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Business Intelligence:
Doorways to Data

  Column published in DM Review Magazine
April 1999 Issue
  By Susan Osterfelt

Portals are all the rage. Internet service providers are furnishing consumers with portals that are gateways to the wealth of content on the Web. Portals grew out of the concept of a search engine, which makes it easier for users to access Web content by categorizing it and finding sites simply by typing in a topic. The personal customization of Internet content access has recently been added through services such as My Yahoo! which enable users to see only the items of interest to them - such as news, stock quotes, sports scores, weather, airline flights, special events and so forth.

Now the portal concept is being extended to cover business intelligence within the enterprise as well as external to it. These doorways to data are called corporate portals, enterprise information portals, business intelligence portals or just plain information portals. Whatever their name, they provide the same kind of categorization, searching and customization features for the intranet or extranet that ISPs have been giving us for the Internet.

Corporate portals have the potential to make business people's lives much easier. Portals give users - both inside and outside of the organization - a personalized interface to the information they need to make more timely and better informed decisions. Major benefits of corporate portals are: 1) the ease of use that browser-based access provides, 2) customization to filter out irrelevant information, and 3) the integration of numerical data with textual data, which has the potential for providing context, thus improving comprehension. Also, the capabilities of searching and utilizing agents to provide alerts when certain events are triggered are significant user-interface features that extend a corporate portal's usability.

Personalization, a key feature of corporate portals, can be achieved two ways. One way is for the user to indicate areas of interest through a preferences list, which is obtained by asking the user questions or having the user "check" desired areas within a pre-defined list. An agent then combs corporate content, looking for references or determining when triggers have been reached, and delivers pertinent information to the user's desktop. A second way to achieve personalization, which is just now emerging, is to automate the development of a preferences file by looking at a person's actual usage patterns. Utilizing advanced pattern recognition technology, software products can analyze the content users peruse, not just the URLs they access or their responses to questions. Moreover, the technology can continually refine its understanding of the user's interests and become increasingly accurate. A product which will soon be available in this space is Portal-In-A-Box from Autonomy.

There are many business intelligence portal products which are currently available or are soon to emerge. Among companies that operate in this market space, besides Autonomy, are Viador, Portera, Information Advantage, DataChannel, Tibco, Plumtree, Open Text, Epicentric, InfoRay and powerize.com. These products are a great place to start.

But, lest you think that merely purchasing a portal product will get you up and running without any work on your part, remember the elusiveness of that "silver bullet." Organizations that have accomplished Web interfaces to their data warehouses and data marts and/or have a well-utilized intranet do indeed have a great kernel to start a corporate portal. That kernel can grow to include greater numbers of information sources until it becomes a comprehensive enterprise information resource.

But enabling access to a wide variety of internal corporate data - including contract information, billing information, policies, presentations, pricing data, customer call information, sales plans/pipelines, marketing collateral, etc. (some of which are structured on warehouses, marts or other databases, some of which may be in unstructured form) - still involves a technology integration effort. Technologies that need to be integrated are reporting, OLAP, managed query, database, meta data management, Internet (Java, HTML, XML, etc.) and content management, just to name a few. Extending portal functionality to external partners, suppliers or customers via an extranet requires rigorous security as well as potential integration of external with internal data sources. However, these integration efforts don't need to be undertaken all at once, up front, before a corporate portal can get off the ground. Starting small and addressing these integration issues as they arise can enable quick results and provide tremendous competitive advantage.

Achieving ease of use, though not simple, is a powerful way to facilitate using information effectively within the organization. The doorway to data, known as an enterprise information portal, can provide a simple, comprehensive view to business intelligence. The portal may, in fact, become the single entry point into what we need to know. Start now to unlock that door and provide business insight.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Business Intelligence (BI) and Enterprise Information Portal (EIP).

Susan Osterfelt is senior vice president at Bank of America, in Charlotte, North Carolina. She can be reached at susan.osterfelt@bankofamerica.com.

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