Manage Learn to apply best practices and optimize your operations.

Web portals: Big challenges, better ROI

Information architects need time, patience and good business sense to reap the many benefits of Web portals.

When San-Francisco-based Morrison & Foerster LLP installed a Web portal, the law firm figured its content-management headaches were over. Instead, the pain had just begun.

The firm, one of the largest practices in the U.S. with more than 1,000 attorneys, installed an enterprise portal product that would give attorneys Web-based desktop access to a variety of information. It quickly became apparent, however, that lawyers had neither the time nor the inclination to learn Microsoft FrontPage, the tool used to add information to the portal. What's more, information architects still needed to spend painstaking hours each week rewriting HTML code.

The company eventually sought a more systematic way of managing content by purchasing add-on content-management software from Ektron Inc. in Amherst, N.H. The combined system now gives users an intuitive environment for creating, editing and publishing content using browser-based tools, according to Bob Graham, the firm's information delivery team leader. The move also permits dozens of legacy intranet pages to be retired by consolidating both internal and external information into a "one-stop destination."

"About 90% of our content now is in the portal. The whole cycle of Web content is a lot more straightforward to manage than in a traditional Web page, FrontPage-kind of thing," said Graham, who estimates costs for the implementation at $1.5 million to $2 million.

Web portals are an anomaly among information technologies. WinterGreen Research Inc. in Lexington, Mass., forecasts market demand for Web portals will reach $1.2 billion by 2009. Yet quantifying their real value in dollars and cents can be difficult, even for companies that have a strategic use. "We have not really measured that," Graham said. "It's more anecdotal: Before, we couldn't find X, Y or Z, and now it's very easy to find X, Y or Z."

Integration and consolidation

In theory, portals replace the fragmented architecture of intranets -- user interface management, user administration, content and application access, search engines, personalization and other tools -- with a common framework. The ostensible goal is to help companies make more efficient use of people and information.

"A portal is the Swiss army knife of enterprise software that lets organizations pick and choose the different functions they want to implement, according to their requirements," said Ray Valdes, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

Still, information architects in charge of engineering these systems face several challenges, not the least of which is consolidation within the industry itself. Most of the smaller niche companies have been swallowed up by large application server vendors or gone out of business. IBM WebSphere, SAP Enterprise Portal and Microsoft Window SharePoint Services dominate the market. Not only do customers have fewer choices, but they also have to worry about integrating different portal platforms.

"When a company uses SharePoint Services for collaboration, but also supports SAP for key applications, a decision must be made on which portal vendor to go with. A lot of times companies want the best of both worlds," said Matthew Brown, a senior analyst at Cambridge, Mass.-based Forrester Research Inc.

Size and complexity also affect the cost of a portal project. Portals lend themselves to a range of uses, usually access to content and/or applications or collaboration among employees and business partners.

"Part of the challenge for an architect is narrowing down the choices and deciding which features to implement," Valdes said.

The U.S. Army is running the fourth generation of its Web portal, known as Army Knowledge Online, or AKO. The gateway has evolved from an all-purpose intranet for officer e-mail to one that enables file sharing and collaboration between soldiers on battlefields. The Army uses it to provide distance learning and improve collaboration between soldiers in theater, according to military officials.

Running portal software by Vienna, Va.-based Appian Corp., AKO dovetails with a gradual move to network-centric warfare, said Lt. Col. Mike Bridges, AKO's chief of architecture. "We need to move information, not soldiers."

Bridges said National Guard units in Iraq log in to AKO for e-mail communications with other units via a local area network. "So they're now using AKO to post documents and share them with other units halfway around the globe."

Vet the value

The type of portal you need influences not only design but also how you measure return on investment, Brown said. Companies with large, distributed workforces have an easier time proving the value of business-to-employee portals than smaller companies.

Conversely, business-to-business portals are starting to take root because they help companies directly pitch new or additional services to existing customers. "The real strength of portals is the ability for companies to selectively target content at very specific audiences, whether it is dynamic pricing databases and catalogs or specific product promotions," Brown said.

Valdes said companies can better assess the value of their investments by isolating individual business processes to be improved and then attacking them one at a time. Too often, companies get caught up searching for "killer features" that cut across their operations, whereas portals are most effective when used selectively.

"The successful portal is an aggregation of many small successes that meet the requirements of many different business processes in different parts of the organization," Valdes said. "You can't be truly successful without having an impact on the way people work."

Garry Kranz is a freelance technology writer in Richmond, Va. He can be reached at [email protected].

Dig Deeper on Return on Investment (ROI)