Portals: A Gateway to CRM?

On November 12, DCI opened its Corporate and e-Business Portals Conference in Chicago with keynote speeches by Colin White, conference chair and president of consulting group Intelligent Business Strategies, and John Kunze, CEO of portal vendor Plumtree Software. Both highlighted the evolution of the portal concept, which has gone from an enterprise attempt to mimic the best features of the consumer Internet into something much more than a mechanism to string together disparate pieces of information. A modern portal may manage data from hundreds of enterprise data sources, integrating results from multiple applications and relating information in context with external, syndicated data sources. Some modern portal packages now come with their own content management capabilities, and the move into the portal space by both business intelligent firms such as Cognos and high-end server vendors like Sun and IBM blur the lines between portal and application. All of the change has not happened in a vacuum. The portal market has been one of consolidation, with a number of pure-play pioneers giving way to or being absorbed by other firms, such as Epicentric's recent sale to document management specialist Vignette. Both speakers stressed the need for portals to grow beyond the appearance of the corporate intranet, highlighting personalization and the emergence of community-specific "killer apps." White focused on using portals as a gateway to better employee collaboration, including an ideal way to enforce workflow practices. Kunze emphasized that enterprises need to look at their portal as more than a tool to deliver a customized view of the same information to tens of thousands of people. He highlighted successful deployments of custom portal applications (that still had full enterprise data visibility) to single sites, such as a Proctor & Gamble paper mill, or to unique customer constituencies, such as retail chain buyers. Many modern portal rollouts stress the use of a "federated" model, where a single architecture serves multiple user communities. This is not always practical, however, since many portals bubble up from business units such as sales or HR, and a merger calls off all bets as to the common window into enterprise information. Coming down the line is greater differentiation among portal solutions, as vendors and integrators turn their eye to building vertical portal solutions, including pre-rolled interfaces for enterprise relationship management. At the same time, developers continue to work to build competent information taxonomies that can be provided as products, rather than custom research and development projects. Responding to data he had collected indicating some reluctance to forge ahead with portal projects, White noted that portals, by their efficient resource sharing and interaction-saving nature, tend to provide meaningful hard ROI with a lower buy-in cost than most enterprise IT projects. For the remaining disbelievers, Kunze stressed above all that portals are a logical way to get more out of existing technology, by making it easier to use and share data and information among business users: "We need to get the past twenty years of IT spending to work together."
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