Portal Management - Do You Know What It Takes?

by Jacqueline Emigh

Corporate portals may seem to be an idea that came and went, but for the company that does launch one, it can mean big changes for IT staff and network managers. How might your job change? Jacqueline Emigh reports.

A lot of corporate portals still seem stalled at the pilot stage, but others have swept into full production. According to people working on projects at IBM, Microsoft and elsewhere, portal development can carry implications for just about everyone in a company, including network managers. If a portal does open up near you, how will it change your job?

The roles played by IT specialists like net managers, security managers, and database administrators vary according to the size and complexity of the deployment, the type of portal used, and the amount of advance planning, experts say.

"You can never do too much planning," advised Jim Murphy, an analyst at AMR Research. During the planning stages, network managers are often asked to lend an experienced hand at capacity planning.

"Will we have enough bandwidth? Will we need to add more servers?" illustrated Greg Sherman, marketing manager in the Advanced Collaboration Group at Lotus. Adding more servers doesn't necessarily mean buying more boxes. Existing servers can be repurposed, Sherman pointed out.

Other issues to consider include numbers of users, how applications will be distributed, and the impact of the portal on overall network performance, according to Murphy. "Content sources for the portal might be housed in a variety of physical locations. You might want to invest in a content delivery service like Akamai."

Security managers need to get involved from an access rights perspective, For their part, database administrators need to know what kinds of queries to anticipate, the analyst said.

Then, as the initial deployment evolves and expands, you'll be expected to stay on top of ongoing modifications to the portal.

Different strokes for different folks
"The word 'portal' can mean a lot of different things," according to Murphy. Some companies hone in on portal solutions geared to specific applications, such as CRM (customer relationship management), ERM (employee relationship management), SFA (sales force automation), or document management, for instance. "Actually, some of the application-specific portals can work out quite well," he maintained.

Many of the deployments in these specialized categories are being farmed out to ASPs. SFA outsourcers include SalesNet.com and SalesForce.com, for instance, observed Barton Goldenberg, president of CRM/ERM consultancy ISM.

Also available are specialized software packages with all - or, at least, much of - the needed functionality built in. Examples range from the Plumtree Portal Solution for Employee Services to Conjoin's sales portal software.

Other organizations are taking a more do-it-yourself approach, customizing broader portal frameworks such as IBM's WebSphere Portal; Novell Portal Services; MySAP Portal Services; and Microsoft's SharePoint.

Unicco Service Company, a $600 million facilities management outsourcer, is using Novell Portal Services, Lotus Notes, and a potpourri of other products to create a series of portals for the external marketplace, first tier customers, and internal users, said Jeff Peterson, Unicco's VP of IT.

APT's doc management portal
Somewhere in between are organizations like Applied Printing Technologies (APT), a $100 million printing company which has used Extream's Dialogue document management software to do the bulk of the legwork in building its own CRM portal. Exstream also sells Dialogue to banks, insurance firms, utilities, and retail concerns, for instance.

APT implemented its CRM portal almost entirely on its own, after only a "little bit of a head start" from Exstream, affirmed Kelly Sloan, Exstream's VP of corporate marketing.

APT's new digital printing division is using the Dialogue-based portal to integrate and present customer data in both online and printed documents. The documents can range from newsletters and promotional brochures to customized 401K enrollment books.

Customers accessing APT's portal include AT&T Wireless, for example, said Nicholas Brusco, senior VP/GM of the division, speaking at the recent CRM Expo in New York City.

APT decided on Exstream due to Dialogue's support for PDF files and workflow solutions, PostScript, and IBM's new AFP (Advanced Function Presentation) architecture.

Microsoft & IBM try to show the way
Big enterprises are better off if they start out by "thinking small," according to AMR's Murphy. "There's always this initial promise, but companies don't always take advantage of it. Very often, portals get backlogged. So the most reasonable projects start out with a small subset," Murphy said in an interview.

In enterprises, the best efforts tend to be characterized by interdepartmental collaboration. Microsoft, for example, is now piloting an inhouse portal that revolves around its SharePoint product, said Mary Lee Kennedy, director of Microsoft's Knowledge Network Group, during a talk at the recent Internet World show.

Microsoft's SharePoint team is helping out with infrastructure issues such as servers, Web services, and establishment of a domain integration framework, according to Michael Ohata, group manager for product management in the Knowledge Network Group.

Just getting under way this year, the three-year project also involves the company's sales organization, "executive sponsors," and content providers from throughout Microsoft. Like some other enterprise portal users, Microsoft has organized an internal steering committee, too.

"We chose not to centralize the expertise. We do not know our business organization's needs," Kennedy acknowledged. "We are not going to tell people what they need, (although) we will try to avoid duplication."

Initially, Microsoft is working on an inhouse employee portal. By 2005, the software giant hopes to achieve an automated "smart content" system, as well as Internet-based content delivery to customers, Ohata said.

"Because our consulting group goes out, we want to have a portal, too," according to Kennedy. "We are a great testbed for the company."

IBM Dynamic Workplace
Along the same general lines, IBM has created an inhouse portal known as IBM Dynamic Workplace, based around the IBM WebSphere Portal, Domino, and Lotus Sametime and Quickplace, for e-learning.

"This is a cross-IBM initiative," Sherman said in an interview. Key players at IBM include Larry Bowden, IBM's VP of e-portal solutions; Lotus CEO Al Zollar, and top brass from IBM's hardware and software divisions.

"An early step in portal development is to get your intranets together. IBM Dynamic Workplace has 8,000 internal users. Dynamic Workplace also becomes a good reference for us," he admitted.

Content managers in business departments such as human relations, finance, and public relations work with "corporate librarians" to help decide now content should be shared among various groups of internal users. "If we're interested in putting our stock information up, for instance, there are certain rules about that." Meanwhile, HR has placed its benefits enrollment and travel expense accounts online.

Right now, IBM's human content managers are doing manual data tagging. "Our goal, though, is to move toward automatic tagging."

Internally, IBM Global Services fulfills the role of network manager. IGS also consults outside customers about portal development.

"IGS has subject matter experts in areas like retail, manufacturing, and financial services. Sometimes, IGS will just go in and do a study. IGS, though, is also willing to outsource and host everything for a customer," according to Sherman.

IBM customer Unicco is using offerings from IBM as well as a number of other vendors in its three portals. The total list of ingredients is expected to include Novell Portal Services; JD Edwards' OneWorld; Maximo's e-procurement application; an opportunity management product from SalesLogix; Lotus's Domino, Domino Doc, Quickplace, and Sametime servers; desktop tools from both Lotus and Microsoft; and Elcom's materials management ASP service.

"Technical problems are the least of their concerns"
Integration of multivendor hardware and software is sometimes a challenge, particularly in multiplatform environments. "Almost everybody says, though, that technical problems are the least of their concerns," according to AMR's Murphy.

"Portals can have a huge impact on how people throughout the company do their jobs. Often, the middle manager gets stuck in the middle. Let's say you're a PR manager. Ultimately, the corporate portal becomes epicentric. Everything you do needs to be deployed through the portal," he said.

"Network managers and other IT people get saddled with a lot of responsibility. They have to select the products, and they sometimes need to step up their capabilities to support the portal. One idea (behind a portal) is that IT can delegate tasks out to the business departments. But that can be a pretty hairy proposition. Issues like workflows - and sometimes access to data - are not necessarily easy for business administrators."

Business administrators also need to lean on security managers, according to Murphy. "Decisions need to be made such as, 'Do I govern security through the portal, or do I let the application govern security?' There are pluses and minuses, either way. Portals usually call for some degree of (IT) development, as well."

Collaboration at Unicco

Unicco initially tested a portal product from Computer Associates, but ran into some integration issues. Overall, however, integration hasn't been much of a problem, according to Unicco's Peterson, who gained experience with complex deployments through a previous job at Arthur Andersen.

"We have some programmers inhouse You do need to set priorities, though, as to which applications really need to talk to each other," he added.

Unicco is pursuing a staged deployment, involving an external Web site, followed by customer and employee portals, in that general order.

The customer portal, myUNICCO.com, is designed for one-stop shopping, information sharing, and self-service work requests, using the customer's existing Web infrastructure. Customers can also build a knowledge management warehouse that includes best practices, benchmark/performance measurements, and trend analysis, according to Peterson.

UNICCO has also started working on the employee portal, dubbed uShare. "We've looked at who's been getting information in a timely fashion, and who has not. This is our 'field of dreams,'" Peterson said.

With the portals deployment, IT staffing at UNICCO has increased from 18 to 20 people. "We've added a Lotus Notes developer, as well as a database administrator/network administrator." Along the way, Unicco has also migrated from cc:Mail to Notes.

Unicco's IT department includes specialists in LAN/WAN management, production, and operations support. For the portals effort, the 20 staffers are deployed in two project teams. "The field services team implements the tools. The internal project team works on internal support and implementation."

Peterson said he works closely on portal development with the company's COO, as well as the VPs of the business divisions. "There's a big focus on what information we're going to capture, and what we need it for."

Content "ownership" by business units
Meanwhile, Unicco has been shifting more of the "ownership" of the portal to the business divisions.

"There was a perception among some of the ranks of end users that the portal was just 'fun-to-have' technology. So business leaders are now championing the portal, to entice greater use," according to Peterson.

Portals constitute a slightly different story at smaller companies, according to Goldenberg. "Companies need to ensure that information is relevant, timely, and easy to access. Usually, portal administration is an IT function," he said.

Portal administration tasks include "receiving prioritized business functions; looking at what information is required to fulfill those functions; pulling together this information from internal or external sources; cleansing and populating the data; and archiving the information," according to Goldenberg.

For specialized portals such as sales, however, smaller IT departments often team up with subject area experts, he said.

"Sometimes, for example, a company will hire a retiree who's an ex-sales or marketing person, to sort leads that come in from trade seminars or ads, and to make some of them available through the portal."

Regardless of the size of the organization, management needs to be in it for the long haul, contended AMR's Murphy. "You can put a lot of time and effort into a portal. People in every department need to understand that the portal is a long-term project, with an end goal," the AMR analyst added.

» See All Articles by Columnist Jacqueline Emigh

This article was originally published on Tuesday Oct 8th 2002