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Portals Transform Into A Strategic Collaboration Asset

Companies move beyond content aggregation to working with partners.
The evolution of Pratt & Whitney's corporate intranet offers a textbook example of how portals have matured. Relying on an increasingly popular portal component called the gadget, the engine maker has turned its intranet portal into a collaborative environment for partners, suppliers, and customers to collaborate with Pratt & Whitney staff on the technical documents used to develop project proposals.

For the uninitiated, gadgets are pieces of application functionality that can be embedded in portals, letting users perform common tasks that would normally require switching to a separate application. Those tasks can range from checking E-mail to ordering supplies to tapping a customer-relationship management system for a customer snapshot.

Gadgets are basically Web services that expose the myriad tools employees typically use throughout the day, says Thomas Koulopoulos, president and founder of research firm the Delphi Group. Gadgets organize the views of multiple applications layered on an employee's desktop. This ability to integrate and simplify application access also speaks to the impact that portals can have on business processes. "It's not as though we're talking about ways of doing business in the future," Koulopoulos said. "Were talking about how people do business now."

The functionality exposed by gadgets is just one of the ways in which portal technology is changing to meet business needs. Improved development and integration tools are making it easier to deploy increasingly sophisticated portals that can serve as knowledge-management and content-management interfaces, as well as real-time collaborative workspaces. From an organizational standpoint, many companies are looking to get a handle on their sprawling Web sites by consolidating logical groupings of sites under a single, centrally managed portal.

For Pratt & Whitney, the East Hartford, Conn., division of United Technologies Corp., the functionality offered by gadgets is the right fit. Gadgets embedded in the company's portal allow access to a document repository so users can see a list of assigned tasks related to a document, import a document into the repository, check documents in or out, view a list of all documents pertinent to a project proposal, or search for a certain document stored within the repository. Given the nature of projects at Pratt & Whitney--the design and manufacture of engines for commercial and military aircraft, space propulsion, and power systems--proposals can be quite complex and heavily scrutinized, so tight collaboration on documents can mean the difference between success and failure.

The only logical alternative to creating portal access through gadgets was to set up a mesh of virtual private network links with partners and suppliers, says Jim McAlister, Pratt & Whitney's project manager for military E-business. But that approach wasn't likely to speed up the process.

With the portal gadgets, which went live a few months ago, McAlister expects to slash the time it takes to submit a proposal and be awarded a contract from 90 days to 45. And during that process, Pratt & Whitney will save the money it's been spending on mailing CD-ROMs and paper documents back and forth. Eventually, McAlister hopes to use portal gadgets to manage the processes related to contract management.

chartThe days of the employee-focused corporate portal may be over, McAlister says. "The definition of the business use for the portal has changed during the past year."

Portal vendors are well aware of that fact and are making whatever product adjustments necessary to meet customer needs. For instance, Pratt & Whitney's gadget deployment was made simpler by a joint effort of its portal and document-management vendors Plumtree Software Inc. and Documentum Inc. Using a portal integration pack that Documentum designed for developers looking to expose content-management functions through a portal, Plumtree built the gadgets Pratt & Whitney is using to tap the Documentum repository.

Such symbiotic development efforts have become commonplace as vendors look for ways to help customers extract value from their portals, Yankee Group analyst Rob Perry says. He expects portals to feature increasing personalization and security capabilities as large enterprise application vendors such as BEA Systems, IBM, and Oracle expand their product offerings to achieve tighter integration between portals and back-end systems.

Integration is key to taking portals beyond their traditional information-aggregation role. Informatica Corp., a maker of enterprise analytics software, recently launched a customer enterprise portal that ties into the company's CRM system and, by doing so, achieves two objectives: simplifying the experience of its 1,400 customers and bringing together multiple applications under one interface.

Informatica had developed multiple disconnected customer portals, with some customers having as many as eight password-protected interfaces to areas such as tech support, online ordering, consulting, and original equipment manufacturer services. Eric Penney, the company's senior manager of E-CRM, says he's hopeful the new portal, built on the Tibco Portal platform, will bring focus to Informatica's customer relations and yield benefits such as the development of a low-cost channel, improved customer relationships, and more accurate revenue forecasting. "This has helped us consolidate a bunch of information that was out there into a strategic approach to solving our customers' issues," Penney says.

On the surface, IT services firm EDS's new employee-facing portal, dubbed myinfoCentre, is a throwback to the early days of portals used to aggregate content. But where early portals simply provided a jumping-off point for finding content, the EDS portal is something more. Intended to drive employee productivity, myinfoCentre was designed as a knowledge-management interface that relies on role-based specifications to deliver targeted content from thousands of internal sites and numerous non-EDS content sources such as Dow Jones.

The hope is to put everything EDS employees might need at their fingertips rather than making them search for desired data, says Shawn Spitzer, director of strategic delivery for EDS's online marketing and communications. "Every Web site is like its own silo," Spitzer says. "I look at our portal not only as an aggregation tool but as a way to organize our intranet."

Currently, myinfoCentre is available to a pilot audience of 5,000 employees, but eventually it will be offered to the company's entire 140,000-person workforce. And during the progression, the site will mature from pure knowledge management to sophisticated integration, mirroring work the company does for its clients, Spitzer says. The first embedded applications will be things such as expense report filing and benefits enrollment, with eventual access to CRM and enterprise resource planning systems.

chartSome companies are using this sophisticated integration and newfound portal functionality to entice less-savvy suppliers, partners, and customers into embracing E-business practices. Shop At Home Inc., which operates a nationally televised home-shopping service and related Web site, recently put the finishing touches on a vendor portal that lets it act as a de facto EDI system for distributors that don't have any EDI processes in place.

Shop At Home's portal is built on BroadVision Inc.'s One-To-One platform and ties into Oracle inventory and financial databases, as well as a custom-built CRM application that doubles as an order-entry interface. Such integration lets the Nashville, Tenn., company's technology-starved vendor partners use a simple connection to download orders, confirm shipping details, analyze product sales, view accounts payable data, and access PDF files of order batch files that can be used as packing slips, says Wayne Lambert, executive VP and CIO.

Having access to individual order files lets vendors get paid by the order; previously, they received each day's orders as a single batch and weren't paid until all shipments had been confirmed. Under the old system, Shop At Home typically didn't receive shipping confirmations for at least 48 hours, Lambert says. Now, the confirmations come the same day, which means that vendors get paid faster and customers receive their orders sooner.

One of the biggest challenges in establishing a successful portal is changing people's habits. Shawn Uleski, VP of enterprise marketing at Pitney Bowes Inc., is expecting that to be the case with the company's new customer portal. The Stamford, Conn., provider of mail-and document-management products has set up a secure "my account" extranet link from its main Web site, letting customers use a self-service interface to do everything from resetting their postage meters to managing their inventory of Pitney Bowes equipment.

But building momentum for the self-service model requires that employees and customers adapt to new ways of doing business. The difficulty of getting employees to embrace new processes and convincing customers to change the way they interact with the company is complicated by the fact that all the old processes need to stay in place to ensure a smooth transition, Uleski says. And that lets those who are resistant to change to hold out. "Not everyone is going to embrace the Web," she says.

Because widespread acceptance of a portal is likely to be a gradual process, it's crucial that companies establish a long-term commitment to a portal before it's deployed. "If you don't have that commitment, it makes it very difficult," Uleski says.

As with any new tool, portals represent an unknown quantity: a new computing interface to which people are going to have to get accustomed. It's only been a few years since the first consumer portals began providing Internet newbies with a starting point from which to explore the new medium; in the transition from Web springboard to viable business tool, there are bound to be some obstacles.

But with the portal having matured into a diverse tool for improving business processes, aggregating companywide content, delivering application functionality, and creating collaborative links between companies and their partners and customers, it's only a matter of time before more wide-scale acceptance and more sophisticated usage follows.