Within minutes of learning of an oil refinery fire on the West Coast, a salesperson from Equilon Enterprises LLC in Houston can turn to his company's corporate portal, find out which customers are affected, and make sure he sells them the gas they need at current market prices. Five months ago that salesperson would have had to make a bunch of telephone calls and cruise various Internet sites to find that information.
|AT A GLANCE: Equilon Enterprises LLC|
The company: Houston-based Equilon Enterprises handles pipeline operations and gasoline distributions to all Texaco and Shell retail stations in the western United States. The company has 500 employees.
The problem: Need to increase the bottom line by bringing together disjointed technology and making information more Internet-centric.
The technology: The portal runs on Windows NT servers from Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. servers that run UNIX and Oracle 8i database.
But since Equilon, a joint venture of Shell Oil Co. and Texaco Inc., launched its corporate portal in June 2000, its salesforce and some account managers and pipeline schedulers now have access to much of the company's internal data from one Web-enabled starting point. The portal integrates Equilon's customer relationship management (CRM) system, suite of office software, and collaboration and document management tools, along with selected content, onto a single screen.
"It's not so much that the information hasn't been available, it's the timeliness that the portal brings to us," says Robert Stephens, an Equilon business information manager who helped implement the portal before leaving in September 2000 for another job. "We can get that information in real-time and make decisions quicker based on the information. It's getting the right information to the right people at the right time."
Equilon is among the growing number of firms launching corporate portals to help employees gather, manage, share, and utilize information that in the past had been stored in disparate databases throughout the company. These knowledge management portals not only bring the information to the employees' fingertips through a corporate intranet site, or in some cases the Internet, but also help them interact with it, mine the data, and share information between one application and another.
"The portal is the first killer implementation of the knowledge management philosophy," says Carl Frappaolo, executive vice president and cofounder of Delphi Group in Boston. The portal personalizes users' desktops, organizes what their company knows, and presents it so they can absorb and use what's there. Users can then add what they know into the environment to take advantage of the full knowledge-sharing capability, he says.
The Evolving State of Corporate Portals
Dephi Group, which specializes in knowledge management research, estimates the corporate portal market by 2001 will grow to $740 million, from $178 million in 1999. By the beginning of next year, Delphi estimates nearly 90% of large organizations will be developing portals, with 80% in production mode. Similarly, Gartner Group Inc. of Stamford, Conn., estimates that by 2003, 50% of Fortune 1000 companies will have a knowledge management system in place. Both firms say there is a growing trend toward achieving knowledge management solutions through a portal interface.
"Knowledge management is a business process, not a technology," says Jim Jacobs, Gartner Group knowledge management research director. "Portals are valuable technology that can assist with the business process."
The idea is not just to gather information, but to present it so employees can interact with it and contribute back so others can learn from it, too. Software vendors began offering portal tools two years ago. Now more than 100 vendors have emerged, offering everything from niche tools to full, out-of-the-box solutions. However, there are no true leaders in this diversified space.
Lotus Development Corp. and Microsoft Corp. in October 2000 picked up the pace by announcing new knowledge management portal tools. Lotus' K-station will work with collaborative tools such as Sametime, QuickPlace, and Domino to give users a single point of access to information. Microsoft announced a server application, code-named Tahoe, which will combine with its Digital Dashboard tools that are available for businesses that want to build their own portals.
Because there are so many portal vendors and the companies are so new, Gartner Group estimates there will be a shakeout in the industry by the middle of next year. "This is going to be a best-of-breed market," says Jacobs. "We do not see a single vendor like Lotus dominating this space."
While Delphi estimates the majority of large companies will be developing portals by next year, the types of portals will vary. A true knowledge management portal is one that brings together various data and technology systems from within a company and makes it easier for workers to gather and share information through a corporate intranet and online. The portal will allow workers to extract data that otherwise is hidden inside systems and oftentimes only available to the information technology staff.
"Knowledge resides between applications, not in applications itself," says Delphi's Frappaolo. "For example, give me a list of customers who have goals we're not going to meet this week. When you start asking these complex questions, you don't have a single place to answer the questions."
Improving the Bottom Line
Companies are using knowledge management portals for different parts of their business. Office furniture manufacturer Herman Miller Inc. in 1995 embarked on a quest to use technology to improve its bottom line by reducing manufacturing lead time and increasing reliability for its customers. At the time, the Zeeland, Mich., company dealt with suppliers mainly by telephone and fax. An attempt to go through a third-party electronic data interchange had largely failed. So Herman Miller looked at portal software to bring all of its supply-chain data onto a single screen and make it accessible over the Internet to its suppliers.
|Lessons Learned about Corporate Portals|
1. Figure out what business problem you're trying to solve, then go after a knowledge management solution that addresses that problem.
2. Check out portal providers carefully. There are more than 100, and the market is new. Many won't be here two or three years from now.
3. Implement your knowledge management solution slowly to make sure it addresses the needs of users and to test how employees will use it.
4. A true knowledge management portal includes the ability to gather and feed data back into it, not just the ability of users to extract data. Make sure the system is able to accept and integrate new data back in.
After looking at different options through consultant Deloitte & Touche, Herman Miller chose to work with TopTier Software Inc., which offered a portal tool that allowed officials to integrate the company's Baan enterprise resource planning (ERP) package with its browser. The portal includes payment information, invoices, demand, delivery, and quality control information about items ordered from Herman Miller. News and other Web information have also been integrated into the portal.
More than 50% of Herman Miller's main suppliers now access the system regularly through the Internet and navigate through a series of data windows. "The people who are really thriving and taking full advantage of [portals] are those people who are looking for a more efficient way to work," says Mike Brunsting, Herman Miller electronic commerce team leader. "Those people are always asking the question, looking for more information that will make their jobs more efficient."
Brunsting says timely shipments to customers have improved because of the immediate cross communication between the suppliers and Herman Miller. "Five years ago we were averaging 75% [on-time shipments]; today we are consistently hitting 95% and above. We see the portal helping as one of the key enablers of getting that last 5%," he says.
Delphi Group's Frappaolo points to some Delphi clients that have implemented knowledge management portals to improve their businesses. AT&T uses its knowledge management portal for its international salesforce, reducing the time necessary to close deals. Scientists at Lawrence Livermore Labs in California use their portal to organize and access scientific information. And J.D. Edwards & Co. built a knowledge garden, which it uses to organize and disseminate business process and product information.
"[J.D. Edwards] achieved 1,080% return on investment in their ability to respond to complex [request for proposals] in a shorter period of time because the information was readily available," Frappaolo says.
Insurance Companies Put Portals to Work
While some companies like Equilon and Herman Miller are well into their portal implementations, others like St. Paul Reinsurance, are just beginning. A member of insurance provider St. Paul Companies Inc., it is one of the first firms to beta test Lotus's portal solution. By the end of the year the firm expects to begin rolling out its corporate portal, which will integrate corporate information, department information, and individual information into a series of screens. St. Paul Reinsurance uses Windows NT servers running on Compaq hardware.
"The vision is to provide collaboration capabilities and to allow people to organize their content and be able to control it in terms of how it gets authored, edited, approved, and published to the portal," says Andrew Cole, senior vice president and chief information officer at St. Paul Reinsurance.
The portal will bring together Lotus Notes, Domino, Domino.doc, Raven Enterprise Server, Microsoft Office applications, and anything from the Internet or St. Paul's intranet. "If we have a merger and acquisition and are doing due diligence, people all over the world can meet in a knowledge window and feed in information," says Cole. "It will be a repository of content on a given issue that lots of people can easily see. The knowledge worker doesn't have to figure out where the content is located, or what format it is in, or what version it is. They just open up the knowledge window for that topic and there is the latest and greatest information at their fingertips."
Equilon, meanwhile, by the end of the year expects to have more than 500 employees using the company's portal. It integrates the firm's CRM system from Siebel Systems Inc., collaboration software from OpenText Corp., and Microsoft's suite of office products, including Outlook and Office. The system runs on Windows NT servers from Compaq Computer Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co. servers that run UNIX and Oracle 8i database. By April 1, 2001, the portal will serve 2,500 employees and include Equilon's SAP applications and the company's geographical information system from Environmental Systems Research Institute Inc.
It took five months to get the first users online, and it will be another year before the entire project is complete. But Equilon officials are already seeing the benefits. "It gives us the ability to get the right information at the right time within seconds instead of days," says technology manager Christopher Medina. "Once it's fully implemented, it will give us a competitive advantage because we'll have more real-time, reliable information," he says. "If there's a deal on the table where a decision has to be made within a day or two, we won't lose the deal because the information won't be available until the end of the month."
|"The idea is not just to gather information, but to present it so employees can interact with it and contribute back so others can learn from it, too."|
Choosing the Best Portal Product
While no portal vendor has emerged as the leader, Gartner Group points to several that have promising software and vision (see "Portal Options" below). Among them are Corechange Inc., Datachannel Inc., Hummingbird Ltd., InfoImage Inc., Plumtree Software Inc., Sequoia Software Corp., SilverStream Software, Sybase Inc., TopTier Software, and Viador Inc. Companies offering niche products include Autonomy Inc., Brio Technology Inc., Epicentric Inc., Hyperwave Information Management Inc., Intraspect Software Inc., KnowledgeTrack Corp., Oracle Corp., Sagemaker Inc., and Verity Inc.
With so many vendors, how is a company to choose what direction to take and which product to use? Frappaolo advises companies to determine what it is they want to do before looking for a vendor or tool to help them do it. "Get your education through an education community, industry analysts, case studies, and do a needs assessment in the organization," he says. "Understand what kind of knowledge exists in the company, what knowledge people can use to exercise their own jobs in a better way. And seize control of a vendor [demonstration] to talk about how they would support your environment, how they will integrate all the databases you have."
James Kobielus, collaboration and messaging analyst with The Burton Group in Midvale, Utah, says companies should look to their groupware vendors for knowledge management tools. "[Ask] how you can take that information and leverage it further, provide the information on your users, and give them the tools, applications, and data they need for knowledge management."
Gartner's Jacobs recommends that IT managers look at their business strategy and their current technology first. "The goal of the IT manager is not to implement exciting new technology, it's to support the business process of your organization," he says. "Be aware of the impact of technologies and the utility for them. Don't wait for the magic bullet of technology to come along or look at the existing products as an automatic solution to their problems. There's no easy answer, no quick fix." //
Cynthia Flash is a freelance writer. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
| Portal Options Company/Product: Plumtree Software Inc./Plumtree Corporate Portal 4.0, San Francisco Lotus Development Corp./IBM Corp./K-Station, Boston InfoImage Inc./Freedom, Phoenix Viador Inc./e-Portal Framework, Mountain View, Calif. Hummingbird Ltd./Enterprise Portal Suite, Toronto, Ontario Sequoia Software Corp./XPS, Columbia, Md. Sybase Inc. /Enterprise Portal, Emeryville, Calif. TopTier Software/eBusiness Integration Portal, San Jose, Calif. |