When any one of Hewlett-Packard Co.'s 90,000 employees first log on to their computers, they can view Chairman and CEO Carly Fiorina giving an update on corporate performance or reporting executive council proceedings. With another mouse click, they can manipulate their externally managed 401(k) portfolio, check the results of the San Francisco Giants baseball game, or retrieve job-critical information from the company's ERP system. All this is accomplished after a single sign-on at the desktop as they enter the new HP employee portal, a browser-based window into all the information an employee needs for work, as well as for personal business. "Introducing this business-to-employee (B2E) solution we expect immediate improvement in efficiency, information sharing, and job satisfaction across all functions," says Janice Chaffin, vice president and general manager, HP Solutions. The Palo Alto, Calif.-based computer and printer manufacturer figures the company-wide portal saved it close to $50 million in just the first six months of use, largely by simplifying processes, eliminating errors, and removing much of the human component from the information delivery process. That kind of return on investment has made the corporate portal one of today's hottest Internet technologies. Sales of portal software are expected to reach $737 million this year, up 82% from 2000, according to Delphi Group, a Boston research and consulting firm. Companies are looking to portals to expand employee self service and increase the use of IT applications already in place. But portals are not for everyone. Smaller manufacturers may have trouble swallowing the seven-figure cost of purchasing and installing the technology. And there's also the fact that most corporate portals are used by salaried staff with computer access, effectively ignoring workers on the plant floor. How It Works The portal is an umbrella-like application whose spokes connect to existing databases, allowing users to customize the information they want to see. It also lends a common look and feel to information from different sources. "A portal hides the complexity of the underlying applications, and gives you just the bite of information you need," says Lawrence Perlstein, Los Gatos, Calif.-based vice president, research area director, Gartner Inc., a research and consulting firm in Stamford, Conn. For example, if the user wants data that resides in an ERP application, the portal grabs only that slice of desired information and delivers it to the desktop. The user is not required to learn how to navigate the ERP system, and need not even know that that's where the data is coming from. The portal also enables real-time communication throughout the company. At HP, Fiorina and other executives use the portal to broadcast messages, tying corporate strategy to the daily activities of employees. "The B2E portal provides a means of eliminating the lengthy cascading processes for sharing information and allowing senior management to speak to all employees simultaneously," says Chaffin. The initial focus of the corporate portal at HP was to provide employees with self-service tools for their human-resources needs: updating personal information, managing 401(k)s, and sorting out health benefits. Work-flow capability embedded in the portal technology, provided by Epicentric Inc., San Francisco, helps the system serve as a coordination point for HR transactions involving multiple touch points inside and outside the company. "Hiring someone sparks off multiple other transactions," says HP's Barry O'Connell, general manager, B2E systems. "What we have done is map 150 of these cross-functional transactions and use the portal as the mechanism to collect the information, tying together the functional silos that have to react to that event. When a hiring manager brings a new employee on board, he goes to 'New Hire' on the portal, and sets off a series of coordinated activities." HP's corporate portal also links an employee's work with his or her life. By entering the "Getting Married" section, the employee is presented with a list of records that need updating once vows are taken. The portal provides links to sites such as the Dept. of Motor Vehicles, Social Security, and banks so that these changes can be made online on a one-time basis. In some cases one change initiates others automatically. This functionality is customized worldwide to meet local requirements in different countries. "That's the power of the portal at work," says O'Connell. Ford Motor Co., Dearborn, Mich., expects portal technology to create a center for information flow and to enable key business processes. "MyFord.com will increase vertical and horizontal information flow at Ford, promoting business agility, coordination, and alignment with key strategies," says Marvin Adams, vice president and CIO. "It will also provide quick and easy access to key business sites and tools, ultimately improving employee productivity." One of the largest in the world, the Ford portal currently connects over 200,000 employees at 1,500 sites with millions of documents of information and data sources. While any employee can customize the basic personal and general Ford information available via the portal, the company also is working to deliver more role-based, job-function information, applications, and tools. The primary challenge the company faces is to help the employee filter the potential sources of information. "A company the size of Ford has just about every application imaginable from accounting and HR solutions to sophisticated CAD/CAM, manufacturing, and financial systems," says Martin Davis, program manager for enterprise portals at Ford. "The challenge is working out what is the 10% of the functionality that people are using all of the time, that really deserves to be in the portal." To address the needs of specific individuals and employee groups, Ford is setting up functional subportals. Working with subject experts within the company, Ford is defining the best tools and information for roles in manufacturing, engineering, plant maintenance, and purchasing, where individuals draw on a variety of different applications for information. The subportals all work off the basic corporate portal infrastructure enabled by technology from Plumtree Software Inc., San Francisco. Currently Ford is setting up about 30 business-unit and functional subportals. Another manufacturer applying portal technology is Eli Lilly & Co., Indianapolis. The pharmaceutical firm is using portal technology from Plumtree Software to aggregate internal and external information and present it to users in a seamless fashion. The corporate portal, called myELVIS (Eli Lilly Virtual Information Service), provides company news, external news feeds, hyperlinks to chemical/drug/genomic databases, and regulatory data. The company also is experimenting with adding e-mails, presentations, and other documents created in company PCs as fodder for searches and navigations within the portal. While the technology for providing access to e-mails is readily available, Eli Lilly is working on access policy and privacy issues. Like Ford, Eli Lilly has found that categorizing and organizing the company's information for searches and navigation is a major challenge. "This is especially true in sharing information across functional areas where context is not consistent," says Aaron Schacht, managing director, Lilly University. "What we are doing to deal with that is going to taxonomies -- knowledge representations." The company is using content categorization software from Semio Corp., San Mateo, Calif., which evaluates the language in a document, isolates its concepts, and tags it with a reference, thus indexing it into hierarchies defined by the company. "It's the needle-in-a-haystack problem," says Schacht. "The categorization gives you more context in searches, meaning you get more solid hits and less useless noise." Eli Lilly is providing areas of collaboration to various groups in the company via the portal. The executive committee, for instance, works on common issues at a secure location that provides a shared community calendar and threaded discussions, as well as document sharing and data storage. Portal collaboration communities also can be used to connect employees with specific skills, product knowledge, or project experience. Major Investment Implementing a portal can be expensive. The typical cost for a large company can run into millions of dollars. Schacht of Eli Lilly says the firm's portal cost under $20 million and required a team of 30 people working for over 90 days to deliver its first phase of implementation. In general, large companies are most likely to benefit from the technology, simply because they are able to spread the costs over many users. They also tend to have the biggest distributed-information challenge. While portals operate off easy-to-use, browser-based interfaces, companies must still get employees to use the technology. To encourage portal use by employees, Eli Lilly first introduced company news and personal productivity tools: contact-list management, calendars, one-click paging, and to-do lists. E-mail soon will be accessed through the portal as well. "We give the employees something interesting and easy to use on a simple level, and that gets them to the portal," says Schacht. "After that you can introduce higher-complexity functions." Efforts are under way to provide portal access for plant-floor employees. At International Paper Co., Stamford, Conn., designers of the corporate portal asked hourly employees to participate in its design and validate its usability. To provide access to the portal for hourly workers the company is setting up kiosks on the factory floor, as well as offering portal connectivity via the Internet for those with home PCs. Selecting the appropriate technology provider is a crucial step for manufacturers that want to create a corporate portal. Currently the market is in flux. According to one estimate, there are about 100 companies offering some kind of portal technology, which includes elements of security and authentication, search, application integration, and taxonomy. Fortunately for potential buyers of portal technology, Darwin's principles are taking hold in the industry. With acquisitions, consolidation, and business failures, a dozen or so full-service and niche players are likely to emerge over the next year or so. Also, enterprise software suppliers are entering the portal fray, targeting their installed base and other potential customers. For instance, SAP AG recently acquired TopTier Software Inc., from which it had licensed portal technology in the past, establishing SAP Portals Inc., San Jose, Calif. This wholly owned SAP subsidiary, which has partnered with Yahoo! Inc. for content, will provide portal technology suitable for applications independent of SAP ERP systems. PeopleSoft Inc. also offers a number of portal products with its PeopleSoft 8 release, while Oracle Corp. provides portal access to its applications.