Portals for the masses Featured

8:00pm EDT April 25, 2007
A byproduct of the dot-com explosion in the late ’90s was an exciting but unfinished technology that offered a promising glimpse into the future business climate — one where smaller companies could more easily stand toe-to-toe with the industry giants.

This technology was dubbed an Internet “portal” implementation. A portal is a Web-based virtual doorway to a business that consolidates multiple Web sites into a common, integrated platform, allowing a business to satisfy multiple constituents.

“Because of developments on the technology front and the emerging industry standards, portal implementations are now viable for small- and medium-sized companies,” says Bill Russell, executive vice president of Allegient. “Portals are quickly moving from a luxury enjoyed by large companies to a requirement for competing.”

Smart Business spoke with Russell about what factors are making portal implementations both affordable and necessary for small- and medium-sized companies.

How do portals help level the playing field for smaller companies?

Today, even a small company may have as many as a dozen individual Web sites that can be a distraction due to technical constraints, maintenance and related costs. Portals suggest that these separate Web sites can become a common, integrated platform that allows businesses to satisfy any of their constituents, from customers to suppliers to employees — to even partners and shareholders.

An additional key benefit to a portal is speed. Portals allow a company to quickly and specifically serve the right people with the most current information and utilize a process for completing a business transaction. A business can, in almost real time, answer the questions: How are we doing? How are sales? What are our costs? How are we dealing with our clients?

How are portals utilized?

Portals are moving from pure content-oriented, or information-centric, sites into comprehensive higher-value ‘environments’ where a company can serve more of its constituents’ needs through collaborative interactions, transactions or applications. Portals are beginning to embed the business processes, along with the relevant information and people, so they can collaborate, share judgments and make decisions. This allows faster decision-making and timely direction changes.

Self-help applications are popular first initiatives and provide a fast return on portal investment. For instance, a portal application can allow online bill payment or provide a site where employees can view their W-2s, manage medical benefits, etc.

How have portals evolved into a viable technology for almost any company?

Portals have gone from an entry-level cost of $250,000 or more to less than $25,000 due to evolving technology and the industry’s recent drive for standards. Emerging portal standards are based in part on a family of standards called Web Services, or WS-I. And big players like IBM, Microsoft and others are holding true to the standards and are not making their versions so proprietary that you can’t interact or interface with them.

The standards also opened the door for software developers to build small applications or ‘portlets’ that can be easily connected or integrated with a portal. These portlets increase portal value and help better serve constituent needs.

What challenges accompany portal implementations?

Portals can cross the traditional functional roles or departments inside a company. To succeed, a portal implementation should be tied to a strong governance model. This includes a division-of-labor type approach for assigning responsibility and accountability. As an example, a product manager is able to post information about a product on a portal very quickly, with approval review by the legal department, marketing, etc. But ultimately the product manager controls that content. In a bad governance model, no clear accountability is established or no recognized embedded approval process is established, and new information is slowed due to functional ‘turfism’ or individual interests.

Security is another big challenge, which is being addressed by the new standards. Portal providers are quickly evolving in two major areas, including authorization/ identity management, as well as information security.

How can companies move to implement portal technology?

The basic platforms can be purchased, but most small- to mid-sized companies would be better served by first bringing in experts in portal implementation and business solutions.

It’s crucial to first determine the business solution definition or value for what you want to accomplish. Once that is identified, it can be translated into how the technology will be deployed. The technology is secondary to the business need.

BILL RUSSELL is executive vice president of Allegient. Reach him at (317) 564-570 or brussell@allegient.com.