with the number of users.

VIS' customers, including Unilever and Cheeseborough-Ponds, find that building a portal for fewer than 500 users is useful but not economically advantageous; with 700 or more people to reach, the portal becomes economically desirable; when 2000 or more people use the portal, the costs start becoming dramatically less than other ways of reaching those people, Snider says.

Also, long-term maintenance is something that potential corporate portal users need to consider as a standard cost of deployment.

"In the beginning, you get set up and then you're done -- there's your portal, for now," says Tom Koulopoulos, president of the Delphi Group, in Boston. "But if your portal is to be a reflection of changes within your business, it seems inevitable that you will end up with some sort of portal manager to keep an eye on the portal and how well it's mapping to the relevance of your business."

Despite the costs, early adopters give credence to the claim that corporate portals are great for helping leverage and exchange valuable knowledge that exists in multiple forms and in multiple locations.

Digidesign, a division of Avid Technology, wanted to share pockets of corporate "knowledge" with the entire organisation, but the knowledge resided in multiple reports on multiple servers that all had different security profiles.

"It was a major task to figure out where this information was and how to get it," says Bill Schwartz, operations project manager at Digidesign.

The company installed context management software from Verano, a portal software vendor, to centralise access to data such as Excel spreadsheets, SAP applications, customer profiles, and manuals. Now users do not just get a whole blob of information quicker, they get the right information quicker because it is based on user profiles, Schwartz says.

In terms of early adoption, "enterprise portal sites are under development or in place in most Type A (leading edge) enterprises today and under consideration or in planning in Type B enterprises", according to GartnerGroup's Maureen Fleming.

Not all companies are jumping immediately on the corporate portal bandwagon, however. Many organisations are pausing before investing in expensive software with unknown maintenance costs and an as-yet murky return on investment. Even if start-up costs are fairly low, analysts warn that the cost of maintaining a corporate portal -- even one that claims to be automated and dynamically updated -- may increase as its role expands.

Also, the early leaders in the infant market are small vendors, and some IT managers baulk at risking money with vendors with which they are unfamiliar. It is always easier convincing CIOs to invest in an established product from the likes of Microsoft than in a new technology from a smaller and more obscure software provider.

However, early adopters such as Schwartz are convinced these anxieties are unfounded. He said he had the Digidesign corporate portal running within half a day and that he does not need devoted IT staff to maintain the fully automated solution.

For companies that are ready to take on the risks and glean the rewards, the first steps in building a corporate portal are organising content and giving users access, according to Forrester.

To begin with, one of the most common uses for enterprise portals is to support sales forces in the field. Salespeople who had to view status reports from the office can now access them -- and other valuable information while on the road.

In this initial phase, some companies find nontechnical issues, primarily employee resistance, are the greatest challenge. People are accustomed to viewing their knowledge as power, and the notion of having a central place where everybody is ideally invited to share all their knowledge does involve a cultural shift.

"People will need some time to assimilate as these cultural issues come to a head," IDC's Murray says.

Glenn Kelman, vice president of product management and marketing at Plumtree Software, suggests that the "getting used to" phase depends largely on how well potential users are educated about the portal before it is deployed.

"If it is something that just IT wants -- rather than all the business units -- and they install it and tell everybody they need to use it, it won't be very valuable," Kelman says.

To minimise cultural resistance, some companies are taking things slowly.

"I call the theme for what we're doing now 'find what we know'. The next phase will be 'share what we know'," says Howard Frysinger, chief knowledge officer at SCT.

Many companies find that the second step in building a corporate portal is making the application interactive, such as letting users make changes to their annual leave accounts.

Now a third phase is emerging for early adopters: extending the portals to the extranet for partners, suppliers, customers, and/or distributors.

Evidence of this third phase growth can be found in Plumtree's launch of Version 3.0 of its Plumtree Corporate Portal product.

Plumtree's corporate portal solution organises corporate content, categorises it, and creates personalised updates for users. It also has provisions for opening up the portal to the extranet, Kelman says.

The external phase often follows internal portal projects, because many users wet their feet with an internal project to test its value and become comfortable with its security mechanisms, before either extending it or creating a second portal outside the firewall. But once portals start exchanging data outside the corporate firewall, the potential applications and benefits will increase significantly. Outsiders can view corporate information, and organisations can open themselves up to more feedback on improving goods and services.

"Third parties tend to catch things that people within the company may have missed," Koulopoulos says. "The real bang for the buck will be when they start interfacing to the outside." However, although extending portals to external partners should lead to higher returns, analysts predict it will also tap IT resources more over time.

Whether a corporate portal is for internal use only or extends outside the firewall, experts suggest that companies research needs and define goals carefully. Otherwise, they may end up with a solution that is not relevant. "You have to set finite objectives that you are trying to address [for example]. What are you doing on a day-to-day basis that is requiring you to jump between different OSes and databases?" Koulopoulos asks.

To keep the information current while minimising IT resources, experts advise IT managers to invest in a corporate portal that has extensive automation functionality.

"The most fundamental point is what I call the 'Thursday-After Problem'. That is, what happens the Thursday after the portal is installed and the content changes and new content arrives?" Lynch asks.

"It is vital to ask what the technology is under the portal that can actively and automatically understand the new information. If it is just a dressed-up relational database or keyword-based method, the IT director had better be prepared to hire 50 to help keep the site up to date."

The technology that lies beneath the portal may vary widely among different products, and no one portal software provider is going to be able to address everyone's needs in terms of an enterprise portal.

Some are focused more on organising structured vs unstructured data, or vice versa. Other areas of focus include taxonomy, knowledge management, database functionality, content/context management, and collaborative capabilities.

But although strict, market definitions for the enabling technologies have not yet emerged, moving forward with the corporate portal concept is a smart move.

As businesses get increasingly distributed and employees are required to do more of their jobs online, it makes more and more sense to have a centralised Web portal where they can access the information they need in order to be productive.

Vendors gear up to carve out a niche in emerging sectorStannie Holt and Laura MasonAmongst the vendors jumping into the intranet portals arena are Internet portal heavyweights, Netscape Communications, and Yahoo.

Netscape's offering Custom Netcenter; is aimed at enterprises, Internet service providers (ISPs), original equipment manufactirers (OEMs) and the government and education markets.

Launched in October 1998, it allows enterprises to create customised portals by integrating services and content from Netscape's Netcenter portal, with company-specific applications and information resources.

Beta testers of Custom Netcenter include 3Com and Visteon Automotive Services in the US, and according to press reports the solution is now in use at Coca-Cola, Lucent Technologies and Texas Instruments.

There are no users of the software in Australia as yet, but interest amongst large companies across industry has been strong, according to Rob Stewart, managing director, Netscape Communi-cations AustraliaMeanwhile, Yahoo plans to get into the corporate portal business through a partnership with middleware vendor Tibco, the companies announced late last month.

The portal, called Corporate MyYahoo, will create personalised Web pages combining Yahoo's existing information services, including news, weather, stocks, messaging, calendars, and search engines, with internal corporate information such as employee directories, benefits, supply-chain status, and accounts payable, Tibco officials said.

Other possible features are peer-to-peer discussions, online corporate training, and interactive product directories, according to Tibco and Yahoo officials.

The corporate Yahoo portal will be rolled out to selected early customers around July and should be generally available in the third quarter, said Srini Srinivasan, senior director of Internet solutions at Tibco.

Tibco's role will be to integrate and deliver internal and external information through these portals, which will bear their users' logos, Srinivasan said.

For example, the portal could give live updates of the user's sales, inventory, order status, or profitability, drawing the information out of the user's enterprise resource planning applications.

This information would remain inside the user's firewall for security, he added.

The integration would extend to users' trading partners, so that Corporate MyYahoo could become a medium for business-to-business electronic-commerce and supply-chain planning, as well as financial transactions such as stock trading, Srinivasan said. Tibco is eyeing the financial industry because it already has many customers there, he added.

Yahoo would contribute content from its many partners, including customised news and information for 58 industries, Tim Koogle, CEO of Yahoo, said.

Corporate MyYahoo could also become an internal collaboration tool, connecting co-workers via messaging software similar to the Yahoo Clubs offering, Koogle said.

Web portal sites attract vendors from ERP sectorStannie Holt and Martin LaMonicaSAN FRANCISCO -- Enterprise resource planning (ERP) vendors are embracing the idea of portals, though they cannot agree on exactly what they are.

Oracle last week revealed plans for a portal that will blend its ERP applications, Oracle8i database and Web tools with other ERP applications. The formal announcement is due in June, Oracle said.

Lawson Software, which specialises in human resources, finances, procurement and other back-office functions, also last week launched Insight II SEAport, a portal that extends its Web-based, self-service applications.

Both are following the lead of competitors JD Edwards, PeopleSoft, SAP, Siebel Systems, Geac and others. Meanwhile, Onyx, Baan and other ERP vendors are planning to build portals.

It does not matter what the portal does, just that it is called a portal.

"These vendors are throwing things up against the wall -- a dozen different things -- and seeing what sticks," said Mark Huey, an analyst at the Meta Group.

Though 'portal' has many definitions, the common denominator is a Web site that provides a personalised interface to useful information, such as news headlines, sports, stock quotes, weather, and maps.

Business-oriented portals such as VerticalNet offer specialised information and services aimed at various industries or functions, such as drug manufacturers or sales representatives.

ERP vendors hope to combine all of that with self-service access to the applications that run the user's company, such as confirming when a special order will be built and shipped. Many also propose commerce functions, such as downloading software or buying books.

Lawson's SEAport suite (based on the company's Self-Evident Applications) lets users create a customised 'Webtop' that integrates various sources of information, including Internet content, messaging, and Lawson applications.

It also provides a set of workflow and design tools to build different Web-based user interfaces based on an employee's role.

A CEO, for example, might have access to financial reports and a stock ticker.

The Portal Designer uses JavaScript, Dynamic HTML, or Java to build customised clients.

"The real power of portals comes from role-based computing. It allows companies to feed information to employees based on their role or function," said Marty Gruhn, vice president and service director at Summit Strategies, a consultancy in Boston.

Meanwhile, Oracle's portal plan scorns consumer-style features in favour of insights from its ERP applications, databases, and analytical temlates, which can also analyse data from competitors' modules.

Though the company will concentrate on custom-assembling portals hosted by users, by the end of 1999 it will also host its own portal as part of its Web-based outsourcing strategy, Business On-Line, a company executive said.

"It's not a product, it's a framework," the executive said.

"Oracle doesn't see itself as a source of sports scores."