Pandora’s Portal

It begins with a seductive whisper into the ear of an IT manager.

Wouldn’t you like to control the chaos that is your intranet? Haven’t you dreamed of providing unified access to all corporate knowledge? Come with me. I have the answer. Right here in this tiny box.

Power. Knowledge. Groovy Gadgets. How could any mortal resist this techno-utopia? Maybe just a peek. A pilot project. What harm could it possibly do?

So, they sign the portal vendor’s contract, open their new box of software, and sure enough, release all the evils of mankind…

The Evils of Mankind

To be fair, there were already a few evils floating around before the portal vendors showed up. But for the unsuspecting IT manager, the corporate portal becomes a gateway into a whole new world of pain.

The portal forces very difficult questions, attracts the attention and participation of a broader mix of players, and calls for skills not traditionally housed within IT (or anywhere else in many cases).

In the true spirit of vicarious curiosity, let’s focus on the three most interesting evils befalling the portal-peeking IT manager.

  1. Definition
  2. Knowledge Management
  3. Information Architecture

Defining a Portal

What is a portal? This seemingly innocent question stirs up a hornets’ nest of opinion, as idea people (i.e., those who do not have to implement) blithely throw out portal-defining sound bytes:

  • the operating system for the organization
  • the global corporate knowledge repository
  • the new personalized desktop for every employee
  • a card catalog for all corporate information

Arguments often tend to revolve around the following issues:

Dominant Metaphor
Is the portal a task-oriented platform for applications, e-services and cross-functional business process integration or a tool for enterprise-wide knowledge management? Is it a bottom-up enabler of communication and collaboration or a top-down channel for broadcasting official corporate propaganda? Inevitable consensus answer? It’s all of these things and more, and the IT folks better be ready to support this exciting new paradigm!

The IT manager thought he was buying a tool for employees. But now, analysts, pundits, and vendors say the real payoff comes from linking employees with customers, partners and suppliers. Are you someone who thinks big or thinks small? Just deal with those niggling security issues and let’s get this show on the road.

You thought providing unified access to all internal content was ambitious. But now, users are demanding seamless access to external 3rd party databases, executives are raving about the ASP model, and there’s a rumor floating around that your portal team will soon be merged with the corporate library staff.

In the long run, these expansive definitions of the portal will be a good thing, leading towards improved communication, collaboration and productivity throughout and beyond the enterprise.

In the short term, the IT manager is in for the fight of her life, as expectations run on Internet time while implementation is chained to reality. Only the strongest of managers will be able to secure sufficient time and resources to build a solid, scalable, enduring foundation. For others, the multi-faceted portal will become their own personal Rock of Hades.

Knowledge Management

Portals often begin their lives as centralized, top-down software development and publishing efforts to provide employees with a core set of e-services (e.g., benefit forms, timecards, expense reimbursement) and instant access to company news.

At best, this can be a good way to jump-start use of the portal, by leveraging the intranet environment to provide improved employee services at lower costs.

At worst, the following indictment from the Cluetrain Manifesto is right on target: “Companies typically install intranets top-down to distribute HR policies and other corporate information that workers are doing their best to ignore.”

Either way, this is only the tip of the iceberg. Believe it or not, employees are actually interested in learning from each other. While senior managers may proclaim their top-down portal addresses 80% of employee needs, the search logs tell a very different story.

Graph: Shape of Search

Our analysis of portal search logs shows that 80% of queries in a given week are unique. Employees are not all looking for the same thing. They’re looking for tens of thousands of different things. In other words, they’re looking beyond the portal, deep into the untamed intranet environment. They’re looking for stuff produced by their peers.

And it will not be enough for IT to slap full-text search on top of this mess and call it a day. They will need to embark on a journey that begins in familiar territory with the purchase of content management software but soon leads into the unchartered, murky waters of knowledge management. They’ll need to grapple with all aspects of the content creation process, ultimately striving to encourage a healthy knowledge economy throughout the enterprise.

This will be an uncomfortable journey, where control and authority are low but responsibility and anxiety remain high.

Information Architecture

Speaking of anxiety, let’s not forget the 3rd evil befalling our poor IT manager. With a broad definition and a huge array of content and services, the combination of a taxonomy and full-text search is no longer sufficient. The cry from employees is long and loud.

We Can’t Find Anything!

And it turns out that it’s not very easy to solve this problem. You need to understand how to define metadata schemes and develop controlled vocabularies and thesauri. You need to create new interfaces that leverage faceted classification with integrated search/browse capabilities.

In other words, you need to hire a professional information architect, who has the education, expertise and experience to successfully tackle these challenges.

Unfortunately, many IT managers don’t realize the complexity of this work until it’s too late. Only after a year or two of suffering do they call in the experts, and by that point they’ve got a weak foundation and frustrated users. It will inevitably take significant time and effort to repair this damage.

What Lies Ahead?

The good news is that the vision articulated by some of the leading portal vendors actually does make sense. We’re headed in the right direction. The bad news is that it will be a longer, more difficult odyssey than most IT managers realized when they naively opened up that tiny box and grasped for those groovy gadgets.

As you embark on this perilous journey, remember that in the original Greek myth, Pandora’s jar contained one good thing.

Impelled by her natural curiosity, Pandora opened the jar, and all evil contained escaped and spread over the earth. She hastened to close the lid, but the whole contents of the jar had escaped, except for one thing which lay at the bottom, and that was Hope.

by Peter Morville