Over the past six months, the "information portal" has emerged as one of the most highly touted trends in IT. If you look beyond the hype, however, you will discover that portals have real potential for providing a wide range of business benefits, including:

  • Leveraging investments in data warehouses, ERP and other IT systems.
  • Transforming a business that uses e-commerce into a true e-business.
  • Easing reorganization, merger and acquisition processes.
  • Providing dramatically improved navigation and access capabilities for end users within distributed, proliferating intranet environments.

This month's column focuses on the enterprise information portal (EIP). We foresee a day in the not-too- distant future when EIPs will become the primary desktop tool for providing ubiquitous access to information contained in a company's data warehouse.

The Value Proposition and Characteristics of Portals

The vast majority of portals are based on Web servers and browser interfaces. They can be categorized in a number of ways, including Web information, e-commerce and enterprise information portals. The value proposition for the first two categories (Web information and e-commerce portals) has become fairly well defined ­ at a high level ­ as enabling organizations to:

  • Reach beyond their physical environments to build presence, image and brand.
  • Address and participate in broadly dispersed markets of buyers and sellers such as e- commerce.

Many portals have been developed on a custom basis; however, an ever-increasing number of product-based platforms are becoming available to support these two portal categories.
EIPs are a lesser- known, emerging portal category that addresses a subtler, rapidly expanding and increasingly vital set of requirements for organizations participating in the "new economy." As opposed to maximizing "share of eyeball" and facilitating electronic buying and selling, the EIP's primary purpose is to:

  • Expose and deliver business information from multiple internal and external sources.
  • Provide information views and augmented/automated management functionality tailored to the needs of individuals within specific business scenarios, processes and communities.
  • Provide an extensible framework and platform for information source and application integration.

EIPs, as a group, provide a broad range of functionality. Common capabilities include structured and unstructured information query/search/categorization; automated collection and distribution of targeted information; document/content authoring and management; workflow; real-time collaboration/project team space support; OLAP/data and text mining; advanced visualization; and many others.

The Need for EIPs

As more businesses "transform" themselves, the processes and communities within them become virtualized, and the number and frequency of decisions that must be made (as well as the volume of information required to support them) is increasing dramatically. Within these new environments, traditional manual processes and human-driven queries/searches against stovepiped systems are becoming less and less viable because end users: do not have the time or ability to gather and manage the increased levels of information they require; and can no longer bridge the gaps between separate applications, repositories and infrastructures.

EIPs address these problems in a number of ways. First, they incrementally leverage existing IT investments. For example, an EIP can expand the percentage of data warehouse users through simplified navigation facilities that expose DW analytics and content as well as automated content distribution through publish-and-subscribe mechanisms. EIPs can also fill gaps in "conventional wisdom" e- business models by facilitating employee-to-employee (E2E) collaboration and business-to- employee (B2E) communications. Other benefits include bridging organizational discontinuities resulting from reorganizations and mergers, and providing a flexible and extensible integration platform for IT.

A Realistic View of EIP Products

Having described a few of the potential uses and benefits of EIPs, it is also important to recognize some of the issues with current EIP products and the real scope and complexity associated with delivering the potential benefits they promise. Some of these issues include:

  • Many divergent internal portal designs and architectures and wide variability in terms of availability and quality of out- of-the-box functionality.
  • Lack of consistency in terms of out-of-the- box functionality definitions and operation.
  • Varying degrees of individual EIP component integration (e.g., structured and unstructured information search/retrieval/management capabilities).

Beyond these and other product and technology issues, EIPs do not eliminate the need for undertaking complex implementation tasks, such as developing a consistent information architecture (including meta data and taxonomies) and cultural acceptance of information sharing through the EIP. Additionally, EIPs do not provide a cure for problems in content quality/availability, poor existing application functionality and infrastructure bottlenecks and gaps. However, when approached in a logical and organized manner that takes these issues into account, the EIP's potential for addressing real and emerging business issues is extremely high.
As e-businesses proliferate and the economic transformation progresses, the requirements and associated problems that EIPs address are escalating and the case for these systems becomes more compelling.

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