Power to the portals

Federal portal builders offer tips for top-notch Web sites

By now, everyone has heard the buzz about portals and how organizations have been able to use these centralized Web sites to improve workflow and share information.

But like many previous technological wonders, excitement over portal successes must be tempered with the sober realization that many projects run over budget, end up being underused and, in some cases, even scrapped after hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent.

There's no doubt that portals can reduce the paper chase and help workers be more efficient. But you can't simply buy a portal-in-a-box or hire a big-name consultant and, with little work on your agency's part, make communications snafus and workflow inefficiencies distant memories.

Because portals so closely reflect an organization's workflow and culture, a lot of the design must be done internally.

"Scoping of a project, careful planning and attention to detail are extremely important if you want a portal that works and that is actually used," said Tony Velentzas, research, development, test and evaluation program sponsor at the Defense Department.

Velentzas helped develop a knowledge management portal to provide information to DOD's force protection/physical security community. The portal, the Physical Security Knowledge Center, provides information on such things as security technology and law enforcement.

Choosing a Vendor

One of the first steps in the planning process is to pick a software platform. Experts say the most important thing to know about choosing a vendor is that you have to actually choose one.

With some organizations, "the vendor in a sense selects them," said Paul Brubaker, chief executive officer of Aquilent Inc. He said that a prescription for failure is to select a product based on a sales call and then try to force-fit your requirements into the software.

"Portal products vary in their capabilities," he said. For example, some systems are easy to develop but don't integrate well into back-end systems. Others have great search engines but require a lot of work to customize the user interface.

Velentzas said that before selecting Viador Inc. as his organization's software vendor, he considered such things as the agency's existing hardware, the available in-house skills and product scalability. He decided that he didn't want to be committed to either the Microsoft Corp. Windows NT or Unix operating systems.

"Given what we have available to us right now, NT was the right platform," he said. "But I want to be able to move up to Unix [without switching vendors] if we have to scale up."

When you can't decide between two vendors, maybe you shouldn't. When Sunil Kaushal, a consultant with Vista Information Technologies Inc., was helping officials with the assistant chief of staff for installation management at U.S. Army headquarters choose a vendor for a portal to keep track of infrastructure issues, he determined that they needed two vendors.

The portal will replace four separate systems that are used to manage Army base operations, including maintenance, budgeting and new construction. The portal had to have good reporting capabilities, both for instant and customized reports. It also had to have an interface that was easy to customize. "We found that vendors that were good at reporting didn't have the optimal interface, and vice versa," Kaushal said.

So Kaushal and the Army project team members decided to think outside the box. They bought Sybase Inc.'s Enterprise Portal for its online analytical processing tools and its back-end integration capabilities and a Viador solution for its easy-to-develop front end.

Once an agency determines its requirements, officials can invite vendors to explain how their products meet the agency's specifications. But at least one organization decided that actions speak louder than words.

Mike Frame, research and development director of the National Biological Information Infrastructure technology at the U.S. Geological Survey's Center for Biological Informatics, said he decided to create pilot projects using the top three vendors he was considering. The tests cost almost $15,000, but he was able to split the price with DOD, which was also evaluating portal technology.

Frame said the tests were well worth the expense because "what you see on paper isn't always what you get in the real world." For example, he discovered that one of the three vendors had terrible customer service. Frame eventually chose Plumtree Software Inc.'s Corporate Portal partly because its security features, including authorization and single sign-on functions, were the easiest to administer.

User Acceptance

The pilot projects also allowed Frame to get user feedback early in the process, which not only helped the system better conform to users' needs, but also increased user enthusiasm. External organizations perform much of the work for the Center for Biological Informatics. "Getting these people on board with the system is a challenge for us, and the pilots helped," Frame said.

Besides getting people involved early, Frame encouraged portal use with standard marketing tactics, using coffee mugs, mouse pads and posters to promote the site.

Along with those carrots, Frame added a stick. "We told our organizations that the only way we would receive certain kinds of documents from them was through the portal," he said. He hopes that once users go to the portal to submit documents, they'll look around to see what else is available. And to encourage them to visit the site even more often, Frame will soon add an e-mail feature.

Sometimes the fastest route to a user's heart is through the boss. In fact, Todd Wilson, CEO of consulting firm Corporate Radar, went so far as to say, "If you don't have management buy-in, don't even start." He said that without central command, people will demand new features, you'll get "scope creep" and the final product will look nothing like the original plan. "In the end, no one will be happy with it," Wilson said.

Stevens is a freelance journalist who has written about information technology since 1982.

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