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Heads Up

Are corporate portals a high-tech ''window'' to keep staff well informed, or are they a glorified filing cabinet to store useless information?

Last May, 150,000 employees at the Ford Motor Co. waved goodbye to the Microsoft Windows interface that they had grown accustomed to seeing when they logged on to their computers every day. No, their IT department hadn’t succumbed to Apple Computer’s slick marketing campaigns and forsaken all their PCs for Macs. Instead, Bipin Patel, director of information systems at the $141 billion US car manufacturer, was up to something a lot more radical: He had spent six months devising a way to replace about 1,000 intranets, each serving individual business units around the world, with a single portal for the entire firm.

For sure, that’s a lot more radical, and definitely more hip, than Apple’s sleek new Titanium Powerbook. But while Patel and Ford may be at the vanguard, they might not be there for long. Meta Group, an IT research and consulting firm, predicts that out of 2,000 of the world’s largest companies, 85 percent will use a portal by 2003, up from around 50 percent this year.

Opening Doors

One conversation with Patel and it’s easy to see why the business case for portals is so compelling. Portals, he says, achieve two things for a company the size of Ford. First, they break down artificial barriers so that, for example, staff in one part of a company can retrieve information easily from staff in another part. Second, they put an end to the long hours that companies spend maintaining multiple stores of information found on local intranets.

Intranets grew out of groupware packages, such as Lotus Notes, to provide email initially. Though they have since expanded to become a repository for all sorts of documentation at companies like Ford, they have never succeeded in becoming a primary source of information for staff.

Simply put: Supply just hasn’t been serving demand. Staff at companies around the world have long hankered for personalized information combined with data and reports from corporate sources outside their immediate centers of command. As an example, Patel points to marketing managers at Ford who want financial results that are broken down by vehicle type. “Traditionally, they would have made a request to finance,” he explains, “and someone would have had to do lots of digging to find the information, and then faxed or emailed it to the right person. And if someone then wanted [similar information] in the sales department for a different vehicle, the whole process would have been repeated.”

Portals take a different approach. They let authorized staff send any queries directly to a database or application for a speedy response. They work in much the same way as MyYahoo, the first consumer portal that lets surfers customize content appearing on its home page from their own PCs. “The portal is the realization of the dream of integrating all the resources people need,” enthuses Jacques Halé, director of research methods at Butler Group, an IT research and consulting firm.

No Man Is an Island

That ability to connect “islands” of information throughout an organization is a powerful attraction. A survey of 68 corporate portal deployments conducted by Plumtree, a vendor that’s supplying the technology for Ford’s portal, found that managing content and documents, streamlining information distribution, and integration with enterprise applications are the three main reasons why they are set up.

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