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by Ellen Reilly

Portal Best Practices: It’s Time to Wake Up!

Jul 14, 20038 mins
CSO and CISOData and Information Security

After nearly two years of infatuation with the corporate portal, the enterprise is waking up. Many companies that bought into portals have found themselves struggling with solutions that fail to deliver the expected functions or performance.

This year, many portal projects will end up as under-utilized shelfware or have only modest success. We believe so many projects fell short for two reasons: 1) organizations didn’t recognize the difference between simple “portals” and full-blown enterprise information portals (EIPs) or enterprise knowledge portals (EKPs) soon enough, and (2) that they can and should apply the same best practices learned on large IT projects to EIP/EKP projects.

Don’t Get Fooled

The physical task of setting up a portal is not very difficult or expensive. Many organizations have prepared Web sites that allow employees to review a database of company policies or that enable purchasers to check a database listing products and stock on hand. However, an EIP or EKP is a different thing altogether. The task of inventorying and organizing a large body of unstructured content seems daunting. Configuring the portal to provide effective access and security adds additional complexity, and the creation of a refresh and retire process that ensures content accuracy requires a significant effort in its own right.

Start with an Appropriate Project Type

A good place to start is to identify the types of portal projects, which then dictates the logical project phases. We recognize four project types: Prototype, Pilot, Pathfinder, and Production. Prototypes help organizations understand the basic concepts and technologies involved. Pilot projects attempt to develop approaches that are candidates for production implementation. Typically, one selects an “easy” knowledge domain so the project can focus on the mechanics of the processes and technologies. Pathfinder projects validate an approach using real-case scenarios that represent typical rather than worst case scenarios and involve users from the operational environment. One expects production projects to roll out permanent new knowledge capabilities to the organization at large.

Recognize that Standard IT “Best Practices” Do Apply

In all phases, large EIP or EKP projects have a lot in common with other complex IT projects. Yet organizations fail to recognize that “best practices” from other IT projects also apply to portal projects.

Organizations should apply overall IT best practices, which fall into the following categories, to major portal projects:

  • Alignment with organizational objectives;
  • Scope control;
  • Measurement;
  • Not forgetting the “how”;
  • Planning for maintenance; and
  • Looking ahead.

While adopting best practices cannot guarantee success, ignoring them can significantly raise the odds of failure.

Alignment with Organizational Objectives

Before embarking on an EIP/EKP project, ask: What is our organization trying to accomplish and how will an EIP/EKP help to achieve those objectives? Many North American organizations, such as Coca-Cola and AT&T, use portfolio management techniques to ensure IT resources and spending align with overall organizational objectives.

Portfolio management techniques help define exactly what problems an EIP/EKP project will address, help to place EIP/EKP initiatives in the context of other strategic programs under consideration and ensure proper identification of the problems most important to the organization.

Several researchers have emphasized the need for executive support as a necessary condition for EIP/EKP success. Executive-level support is important, but insufficient in itself. The sponsoring executive must have the information required to make the investment case.

Scope Control

An EIP/EKP cannot serve as all things to all users. If your organization is involved in an effort to try to construct a “one portal per western hemisphere” environmentstop. Be like DuPont, which estimates up to $66 million in savings from the first phase of its portal for its 550-person sales and marketing unit.3

DuPont identified the scope of its portal effort and managed the features and information it would make available in a series of phases. This approach to controlling the scope of the project provided a measured benefit and has led to similar initiatives in other areas.

the “Use Case” approach to understanding the system and its use is a valuable technique one can use to determine the scope of the portal effort. This approach defines what the portal needs to do in order to affect the tasks and how the tasks will change when the portal is in place, and findings are used to establish measurements for portal effectiveness.


One can’t over-emphasize the importance of measurement in systems work. Six-Sigma, ISO 9002, and the SEI Maturity models all point to measurement as a mandatory feature of any successful organization. Yet when it comes to measurement, too many EIP/EKP efforts take the “Field of Dreams” approach: i.e., build it and they will come.

If organizations do not measure the factors that define success, how can anybody know if the effort succeeded? Establishing the measures of success should come at the beginning when considering organizational alignment. Success must be organizational success for long-term relevance.

Not Forgetting the “How”

In his study on Portal Pitfalls4, Craig Roth of META Group recommends: “Conduct an infrastructure impact assessment. This should be performed after features have been inventoried but before selecting a portal product. The assessment should cover all infrastructure services that the portal will depend on but not provide itself: authentication and single signon, directory access, content/document management, workflow, enterprise application integration, collaboration and search.”

An EIP or EKP does not magically turn data into the gold without effort. It’s basic “blocking and tackling” of software development. One sees over and over in enterprise application integration, electronic commerce, and portal projects that as much as 80% of the cost and difficulty associated with implementation stem from two primary factors:

  • The complexity of hooking up the existing infrastructure components, including applications and middleware; and
  • Problems with data quality and consistency.

One must employ best practices in planning efforts and spend sufficient time in examining the various relevant factors before choosing portal tools or announcing target dates.

Planning for Maintenance

Eighty percent of the cost of software over its useful life is incurred after initial product deployment. The Help Desk will feel the impact when the EIP/EKP becomes available. One must budget Resources, technology and time to handle change requests, which will start appearing within hours of deployment. A real education program will need to be in place to ensure that organization realizes the benefits. Compared to many operational support systems, maintaining and managing the portal requires a significant expansion of the dimensions that must be tracked and controlled. The information and its sources in the EIP may be far more varied in format and content than the data typically handled by invoicing or inventory systems (which may themselves be sources for the portal). The impact on users may be greater as they do more self-definition of their job functions.

Best practices exist for the maintenance of complex IT environments. These are fully applicable to EIP or EKP projects. Why not take advantage of that knowledge to fully harvest the expected value from a portal initiative?

Looking Ahead

Many look at portals as a tool that will deliver benefits. We have a lot invested and committed to this proposition. However, one can see to see “Web services” on the horizon. If we consider, for example, IBM’s vision for offering services on demand, what does that do to our current thinking about portals? Will we need to develop them or “own” them?

The practice of keeping eyes open and looking ahead, is also part of the knowledge and best practices gained over years of IT activity.

Why Not Benefit from Knowledge Management Practices?

Ironically, being in the business of knowledge management and knowing when to benefit from our own expertise do not seem to go hand in hand. We cannot afford to discount and ignore a proven body of knowledge-IT best practices-that can provide valuable assistance to us. It may be time to just stop the rush towards getting a portal in place, and to apply some of the knowledge we have at our disposal. By recognizing the true nature of EIPs and EKPs as complex IT projects, and applying IT best practices, all of our portal projects can end up as “visible” or even “resounding successes”-exceeding even the highest expectations. .

1. “Management Update: Six Ways That Portal Projects Can Fail or Succeed;” Gartner Group, IGG-10092002-03; R. Vales, D. Gootzit, G. Phifer; 9 October 2002.

2.For information on IT Portfolio Management, see “The Information Paradox” by John Thorp (McGraw-Hill, February 1999).

3.”Unifying the Extended Enterprise”, Chris Grejtak, E-Vision Report from Broadvision, Inc.

4.”Top 10 portal pitfalls-and how to avoid them,” Craig Roth,

META Group, May 2002 Special Report on Portals. Keep in mind that these results span a wide range of portals.