"If you are talking about a large IP-based network to share with partners and customers, the full potential of extranets hasn't been realized yet," says Ray Lopez, Ph.D., Director of Strategic Development for Q2Learning LLC in Falls Church, Va.
Andreas Antonopoulos, a principal analyst for Nemertes Research LLC in New York City, is in the midst of a survey (due out later this spring) of how firms are using their extranets. Early findings indicated that most companies had deployed at least one extranet, but they were still in a fairly rudimentary form.
"Most of the extranets we see are 'shallow' involving external users accessing internal systems," he explains. "We see few system-to-system extranets."
Interestingly enough, the issues are not technological. XML and other technologies make it easier than ever before to link disparate systems. The primary barriers, it seems, are process and culture. Seventy-five percent of the IT executives surveyed said that 'people issues' were more important than technology in determining the success or failure of an extranet.
"The most important problems companies experience when deploying extranets are related to the changes required in the business process, and the user acceptance of those changes," Antonopoulos continues. "Some companies have experienced cultural resistance to the changes that are perceived as disruptive by the user population."
Creating an extranet that people will actually use begins with an essential first step -- obtaining broad agreement from all interested parties on its purpose and the strategy to be followed to achieve that purpose. This must involve both a reason for the sponsors to set up the portal, as well as a benefit for the users to participate in it. It is not enough to assume that the purpose is so obvious that it doesn't need to be stated.
"Everything needs to start with a purpose; you need to know why you are doing it and the outcomes you are looking for," says Dr. Bill Bruck, Q2Learning's founder and chief architect. "Yet in every project I have seen, people assume that they know what the purpose is and that everyone else has the same idea."
Thus buy-in is critical: from IT, finance and operations of all the organizations or business units involved. Once you have that initial agreement from all parties, actually setting up a collaborative portal requires three elements -- people, process and technology.
"We find that people tend to think of this as a tech-only problem so they throw technology at it without taking the other two into account," Bruck says.
That's why there must be someone with overall responsibility for the project. This job goes beyond setting up the portal. To be successful, it requires care and attention on an ongoing basis. According to Bruck, there is a more than 80 percent failure rate for "self-organizing" communities -- ones without a moderator or host.
A common error is to assign the task to someone who is the manager over the area, but who is already overloaded and doesn't have the time required to provide proper oversight. So, in setting up a portal community manager or moderator, be sure that this person has time assigned to perform these group functions in addition to his or her usual job duties.