Pandora's Portal (November 1, 2001)
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
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.
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:
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.
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.
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
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.
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
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."