Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Portal and Intranet for SMBs

Recently I had a conversation with a friend of mine, who has over 14 years of experience in IT/system admin and a very good script writer. One of his specialties was deploying applications to desktops across the enterprise using scripts. We talked about various tech things as usual and had a little chat about Portal and SMBs.

I had some interest in the Portal market the last couple of years since at my last company, I was struggling to get any useful information out of my company’s intranet. Before I left the company, my IT friends told met that they were evaluating several Portal software packages. They were ready to plunk down over $200K for the project!

Anyway, the Portal software market seems to be ready for prime time. What I mean is that Portal software is “affordable” and within reach for small to mid-sized businesses (SMB). SMBs don’t have to pay in the high 5-figure or 6-figure licensing fee. Matter of fact, I can get Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server or Hummingbird Portal (with basic components) for less than $30K for 20 users of less. I know there are others out there, Plumtree, Vignette, IBM Websphere, BEA, but most SMBs either can’t afford it or don’t have the money for supporting staff (I’d probably get a phone call from one of these guys to argue otherwise). This is not the point that I am trying to make here. The main point is that most people out there don’t understand what Portal can do for them.

Go to some of the websites above and prepare to encounter a barrage of value propositions for these products. It’s great for someone that knows the values of Portal but try that on a non-technical manager/decision maker and you’d probably get a blank stare. So I asked my friend what he thinks about Portal and how would I go about to implement one? His takes on portal: “It’s just a front page w/ a bunch of links that are useful for my everyday work.” He went on to say that he wouldn’t buy a Portal software. “It’s a waste of money. I would just create a bunch of pages and link them together.” A light bulb went on in my head (which does not happen very often). Here’s the guy that would have to implement and/or support a Portal if his company decided to license one. Yet he has no buy-in from it whatsoever. OK some of the readers may argue that he’s a tech guy and wouldn’t understand the business values of a Portal. Well I think this is a perfect opportunity to educate the non-believers, right?

So I sat through a presentation and demo of Hummingbird products and talking about information overload! I took the presentation and sent it to one of my colleagues and she couldn’t make heads or tails of the products. Microsoft was the same way… Mind you, I am 100% proponent of Portal. I just think that software companies may spend more time to refine some of their messages for the masses.

  1. Can it help the company to run the business better – through higher productivity, more efficiency?
  2. Can it increase the moral inside the company with appropriate information to motivate employees?
  3. Can it position the company with the next growth curve?

C-level execs love to hear the 3 points above and these 3 points can be easily spun for the masses. For instance, this is how I told him:

  1. What if the Portal allows him to find a document somewhere in the file server that has over 1000 other documents by not just the file name but by the categories that the document may belong to. How about specific search on information, such as search only on government-related stuff?
  2. What if the Portal shows him that this month trouble tickets have been down and his staff spending less time supporting customers?
  3. He can now very easily integrate variety of other systems with the Portal with the use of web services thus allowing his company to be more nimble.

What are your thoughts? Please let me know. Thanks for reading.


Charles Knapp said...

Right on. Often software pitches are directed at technical evaluators, rather than budget owners.

Try selling based on plain-English benefits and differentiators. If you can't boil it down to 1) concise, 2) real-world, 3) day-to-day advantages over the other options (do nothing, build it, buy from competitors), you're in for increased sales cycles and decreased revenues.

Nice blog, Thanh.

Charles Knapp

Mike said...

Thanh, you've hit the nail on the head, but not only because portals’ “value propositions” are so technical. That’s part of it, but I think one of the bigger problems with portals as a business solution is the terrible fuzziness of the term’s definition. Many people like your friend think of portals as a bunch of links. Others think of them as the Web front end to whatever software they’re selling. Still others see them as simply a front end to a major search capability. Like CRM, the term portal is many things to many people, or even everything to everyone.

I see a Web portal primarily as a way to collect a multitude of interactive capabilities in a single UI. A business portal, on the other hand, is much more. It is a way to integrate applications and data that business people need to use every day to do their jobs. Some of the more important capabilities include the ability to author pages, to share information (file libraries, discussion groups), to control access to information, and to immediately locate relevant information (search capabilities, RSS newsfeeds.)

The average business person is awash in information. Making sense and deriving context from this information is a critical need as is the ability to communicate insights gleaned from the information ocean. One of the most fascinating commentaries on the Richard Clarke 9/11 flap was from an observer who noted that there were probably a dozen or more single issue Cassandras like Clarke running around the government wailing about the clear and present danger of their pet worry: “Arrrgh! Global warming!” “Aaaah! The North Koreans!” Eiiee! Hamas!” What the Bush administration obviously failed to do was to extract the signal from that noise and realize the significance and immediacy of the Al Queda threat.

The problem is obviously knowledge management: knowing not only what you know (tough in large corporations), but the context and significance of what you know. That’s why the knowledge-based portal we are developing, MAX K-Base (www.maxk-base.com), will be integrating a world class knowledge engine in its next iteration. Rather than being a fairly dry and academic exercise in taxonomies and hierarchies, knowledge management must be useful and pertinent to business users. And that’s, IMHO, where the promise of portals can help.