Enterprise Information Portals: The Logical Next Step?

By Paul Chin

Originally published in Intranet Journal (25-Apr-2005)

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Every knowledge worker, content provider, and intranet developer has their own theory of intranet evolution—or to be more precise content management system (CMS) evolution. All of these theories follow a somewhat similar evolutionary timeline, but the latter stages are often as hotly contested as the theories brought forth by the initial publication of Charles Darwin's The Origins of Species.

It's widely accepted in the intranet community that CMS evolution follows this rough timeline:

  1. Birth: A single, solitary Web site amoeba, originating from the vast Internet swap, manages to crawl its way into an organization's network and begins to develop inside a lonely departmental server.
  2. Reproduction: The amoeba grows and begins to multiply, migrating to other departments where they begin to flourish as productivity tools rather than simple department identity sites.
  3. Connection: The various independent sites are tied together—with little more than a shared homepage—to form a loosely connected intranet.
  4. Consolidation: A content and application symbiosis begins to form among the independent sites. This leads to a true consolidation of an organization's sites into a fully developed and branded corporate intranet, sharing the same technological and content backbone.

This is where it gets controversial. Some contend that our little amoeba's journey up the evolutionary ladder ends at stage four; others believe that there's one more rung: the enterprise portal.

Are portals really an evolutionary step up from current content-managed intranets or are they actually separate entities? In this article, I hope to help you decide for yourself.

What is a Portal?

A portal, or enterprise information portal (EIP), is a Web site that integrates an organization's knowledge base and all related applications into a single user-customizable environment. This environment acts as a one-stop shop, or "gateway," for users' information and system needs. Imagine an organization's entire content database; search facilities; collaboration tools; individual department, workgroup, and project-specific intranets; online applications; and security mechanisms fused into one cohesive environment that's accessible from a single starting point. Rather than having to manually gather information from various sources, a portal provides users with everything they need in one central location.

Enterprise information portals—sharing a universal system brand and user interface—gives large amounts of disparate content and applications an overall sense of unity and continuity. This sounds like a great idea, but how does an EIP differ from a well-developed content managed intranet that's already gone through the consolidation stage of its evolutionary life? The answer is personalization.

EIPs allow users to customize their portal environment to deliver only the content they're interested in. This means every user who logs onto the portal will have a different view of the system and its content. For example, a Human Resources Manager probably won't need to see revisions of some engineering schematic but would like to receive news on the latest salary compensation trends.

My Yahoo! and MSN are perfect examples of Internet portals. Users have the ability to select only the news that's of interest to them—news stories and weather reports in their home city, the results from their favorite sports teams, the latest from their industry, and their daily fix of stock quotes—without having to sift through mounds of content that's not relevant to them.

EIPs are developed specifically to work within business environments, often integrating standard corporate collaboration tools—e-mail, shared calendars, discussion forums, and online meetings—into the suite in addition to content delivery and management functionality. This not only eases software rollout and maintenance but also reduces total cost of ownership because you're dealing with one portal suite rather than separate software tools. Since portal software integrates various key components into one suite, you don't have to negotiate multiple licensing agreements and support contracts.

EIPs Versus Content Managed Intranets

The biggest selling point of portals over content managed intranet Web sites is that they allow you to customize and personalize your portal environment. You'll receive only the content you specify, eliminating the need for excessive Web site navigation. Portals can greatly reduce the amount of repetitive, manual content searching and navigation—a process that can become tedious if done on a daily basis—by presenting users with content that they define themselves as opposed to having system administrators delivering what they think users will want.

So how do portals and content managed intranets measure up with one another?

A consolidated content managed intranet can be compared to a giant shopping center where various stores offering everything from computer supplies to groceries to clothes are gathered into one giant complex. Once shoppers enter the front doors, they're provided with the convenience of finding all their needs under the same roof instead of having to drive around town. However, you'll still need to go from store to store inside the mall until you find everything you're looking for—but this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Content managed intranets are often more conducive to content discovery. They allow you to find useful pieces of information while navigating your way through the site.

An EIP, on the other hand, is more like a warehouse. It can offer you everything a content managed intranet does but you don't actually navigate the complex yourself. Instead, you have a small army of personal shoppers who greet you by name at the front door. They know who you are, what size clothes you wear, your food preferences and allergies, your reading habits, and anything else you may be looking for. Armed with this knowledge, your personal shoppers disappear into the warehouse and bring back a cartful of goodies targeted to your individual and unique preferences.

But there's a catch: before you can enjoy this bounty you have to take the time to customize your content preferences—to train your personal shoppers on what you're looking for. If you don't, you'll just end up with less user-friendly content managed intranet. You'll be left to navigate the huge warehouse yourself, not knowing where anything is stored.

Is an EIP Right For You?

You may think, with the advantages of portal personalization, that content managed intranets will go down in history by way of the dinosaur. While portals have the ability to dynamically present targeted information geared to an individual user's job, location, and personal interests, they're not for everyone and not for every situation.

How do you decide whether an EIP will work in your organization? The answer lies in your understanding of three influencing factors:

1) Your user community's profile

2) Your content, application, and processes

3) The state of your current content management solution

Closing Thoughts

Are EIPs really an evolutionary step up from a well-developed content managed intranet Web site? I don't believe they are; I believe that EIPs and content managed intranets are separate solutions that accomplish similar goals for different user needs. It's a mistake to think that portal personalization benefits everyone.

The advantages of content and application personalization can only be achieved after users get over that initial customization hump. And it's not always easy to predict whether users will actually take the time to customize their portal environment. This granular level of content customization can have the opposite effect on some users and actually deter them from adopting the system.

Unlike a content managed intranet, the usefulness of a portal as well as the quality and quantity of content delivered is dependent on a user's ability to configure the system. And this extra step may turn some users off—whether because of a lack of time, a lack of understanding in the system, privacy concerns, they're temp workers, or they just simply can't be bother to do it.

The state of your content management solution should improve through evolution. If your content managed intranet Web site is well-maintained and meets your users' needs, don't listen to portal vendor hype. There must be a tangible reason to migrate, and the implementation of portal content personalization must be backed by a true business requirement. Just because something sounds newer and offers a feature you assume users will want doesn't mean you won't end up dragging your knuckles.

Copyright © 2005 Paul Chin. All rights reserved.
Reproduction of this article in whole or part in any form without prior written permission of Paul Chin is prohibited.