John Q. Employee gets to work in the morning. He turns on his computer and starts browsing for information. He hits, Yahoo!, and the Web sites of trade publications that he regularly reads. Then he checks his email, searches Business Wire for the latest news about the competition, and pulls up the company’s opening bell stock quote. He finishes up on the company’s intranet, looking at his vacation day accrual and reading a message from the company’s chief operating officer. Time expended: one hour.

Across town, Jane Q. Employee sits down at her desk, turns on her computer, and pulls up her company’s corporate portal. There, she checks all of the same resources and several others, such as an internal message board, a company calendar, a news clipping service, and the latest information gleaned from business intelligence tools. Time expended: 15 minutes.

While each of these scenarios is fictitious, the lesson behind them is real. There’s more information available than ever, much of which will benefit employee performance. Unfortunately, the very information that’s supposed to make us more efficient has instead become a thief, robbing us of our valuable time. Portals, which came onto the scene in 1999, have been touted as enterprise tools that can help managers take lost time back. “Managers are recognizing that people are going to be looking for information in a variety of places,” says Rob Perry, a senior analyst with Boston-based research firm the Yankee Group. “Portals take the control and puts it back in the employers’ hands.” But to deliver on that promise, portals must be designed to entice and engage employees.

A Growth Industry
Over the last three years, the portal market has exploded at an astonishing rate. Although specific portal adoption figures vary, most experts say between 35 and 50 percent of large enterprises have portal installations. In the future, the portal market will continue its growth, according to IDC, expanding from $550.4 million in sales in 2001 to $3.1 billion in 2006. As a result, the options available in today’s market are pretty impressive.

Traditional ERP and infrastructure companies such as BEA Systems, IBM, Oracle Corp., PeopleSoft, SAP, Siebel Systems, Sun Microsystems, and Sybase sell portals to existing and new customers. Meanwhile, pure-play portal companies such as Plumtree Software, Epicentric, Viador, and Yahoo! Enterprise Services, as well as companies such as Microsoft and BroadVision also have offerings in the space.

The practical uses for a portal are almost immeasurable, but today the most common is employee-related transactions, says the Yankee Group’s Perry. “When you look at the broadest use,” he says, “it’s really how do you connect employees to the information that they need.”

Forrester Research supports Perry’s opinion. According to a recent Forrester survey of Global 3,500 companies, 82 percent have benefits information on their portal and 78 percent use portals for dissemination of company news. More than 53 percent of users have an employee directory and 49 percent use their portals for education and training.

Simply put, enterprise managers are looking to do away with paper-based documents while beefing up content management not available on a corporate intranet. They’re also merging company intranets and individual department portals into one giant portal, freeing up time and resources and making it easier for company employees to collaborate.

Of course, convenience doesn’t come cheap. Companies that opt for a corporate portal can expect a significant capital outlay–at least at the start. Most companies report spending six figures on their initial portal installation, according to vendors. “Forrester Research says the range is $20,000 to $5 million and the median is $600,000,” says Linda Sonne, BroadVision’s senior product marketing manager.

Again, however, simply building a portal is not enough. To provide many of the time-saving and work-enhancing benefits portals promise, outside content must be integrated with company-specific information. And cost escalates quickly as you try and bring more content into the portal. Companies that need external content such as news, press releases, and financial information usually opt for an outside content provider like Dow Jones & Reuters’ Factiva services, which come with an additional price tag.

Plan and Plan Alike
That said, if you think a corporate portal is right for you, there’s something every company should do before rushing out and hiring a programmer or soliciting bids from vendors: figure out exactly why you need a portal and what you’ll use it for. “Having a strong vision of what you want up front and understanding where you’re going to go is important. Many customers are getting stuck with ownership costs of portals that weren’t well planned for,” says BroadVision’s Sonne. This process starts with your IT staff, but you shouldn’t stop there.

Pat O’Haren, senior director with BEA says his company suggests customers conduct focus groups with the departments that are the best usage candidates. “Because each set of employees has different requirements, you really have to go into it knowing what people need and how they will use the portal,” he says. Talk to employees and see what types of information they need to do their jobs, how they fit into the organization, and whether or not they will write or upload content on their own.

Your company’s existing content stores will also affect your choice of technology and management. If you’ve got a significant number of paper-based documents that you’ll want on your portal, how you’ll scan and integrate them should be a concern. If your company relies heavily on databases, interoperability will be a consideration.

Creating a hierarchy will be your first order of business–deciding how you’ll arrange your portal, who will receive rights to each resource, and who will manage the resources once they’re online. Most vendor portals such as Microsoft’s SharePoint Portal incorporate a variety of documents automatically. And beware of thinking that everything you’ve got belongs online, says BEA’s O’Haren. “You need to do an audit of your content before you bring it into the portal. If content has not been accessed for a certain amount of time, don’t include it,” he says.

To Do-It-Yourself or Outsource?
Technically speaking, anyone who knows HTML, XML, or another type of programming language could build their own portal, but today, the majority of users select pre-built versions. Although the actual development is often cheaper if you do it yourself, content management becomes an issue almost immediately with homemade sites. Dave McDonald, vice president of information resources at Toshiba, says he found this out through experience.

In 1999, Toshiba built its own custom portal for housing company documents and human resource forms. The initial installation was so successful that more and more departments within the company starting building their own portlets. “We probably built for about a year. It sort of reminded me of an old remodeled house that you keep adding rooms on to. It grows without good architecture,” says McDonald.

Last fall, as McDonald was browsing on the portal, he found an internal memo dated 1998 and he realized he needed to do something. “It just shows you how hard it is to keep content current. That’s why we started using BroadVision’s portal,” he says.

Still, since portal technology and standards are constantly changing, users should ask pointed questions about compatibility, standards-based development, and the availability of application add- ons before signing a contract. Since companies are usually stuck with the portal that they start with (not too many companies can or will throw out a six-figure software implementation once it’s installed), a lack of standards or compatibility can render a portal useless.

Content management isn’t the only issue that trips people up. Since corporate portals are often connected to a company’s back-end, security is paramount. In the past, security was the main thing that kept companies from adding ERP and financial information to their portals. However, improvements in security–single sign-on technology and integration with existing Web and back-end servers–are helping users gain confidence in portal technology.

And security is also helping users disseminate the correct information to the correct department and employees. Take Microsoft’s SharePoint product. Since it uses some of the same technology that Microsoft’s Windows NT server does, managers can use it to set parameters, says Trina Seinfeld, product manager for SharePoint. “When I log in, the portal knows who I am and if I have permission to see a document on a file server,” says Seinfeld. “It also matches my keyword search and only shows me what I’m allowed to see based on who I am. Our customers told us: Don’t frustrate our end-users. Don’t show them documents that are relevant to their search, but aren’t available for their use.”

Managing Editing
All of the portal vendors cite easy Web-based management as one of the main selling points for a pre-built portal. While management is easier using the mostly Web-based models sold today, that doesn’t mean you won’t have management issues, say experts. For example, Andy Beach, vice president of eBusiness for Emerson Motor Technologies based in St. Louis, Missouri says, although his company loves the Oracle portal it has in place, he would like better self-management functionality. “It would be great if we could make it simpler for a non-technical person to be able to upload, publish, and manage their own content,” says Beach. “It’s doable today, but only because we’ve done our own work.” Beach and his team built their own graphical user interface that synchs up with the Oracle portal and makes uploading content a point-and-click proposition. “It’s not a poor reflection on Oracle. If anything, it’s a reflection of how there’s so much going on and there’s so many things the portal is capable of so the interface is a little more complex,” he says.

Even if the actual process isn’t difficult, managing all of the thousands, if not millions, of pieces of content can be, according to Bobbi Cross, director of research and information resources with Schnader Harrison LLP, a national law firm based in Philadelphia. Cross, who introduced her company’s portal in September 2001, says she spends about two hours every day on routine portal management. “I’ll get a message that our [information Web] crawl on aviation isn’t working so I’ll have to figure out why,” says Cross. She also devotes time to adding new pages and content to the portal.

Most companies start out planning an internal corporate portal, but at some point in the process, many realize that they can capitalize on their investment more quickly by opening up their portal to the outside world. Since portals can support ERP and business intelligence data, it’s easy to turn a portal into a customer relations support vehicle–both for end-users and suppliers and vendors.

Health insurance provider Cigna found this out first-hand. Cigna, in conjunction with Yahoo! Enterprise Solutions, is offering its 16 million health and retirement plan customers their own portlets. While providing online information is nothing new, Cigna’s use of a portal as opposed to a Web-generated customer service interface gives customers more personalization and information. Unlike the generic customer service Web interfaces that customers are used to, the Yahoo! Cigna portal lets customers manage claims, see their own information, set preferences, and even order prescriptions using their My Yahoo! portal page. “Employees are looking for simpler, easier ways to help manage two of the most important pillars of their well-being–their healthcare and financial security,” says H. Edward Hanway, chairman and CEO of Cigna Corp. “They want more choices and control, not more confusion and complexity.”

James Kauth, emerging technologies director in the Office of Technology for the State of Minnesota is starting backwards. Kauth is opening up the portal to end-users–in this case, the citizens of Minnesota–and planning on creating an employee portal shortly after the project launches.

Unfortunately, there are no studies that look at return on investment. Even anecdotally, results vary widely. For every company that saves millions on bandwidth costs and employee productivity, there’s another that invested millions only to have employees forgo its shiny, new portal.

Schnader Harrison’s Cross says she’s seen a soft return on investment. After adding the portal, Cross and her research staff found more time for their own work since they weren’t answering mundane questions anymore. Hewlett-Packard has its own impressive story. According to Janet Beyers, HP’s director of B2E Service, the company saved more than $50 million the first year the portal was up and running.

“You’ve got to recognize that people are still going to look for other information sources,” says Yankee Group’s Perry. “The major challenge for most companies is how they can get their employees using the portal,” he says. But with the right mix of content and customization, corporate portals have the potential to change the way employees and companies work.