DM Review Published in BI Report in October 2002.
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When it Comes to Collaborative Portals, Go Native

by Dan Carmel

Summary: One approach to deliver a collaborative content management portal is portalization – making the portal native to the applications – part of the same integrated environment rather than a loosely connected afterthought.

Enterprise portals face high expectations from today’s businesses. Not satisfied with simple links to internal and Web-based resources, companies now demand portals that play an active role for their employees, partners and customers by managing business content, unifying work teams and providing one- stop access to essential functionality and services. In a white paper prepared by portal vendor Plumtree, fully one-half of respondents listed managing content and documents as an extremely important reason for their portal deployment. In fact, it was the largest single factor, followed closely by streamlining information distribution and integrating with enterprise applications.

On paper, these requirements are far from unreasonable. In reality, the results are often disappointing. According to a report by the META Group from May 2002, many of today’s portal initiatives fail in most or all of these areas. They do not provide access to useful tools and resources on a daily basis; they do not facilitate interaction among customers, partners and employees; and they do not manage the content associated with those interactions. Individually, none of these tasks are beyond the reach of readily available enterprise applications but bringing them together successfully in a unified environment has proved stubbornly difficult.

The flaw lies not in the premise, but in the approach. By viewing the portal as a separate piece of the enterprise architecture and relying on connectors to third-party applications to deliver the needed content management and collaboration tools, too many companies have ended up with inefficient, poorly integrated and rigidly constrained systems. A better alternative exists – to "portalize" the applications themselves. Portalization occurs when one makes the portal native to the applications – part of the same integrated environment rather than a loosely connected afterthought. The intention is the same, but the probability of success is dramatically higher.

The Problem with Portals

Enterprise portals fall short for many reasons. Primary among them is the failure to deliver a rich user experience. Deployed as a connectivity tool, the portal remains at arm’s length from the third-party content management and collaborative functionality that drive its value. The availability and quality of the connectors linking one vendor’s portal to another vendor’s applications constrain the utility of the system as a whole. While these gadgets are better now than in the past, they are still unable to offer a fully integrated user experience. Users are forced to switch applications to accomplish different tasks rather than remaining within a single productive environment, while the portal calls back and forth to multiple external systems in the attempt to keep up.

Piecemeal portal initiatives can provide more than their share of IT headaches as well. The integration process adds time and expense to the initial implementation. Afterward, upgrade issues such as release synchronization continue to drain resources and add complexity. The separate applications and their corresponding middleware present multiple points of failure. And the fractured architecture makes the diagnosis and treatments of the inevitable breakdowns all the more difficult. Ironically, an enterprise portal intended to unify people, content and functionality ends up multiplying administrative and support burdens, and the promised improvement in productivity is undermined by the inefficiency inherent in its architecture.

Portalization: Tight Integration for a Rich User Experience

The expanded functionality required of today’s enterprise portals reflects a growing understanding among companies of the interrelated nature of portal access, document management and collaboration in their employees’ work. For example, work teams collaborate around managed business content. They supplement this content with related Web sites and services. And they call on enterprise functionality to interact with both content and their fellow team members to accomplish their work. Any solution that fails to provide seamless, intuitive integration among these areas of functionality will introduce needless hitches and delays into the work process. Conversely, portalization extends the value of each of these three areas of functionality though tight integration with the others and enables companies to deploy an extensible, all-in-one gateway to content, tools and collaboration for employees, partners and customers. The user experience is not limited to the functionality exposed by connectors but runs the full range of document management, collaboration and portal functionality all within a single unified environment.

Because the portal, document management and collaboration components share a single and unified security model, the company can enforce flexible access management rules to allow many different user types to search for information while ensuring that they only retrieve content they are authorized to see. Similarly, a single portal page can provide differing levels of access to content to enable secure collaboration among employees, partners and customers. For global organizations, portalization helps facilitate internationalization by providing uniform language support across the full range of application functionality.

With fewer moving parts and more consistency among them, the collaborative content management portal provides more stability and frees support personnel from wondering where the system is breaking down. Unified administration across all three platforms eliminates duplication of effort and makes it far simpler to keep users current. The simplicity and efficiency of the architecture minimize costs and maximize return on investment.

Collaborative Content Management Portals at Work

As the nation’s largest commercial real estate brokerage focusing exclusively on real estate investments, Marcus & Millichap fields more than 600 real estate investment professionals in 34 offices nationwide. Last year alone, these agents closed approximately 2,500 transactions valued at $6.4 billion. Until recently, the firm relied on phones and fax machines to distribute and discuss its exclusive listings with clients. In addition to being labor-intensive, this method was all too time- consuming. Because the firm’s clients buy and sell real estate solely on an investment basis, decisions need to be made relatively quickly. A standalone portal could have enabled clients to view Marcus & Millichap’s listings, but without the ability to communicate directly with brokers, submit paperwork and act on the investment opportunities online, the firm would have had to fall back on faxes and phones anyway. Instead, Marcus & Millichap used a collaborative content management portal to automate and streamline all of its client interaction.

The owners of the properties listed by Marcus & Millichap had asked for 24x7 access to information and updates on the status of the sale of their properties. The firm now uses a collaborative workspace to provide these clients with secure, around-the-clock extranet access to information on the current status of each deal as well as the associated documentation and correspondence in one location. The portal enables agents, buyers and sellers to more easily exchange information and expose all of the photos, videos, contracts, discussion threads, tasks and marketing documentation in real time as well as respond, react to and change content as needed. The integration of these capabilities allows agents to standardize work processes, enabling more seamless and consistent customer service while helping agents close transactions more quickly, efficiently and cost- effectively. Once an investor has made a decision, the portal’s collaboration functionality can be used to exchange contact information, coordinate tasks, post to-do lists, maintain calendars and provide a single point of access for all deal-related matters through the completion of the transaction.

Both sellers and agents have found that the new collaborative portal functionality cuts the time needed to sell a commercial piece of real estate by as much as one-third – a significant competitive edge in a time-sensitive marketplace. Meanwhile, Marcus & Millichap has decreased its infrastructure costs by providing its agents with all the functionality they need through a simple Web browser. Plus they have decreased costs through the ability to capture a complete digital snapshot of each deal for offline archiving.

With tightly integrated document management, portal access and collaboration functionality, Marcus & Millichap’s collaborative portal transcends two key limitations of a standalone portal: static, non-interactive content; and the time-consuming need to post information manually. The system delivers ROI through both increased productivity and a lower cost of ownership. Unlike many companies, Marcus & Millichap can consider its portal initiative, better termed a collaborative workspace, an unqualified success.

Finally, a document management repository should not be a crypt for finished content, just as a portal should not be just a view and collaboration without context is meaningless. Unless these areas of functionality are tightly integrated within a single, unified environment, companies will realize only a fraction of the benefits of their enterprise portal initiatives.


Dan Carmel, vice president of marketing and business development, manages worldwide strategic planning, product strategy and corporate marketing for iManage. With more than 15 years of experience, he has a proven track record in strategic marketing, sales and new business development with Internet, customer relationship management and enterprise software companies. Carmel may be contacted at dcarmel@imanage.com.

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