Knowledge portals - a challenging but rewarding evolution
by Madanmohan Rao
The corporate portal - a marriage of concepts underlying the early consumer portals and a proliferation of decentralized Intranet sites on corporate networks - has certainly come a long way, spawning an entire industry of vendors, implementation methodologies, systems integrators, consulting firms, and even books and events.
The basic corporate portal has now evolved to an enterprise portal, going beyond internal organizational roles to include customers, vendors and external partners. In terms of functionality and strategy, some 21st century corporate portals have also become "knowledge portals," encompassing not just vanilla functionality -- content creation, aggregation, customization, search, browse, collaboration, access control, alerts, transaction - but also "knowledge dashboard" utilities. These include mobilisation of knowledge according to workflow, expertise yellow pages, communities of practice, analytics tools, knowledge taxonomy, social network analysis, metadata, and narrative structures like blogging.
"Portal technology is the first killer application for knowledge management. There's been no good way to pull together an organization's knowledge until the portal came along," according to Hadley Reynolds, Director of Research, Delphi Group.
Reflecting the growing convergence between KM and e-learning, some corporate portals also offer "smart" features like corporate learning, offering just-in-time instruction contextualised to the business workflow and based on organizational memory.
"We have been able to cut processing costs for some of our clients via our B2B exchange portal by 30 to 40 per cent. We already offer e-learning modules to our clients via our corporate portal that help them use the services on the platform," says Jon.Richman, Standard Chartered Bank's business head of Global B2BeX, and a speaker at the Ark Group's Corporate Portals Asia 2002 conference (www.cp-asia.com) in Hong Kong.
"There is also a wealth of data that customers can use to enhance their knowledge of how to manage their trade processes more efficiently," says Richman.
And it is not just corporate portals but government portals as well that are beginning to embrace the power of the portal model. For instance, 350,000 active service personnel are reportedly receiving e-learning on the US Navy's knowledge portal.
Some of the early benefits of portals, of course, arise in tighter organizational integration and cutting costs of business activities. The US General Services Administration's GSA Advantage! procurement portal claims to have slashed procurement costs by 80% (from $150 down to $30 per transaction).
In a post-9/11 post-Bali world, we can expect to see the extended portal model being embraced by a number of government, intelligence, law-enforcement and healthcare organizations across international borders as well.
For instance, one of the implications of the US Patriot Act of 2001 is a greater push by public agencies to share knowledge on protecting the infrastructure of finance, health care, transportation, telecommunications, and energy.
At the level of connectivity via handheld devices, "mobile portals" can help distribute information like GIS services across a wide range of field workers in multiple organisations: utility, police, sanitation, and telecom. Vendors and tools active on this front include ESRI's ArcPad, Tablet PC, MapInfo, FieldWorker, MapXtend, PocketGIS, Solus, Plumtree, InfoImage, and Arcstream.
"We are currently piloting wireless PDAs. We have an extensive system of security to plug any loopholes that may arise: firewalls, NAV software, audit trails, and authentication," says Peter Halliday, Assistant Commissioner of the Hong Kong police force and its former CIO.
Named POINT (POlice INTranet), the portal serves the entire police force and connects 100 LAN sites with 11,000 PCs and laptops. In-house teams developed the portal at a cost of HK$2 million. "The content is vast and it has become an important point of reference for members of the police force," says Halliday.
To help nurture communities of practice as part of the KM initiative, POINT has been merged with the Lotus Notes platform so users can access all the Notes reference databases - over 100 presently. The Service Quality Wing (a department of the police force) links to reference Web sites worldwide. Over 16,000 members of the force (out of 40,000) have registered with the "POINT From Home" service for residential access, says Halliday, who claims the portal's performance is "fine."
However, success does not always come easily to portal deployments. The vision of an "information heaven" can easily become an "implementation hell" without proper planning and execution, according to Heidi Collins, author of "Corporate Portals."
Challenges arise here on numerous fronts: project management, content support staff, bureaucracy, cultural barriers, usability, funding, community participation, inter-departmental integration, performance metrics, and information security.
For instance, the Hong Kong police force has had problems with not all departments keeping their POINT websites up-to-date, but these are being resolved, according to Halliday.
"Intranets have clearly offered many opportunities for KM applications. Common standards for IT architecture are critical for widespread access and use. Most of the basic IT infrastructure is already in place or rapidly coming online inside organizations," according to a report titled "Using IT to Support Knowledge Management," by the American Productivity and Quality Council. The report also identifies other success factors like the role of "magnet content," editorial support staff, and executive sponsorship.
Madanmohan Rao is the author of "The Asia-Pacific Internet Handbook" and can be reached at email@example.com
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