Organizations have long sought to provide employees with consolidated desktop access to the various applications, business processes, and sources (both technology and human) required to perform knowledge-based work.
But as recently as five years ago, the desktop environment was still woefully inadequate to this task. The ability to access aggregated enterprise information on-demand required a more reflective, process-centric model of desktop computing-that is, if someone were to look over your shoulder as you work, would their view of your desktop reflect the nature of the work (i.e., the business processes) in which you're engaged? The classic desktop computing interface did not allow this kind of on-demand access-much of the integration between information, enterprise apps, and business process still occurred in the "gray matter" between the ears of knowledge workers.
The enterprise information portal (EIP) addresses this need.. At their core functional level, EIPs are all about access-a single point of personalized, on-line access to business information and knowledge sources, as well as, increasingly, real-time access to core applications and processes. Key enabling technologies here include advances in security (including sophisticated directory/authentication services), the proliferation of "portlets" or "gadgets" (API-like chunks of code for plugging enterprise apps into the portal), as well as the maturation and widespread adoption of XML (for "active" or "intelligent" content).
As the technology behind portals evolves, so do the ways in which enterprises are using enterprise portals to achieve their business goals. Originally adopted by small departments and subsets of employees, the portal concept has expanded to encompass virtually all employees as well as the extended organization's partners and suppliers. Enterprise portals are reaching all the way out to individual customers, providing them with a personalized view of the organization or enterprise.
Today, enterprise portals are increasingly evolving to meet enterprise's technology and strategic requirements. How enterprises will leverage and extend their EIP investments in the future will depend largely upon three emerging trends: Tighter integration with other applications, increasingly in the context of business processes; adoption of the portal as a core computing platform; and applying the portal metaphor to customer-facing operations.Although "single sign-on" portal capability represented a major advance by automatically firing up a set of windows personalized to address knowledge workers' individual preferences or roles, such an approach ultimately only served to perpetuate the walls between those windows. Data was integrated only in terms of presentation to the user, with still no true aggregation from the back-end. The true value of the portal will only be realized when the implicit relationships between windows are rendered via a single, increasingly integrated point of access.
The evolution of portals did not take place in a vacuum, however, and the parallel maturation of enterprise application integration (EAI) and business process integration (BPI)--in terms of both software and services--has laid much of the groundwork for the next stage of portal development. And the promise of Web services is fundamentally one of application interoperability and process transparency. Indeed, the macro trends identified by recent Delphi market research in the portal space support the notion of the convergence of these trends, with vendors of portal platforms--software that incorporates the full spectrum of portal infrastructure and applications--steadily supplanting vendors more tightly focused on portal infrastructure or applications alone.The end-to-end platform approach will be perceived as a way to lower implementation risk while leveraging existing investments in systems architecture and applications. Platform vendors' strong competencies in EAI and BPI are obviously compelling to end users as well-Delphi projects significant growth in the services sector.
The bar is being dramatically raised in terms of both user requirements and competitive dynamics, and portal platforms must now offer comprehensive architectures embracing all of the key areas of portal functionality: integration, categorization, search, publishing and distribution, process, collaboration, personalization, and presentation. Over the next two years, Delphi research projects that platform portal products (offered by the likes of IBM/Lotus, Sun/iPlanet, SAP, BEA, Microsoft, and Sybase) will become a foundation component in mainstream corporate IT portfolios.All of this, of course, represents a tremendous investment in application, transaction, collaboration, and content technologies-the very technologies that determine the quality of customer interaction. Accordingly, the latest trend in portals is to provision specific groups of customers, partners, or suppliers with highly customized portal views designed to add value to the Web interface.
As the business portal becomes the new "face" of the organization in a growing proportion of business interactions, personalization is the most consistent source of customer value. But it's a far more sophisticated type of personalization than afforded by first-generation portal technologies. Today, EIPs can display tailored slices of relevant data, application functionality, and process interaction to supercharge the customer's experience at the portal and increase their sense of organizational competence and effectiveness. This is the kind of technology that finally enables marketing's vision of replacing "brand loyalty" with "loyal brands."
Increasingly, portals will be tasked with "anywhere, any time, any device" wireless support, dynamic modes of collaboration and community-building, and the integration of "active" content-not only text-based pages, but highly graphical, rich-media content as well. Portals will also be called upon to deliver the benefits of Web services, once this emerges from the current atmosphere of vendor hype and sky-high promises. With the growing need to aggregate, disperse and control vast amounts of information inside and outside of the enterprise, enterprise information portals--once considered an obscure IT pure-play-are now a mainstream enterprise platform, and clearly the dominant metaphor for unifying the extended enterprise.
Charles Luce is a senior advisor at Delphi Group, a Boston-based strategic advisory firm focused on the intersection of business and technology. For information on Delphi's upcoming conference on portals and Web services, visit www.portalconference.com.