Enterprise portals caught the attention of Forrester Research, Inc. a few years ago, but it wasn't until mid-September that the technology-analysis firm thought these tools provided a worthy topic for its "Building the Best Enterprise Portal" TechRankings Summit. The event, held in Salt Lake City, was a 1-day affair, with an 11-vendor showcase reception the night before. It attracted an audience of about 150 people, almost all of them from outside Utah.
Attendees listened to Forrester analysts and industry experts expand on how to effectively set up and use enterprise portals. Each session left lots of time for questions and answers, which greatly added to the practical nature of the day.
Josh Walker, Forrester's research director, began the summit by noting the three macro trends that are rocking the portal market: 1) the weak economy is forcing firms to cut costs, 2) vendors are deep-discounting software, and 3) the pace of innovation hasn't slowed down at all. Walker also outlined the evolution of portal products, an underlying theme for all the speakers. He said that content portals were the first to be developed. These were aimed at reducing communications costs, particularly printing. Early intranet projects--not to mention some that are ongoing--can be easily classified as content portals. Next in the evolutionary chain are transaction portals--tools that encourage self-service. These are generally ad hoc, one-off projects. Process portals are what Forrester pitches as its "big idea." Designed to optimize business performance, process portals raise issues about technologies, products, and vendors that the summit addressed.
Next up was Forrester analyst Nate Root. He showed some screen shots of the three types of portals, noting that we were looking at an architectural evolution rather than a revolution. He said: "Process portals guide users through business scenarios. This involves hand-holding. It's not just a toolbox dumped on the floor in front of your desk. A process portal hands you the proper tool and shows you how to use it." However, a process portal still needs content management components, integration servers, and application servers. Root then summarized the strengths and weaknesses of process portal vendors IBM, BEA, Plumtree, TIBCO, and Microsoft.
In response to questions, Root said that people prefer buying a portal solution from one company. Should you do this? It depends on your IT infrastructure and the stability of the vendor you're considering. Integration was also on attendees' minds. Root noted that the first integration is usually e-mail because it's plain vanilla, but companies should not overlook instant messaging, chat rooms, and threaded discussions.
Having listened to Forrester theory for most of the morning, it was a relief to hear Bipin Patel, Ford Motor Co.'s director of management systems, talk about his real-world experiences in building the MyFord portal. He characterized Ford's intranet hub evolution as moving from hub as search engine to hub as information center to hub as portal. Patel said that MyFord has progressed from being an information source to being the employees' working environment.
The Ford portal statistics are impressive: 5 million hits per day and 200,000 unique users. Patel's objectives have been to reduce transaction costs, help make employees more productive, and partner with outside companies. "We see real efficiencies with how engineers communicate," said Patel, adding that manufacturing has also been positively affected. "Our 50 paint shops around the world are now sharing their best practices." He admitted, however, that it's been a much tougher sell to marketing, which isn't as keen on information sharing as some other internal departments. Throughout the development, Patel has tracked ROI, focusing on how using MyFord affects job performance rather than simply showing that MyFord is used. …