Ford Motor Company president Jac Nasser insists that, “The Internet is the 21st Century equivalent of the moving assembly line Ford pioneered in the 20th Century.” Ford brought Internet technology in-house in 1996 by launching an intranet called the Ford Web Hub. That system has since evolved into one of the world’s largest corporate portals, My Ford, with an estimated 150,000 daily users and 400,000 daily hits. The Ford portal is a doorway for employees to access the information resources of the firm and the Internet. Employees in a Ford paint shop in India can post tips that improve efficiency in Ford facilities around the world, and the company estimates that this knowledge has added $1.25 billion to its bottom line.
Companies ranging from traditional manufacturing and retail to services and Internet companies are using business portals to create efficiencies both inside their companies and with their suppliers and partners. Portals provide business users with integrated, personalized, and web-based interfaces to business content. This content could be anything from transactional information, to human resource information, to inventory. A portal provides a cost-effective web-interface to business intelligence. Furthermore, this occurs in a single, consolidated customizable view that is secure from unauthorized users. Finally, these business applications work in conjunction with e-business and business intelligence software.
A portal is distinct from a web-interface in that it is:
- Provides publishing and categorization services.
- Automates workflows.
- Is a single point of control for securing internal business content plus external/internal business intelligence.
- Provides collaboration and groupware capabilities.
- Includes delivery and notification services.
The consumer business portal was the precursor to today’s corporate portal. This beginning stage of portal evolution enabled the user to customize content and applications in the public domain. Examples include Yahoo!, Excite and Alta Vista. Firms quickly adapted the consumer business portal format into ‘Intranet portals’ that enabled employees to share workgroup and collaborative tools in addition to internal corporate information.
Intranet Portals Provide Business Intelligence and Collaborative Tools
The next stage of portal evolution involved the inclusion of business intelligence from internal data warehouses, the Internet, and streaming data sources. Eventually, these internal and external data were delivered to users in interactive and shared formats.
As the corporate portal evolved, system integration methods were developed that made data more accessible across different platforms. Categorization techniques were developed to allow organizations to better access the considerable amount of “unstructured” data that resides in reports, spreadsheets, and other non-database formats. Smart searches enabled portals to push relevant data to users based on stored preferences or dynamic user profiles.
The term “metadata” refers to data about data, such as its topical category. By creating, labeling, and storing metadata in directories, organizations gain more efficient access to their knowledge capital. Search engines and crawlers (programs that use key words to look for information) can assist subject matter experts in tagging unstructured data. In this ongoing process, portals can “alert” users when content changes in relevant folders.
Metadata can be integrated with other data sources using Extensible Markup Language (XML). XML is a refinement of HTML (HyperText Markup Language) used so extensively on websites today. XML also integrates metadata with portal applications and, in various mutations, is becoming an accepted format for online data transmission and transactions.
To secure proprietary data and preserve a single log-on procedure, portals have implemented granular authorization systems, which means that an individual user can access data according to his or her role in the organization. Some portals provide granular authorization using an access control list (ACL). Users not named on the ACL for a content object are not allowed to see that this content exists.
Reliable security measures enable organizations to open their portals to outsiders – including customers, suppliers, and other stakeholders. This has prompted the recent rush to transform corporate portals into platforms for e-business. An e-business portal provides customizable, one-point access to intelligence, internal shared corporate information, collaborative tools for workgroups, and e-business capabilities connecting firms to their suppliers and customers.
The following companies demonstrate the different ways that portals are currently used to enhance business practice. They also reflect some of the considerations involved in portal selection and deployment.
There are a number of useful examples that organizations can study in order to select the look, feel, and functionality needed in a particular portal solution. This decision is based on the type of business involved, the types of business processes represented, and the objectives of the portal implementation. Staples uses its business portal as an Intranet to provide its internal users with access to information from various corporate systems, usually from the operation level. The goals and objectives of the system are to:
- Increase productivity.
- Increase effectiveness.
- Lower information delivery costs.
- Improve employee communication and knowledge.
By carefully analyzing its content and application requirements, Staples was able to roll out its portal in about 10 weeks. In addition to achieving its initial objectives, Staples was able to extend the usefulness of the firm’s existing data by integrating it into the new system.
Nestle uses its portal to handle the distribution of key reports from the corporate system (such as financial reports) as well as to capture business intelligence in the broader industry environment. Charles Schwab integrates these two kinds of functionality by using its portal to collect business intelligence and then allowing 300 mutual fund companies to download or generate reports from this intelligence. This integration of the internal and external functions supports the business model and transaction efficiencies that this trading company is working to achieve.
Cisco combines the features we see in the Schwab system with its e-business functions. Cisco uses its portal to provide information and enable transactions among users in sales, services, support, supply-chain partnerships, its employees, and in education. Cisco estimates that it saves $175 million per year in operating costs using its portal and has reduced its order cycle time by 70 percent.
Danger of Portal Anarchy
One problem with having so many options is that multiple portals may be constructed within a firm. Companies such as Ford may have a business-to-employee portal to serve its employees and enhance internal efficiencies. At the same time, a firm may also construct a business-to-consumer portal for use by customers, and a separate business-to-business portal for suppliers and key partnerships. In an environment such as this, a user may have to log on to multiple portals to find all of the information or services needed. The key to building a single, integrated portal is to use software that maintains a flexible, open architecture. This is now available through companies such as Ascential, Brain Ranger, Brio, Computer Associates, DataChannel, Hummingbird, InfoImage, Plumtree, Sybase, and TopTier.
Essentially, an open architecture means using XML, Java, or some non-proprietary mechanism for building the components of the portal system. Plumtree calls these modules gadgets, Oracle calls them portets. These used to be unbridgeable and proprietary, but this is quickly changing. Standards such as EBXML (E-Business XML) are being developed that enable one firm to provide information or complete transactions with another. The electronic component industry is one case in which firms have adopted a set of modified XML standards as a common “language” for online transactions.
Selection and Deployment
The key to selection and deployment is to clearly identify the objectives of the portal and ensure that they are aligned with the organization’s strategy. The Ford Motor Company adopted internal objectives:
- To deliver internal information to employees.
- To lower transaction costs.
- To grow its employees.
- To partner more effectively.
Cisco’s objectives were to reach out to customers and suppliers:
- Look at the big picture – the customer comes first.
- Create an e-culture.
- Choose opportunities to win big, quickly.
- Create business and IT partnerships.
Once objectives are established, the scope of the portal can be defined. Who are the users? What information do they need? What applications do they need? After these questions are addressed, implementation objectives must be established (Database Associates International).
- Prioritize the rollout to best achieve business objectives.
- Repeatable deployment methodology for iterative portal deployment of information to multiple user communities.
- Repeatable deployment methodology for iterative portal deployment of applications to multiple user communities.
- Create a secure “webtop” for access to all information and applications. Extensible, open architecture based on standards.
- Good performance and scalability.
- Distribute content management and administration responsibilities across the organization.
Then, consider these five basic steps of deployment (Database Associates International).
- Select the pilot business community.
- Conduct a business content usage and requirements study.
- Develop the implementation plan.
- Select and integrate portal technologies.
- Implement the portal and deploy it to the user community.
Portals Bring Risk and Opportunity
Business portals have become central to the operations management of firms. They enable companies to work more efficiently, better utilize their knowledge capital, streamline the supply chain, and provide new modes of customer service. For many firms, portals are a significant investment and a considerable technological challenge. They impact the flow of information to stakeholders in ways that can lead to major strategic and cultural changes. This brings both risk and opportunity. Portals may eliminate the competitive advantage enjoyed by peak performers in the old economy. But they promise to create significant and sustainable competitive advantages for early adopters in the new economy.
Please see related articles from past issues of the GBR…