The enterprise information portal (EIP) took the market by storm about 15 months ago. Since then, dozens of vendors have introduced EIP products and the first customer deployments are just beginning to go live.

Early customer experiences reveal that most EIP projects are departmental in nature, address a specific business problem or opportunity and are generating substantial benefits or cost savings. Many early projects are also being turned outward to support the information requirements of customers and suppliers.

At the same time, a few large corporations are planning true enterprise-wide EIPs designed to support tens of thousands of employees and, in some cases, customers and suppliers as well. By mid-2000, the first large EIPs are likely to come online. But since the companies view these multimillion dollar projects as highly strategic, it's unlikely we'll hear much about them. Even companies with smaller projects are reticent about their EIP initiatives.

Confusion Abounds

There is still much confusion about what EIPs are. In fact, more than half of information technology (IT) managers think they've already deployed an EIP. The problem is that most IT managers today equate a corporate intranet with an EIP. Although the two are similar, there are some significant differences.

Unlike a corporate intranet, an EIP provides users with personalized and role-based views of corporate information as well as online access to the applications and services they need to perform their jobs. Most corporate intranets, on the other hand, are fairly static repositories of corporate news and information ­ an online corporate newsletter, if you will. It's not surprising, therefore, that a majority of IT managers report that users access the portal only lightly.

In contrast, a well-designed EIP serves as an employee's primary electronic workspace. It provides personalized access to key information and application resources via a single sign on and real-time notification of important new content via e-mail or other channels. It also presents critical information on the portal interface itself in the form of graphics and charts that are continuously updated. This type of digital dashboard essentially provides each user a personalized analytic application.

The first wave of EIPs that companies are deploying don't yet deliver all these features. But most are providing tangible returns by delivering information over the Web in a personalized manner.

Lessons Learned

  1. Focus. Most early EIP implementations address an area of strategic concern to a company, department or division. These include supporting field salespeople, providing customized services to subscribers and consolidating 40 Web sites into one to ease information dissemination. Another company we talked to was deploying an EIP for executives to track information about key competitors. Thus, the first lesson learned from user deployments is to focus the EIP on a key problem area or opportunity. This forces the firm to start small and select an area that can pay immediate dividends. Starting small also narrows down the number of users involved and reduces the scope of information requirements. If the initial EIP is a success, it will grow naturally as other groups want to leverage the infrastructure to address their own information requirements.

    Interestingly, I have heard about several requests for proposals (RFPs) calling for EIPs designed to support upward of 60,000 employees. These RFPs specify enterprise-caliber systems that can support substantial hit rates with high degrees of performance, reliability, availability and functionality. Although it's important to ensure that your EIP can scale to handle future demand, we wonder whether a generic "enterprise" EIP can succeed. Time and again, it seems that successful IT deployments start at the departmental level and scale up, not the other way around.

  2. Provide Incentives. Once an EIP is deployed, the next challenge is to get users to use the system. Even if the EIP is well designed and easy to use, it doesn't guarantee success. Corporate culture and individual work habits are difficult to change. People often cling to inefficient ways of doing business simply because they're more comfortable and familiar with the old ways. Learning new processes takes time, energy and the willingness to look foolish and inexperienced. Managers we spoke with said the most important way to make an EIP "sticky" is to put timely, informative content on the site. "Content drives usage," said one manager. One of the best ways to generate content, according to this manager, is to let users publish documents directly to the portal as well as create new folders to support new and different projects. Some companies encourage users to create personal folders, a tactic that usually drives usage. Be careful, however, since not all EIP products let users publish documents directly to the portal.

    Another way to increase usage is to eliminate the previous channels or methods users have created to collaborate or share information. One customer is deploying an EIP to provide a central repository for departmental, corporate and project-based information. To foster usage of the new system, managers did several things:

    • Mandated use of the system for all project-related activities.
    • Eliminated public e-mail folders and file systems folders where groups previously collected and managed shared documents.
    • Put personnel information on the portal so users could check their 401k plans and other human resources activities.
    • Put all users through training
  3. Integrate. More ambitious EIP projects seek to integrate core business intelligence and operational applications with the EIP. Here the EIP becomes a jumping off point for users to perform the critical work or it becomes the interface to the applications itself. Most business intelligence products now offer a portal interface which provides seamless integration with their query, reporting and analysis tools. Many enterprise resource planning vendors, such as SAP, are also deploying portals. Baan, for example, uses TopTier Software's portal product as a Web interface to its various application modules. Users, including customers and suppliers, can navigate seamlessly across Baan modules as well as other applications.

    Most EIP vendors are integrating support for common office productivity applications, such as e-mail, calendaring, search and discussion groups, to further entice users to the EIP.

The EIP market is still in its infancy. Users are just beginning to roll out applications based on the first and second waves of commercially available EIP products. Most initial implementations are fairly straightforward, focused on addressing the information requirements of a key set of users.
However, it's clear that EIP products will be used for more than just satisfying the information requirements of internal users. Many companies are already deploying EIPs to improve customer service and increase customer loyalty and retention. Some companies are looking to deploy EIPs on an enterprise scale.

In the next 12 months, many companies should begin transforming their static corporate Web sites into dynamic EIPs. These EIPs will leverage information found on current intranets as well as internal applications to deliver users a one-stop information shopping experience.

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