A window on corporate efficiency

Altamira Investment Services Ltd. had a corporate intranet, but that wasn’t good enough. Whenever material on the intranet needed updating, the IT department had to get involved, recalls Keith Wilson, manager of system development at the Toronto-based investment dealer.“IT was becoming a bottleneck,” says Jessica Steinberg, Altamira’s PR manager. “We were looking to take that reliance away (from IT and) put it into the hands of employees.”
So Altamira upgraded to a full-fledged corporate portal, built using Microsoft Corp.’s SharePoint Services with help from Navantis Inc., a Toronto consulting and development firm. Each Altamira department has a site, connected to the portal, which it manages on its own. For instance, the human resources department posts information on benefits, vacation time and so forth. There’s a section for corporate announcements, and even a place for employees’ announcements such as engagements and births.

portals picking up steam
Corporate portals are catching on, says Michael Rudnick, national intranet and portal practice leader at human resources consultants Watson Wyatt Co. in Arlington, Va. The idea of the portal as a corporate application appeared around the end of the dot-com boom, Rudnick says, and there was little activity in the slow-growth period from 2001 to 2003. But now, “with the Internet obviously being an established force in the way companies operate, and with budgets improving, people have started to much more aggressively look at portals.”
How does a portal differ from a mere intranet? Rudnick says key differences are in content management, customization and ease of updating. A portal brings together a variety of content, presenting it to different users in different ways depending on their needs. Ross Chappell, partner in EPI Internet Direct, a Markham, Ont., firm whose services include portal development, says a portal is a Web page composed of multiple “Web parts” as opposed to static Hypertext Markup Language (HTML).
From the average employee’s point of view, a portal is a one-stop shop for finding whatever information you need.
Portals may be internal, as Altamira’s is, or external — Web sites that use portal techniques to improve the experience for visitors. Chappell says this has begun taking off, especially among small- to medium-sized businesses for which portals are finally becoming affordable. While some portals still cost $50,000 to $200,000, he says, it’s now possible to do one for $10,000 to $15,000. “Even a business with 20 or 50 employees can have a portal created at low cost.”

self-serving intranets
Internally, portals are especially popular for human resources. “HR is one of the few departments that literally touches everyone,” Rudnick says. A self-service portal lets workers request vacation time, check vacation and sick days or the status of vacation requests, view pay stubs and so forth.
Employee self-service started gaining popularity in the mid-1990s, says Kathy Battistoni, partner at consulting firm Accenture in Boston. By letting employees do more for themselves, she says, “you can free up some of the HR generalists’ time and reshape them into HR consultants.”
The government of Prince Edward Island is building an internal portal, starting with human resources self-service functions. Instead of requesting vacation time through paper forms that supervisors must sign and forward to human resources, employees will make those requests online, explains Scott Cudmore, manager of information systems delivery at the Provincial Treasury. They will also be able to view recent pay stubs and check information such as the status of vacation requests.
But the province has broader plans. The portal will eventually offer civil servants access to a wide range of information they need to do their jobs. The HR self-service function is “the anchor tenant if you will,” Cudmore says.
The province already had an intranet, but it was broken up along departmental lines, Cudmore says.
“While there was a lot of information available to employees on the intranet, the first thing you had to figure out was, who does it belong to?” The portal, built with IBM software to tie in with the government’s DB2 back-end databases, will organize information according to employees’ roles, with personalization to show each employee the options he or she is most likely to want.
“We want this intranet portal to be our next desktop,” Cudmore says. “It’s where people go when they sign on in the morning.”

construction cruise
Portal construction is getting easier thanks to tools such as SharePoint and IBM’s WebSphere, Chappell says.
“At the beginning there was more custom (work). You had to almost create these things from scratch,” he says.
Access to legacy applications and back-end databases can still be tricky and drive up cost, says Chappell. Tools to simplify this are appearing, he adds, but “they still require some level of tailoring.” Developments such as Extensible Markup Language (XML) and Really Simple Syndication (RSS) will make such information easier to get at, he says.
Even as tools improve, though, Chappell says portal development isn’t for everyone.
“There is a skill set required, even for small portals.” Unless you have those skills in-house, he says, the best bet is to work with someone who does.
The first thing any organization considering a portal should do is “say what you’re trying to accomplish,” Chappell says. “I’ve seen people create portals that haven’t been really well thought out, and nobody used them.”
The design should start with who will use the portal and what those people need to do, he advises. “That has to drive the over-all design of the portal.”
Steinberg says Altamira started by talking to every department to determine what each needed. Interviews with executives and employee focus groups helped define the portal’s ultimate shape. Once it was launched in June, feedback started coming in, and Altamira has made changes based on the response. Two months after the portal went live, new focus groups were convened to discuss how it was working. Those discussions led to some changes in layout and navigation — one of the concerns was that “there were too many clicks required” in some areas, says Steinberg. Overall, though, she says feedback has been positive.
Prince Edward Island started with a pilot and is gathering feedback from participating employees. Cudmore says his group will also consult departments to determine what information the portal should include.
Because portals use Web technology, employees should need minimal training.
While some companies that have implemented self-service portals can point to cost savings, the payoff is often harder to pin down.
“The big benefit has been the ease of access to information for employees,” Steinberg says.

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Grant Buckler
Grant Buckler
Freelance journalist specializing in information technology, telecommunications, energy & clean tech. Theatre-lover & trainee hobby farmer.

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