Making Sense Of The Info Storm

Dec. 21, 2004
Portals focus and filter data in a way that is meaningful for each employee.

At Pacific Gas & Electric Co. (PG&E), engineers, line technicians, and managers receive strategic information on the company's performance using a new computer-based mechanism called a corporate portal. "It's information on demand to people who require accurate reports using real-time operational data," says Marc DeNarie, energy-management-system-operations supervisor at the northern California utility. At Xilinx Corp., a manufacturer of integrated circuits and programmable logic controllers, a portal enables employees to perform customized searches for information on products, trends, and resources through its corporate intranet. "The problem with generic search engines is that you cannot easily find the specific information you are looking for," says Jim Donnell, manager of interactive applications at the San Jose-based manufacturer. "By creating a portal that focuses and filters content, it's possible to add intelligence to the process, and people don't have to spend hours wading through useless information." PG&E and Xilinx are part of a groundswell of companies that are beginning to use portals -- sophisticated information filters that organize data of all kinds in a way that is meaningful for each employee. As of last February about 16% of businesses were using portals, according to a study by the Delphi Group, a Boston-based IT consulting firm. This trend is expected to snowball to more than 80% by early 2001. The idea, of course, is to relieve managers and workers of one of the most common problems facing corporate America today: information overload. It's a simple fact that workers increasingly find themselves inundated by data. At many companies, the corporate intranet -- once viewed as the electronic savior for managing documents and data -- now seems unwieldy and burdensome. Trying to ferret out specific information online can prove frustrating and futile. "No longer is the problem amassing data -- it's filtering it," states Thomas Koulopoulos, Delphi's president. Enter the portal. By putting relevant information on a Web page -- using charts, graphs, photos, and other objects that link to diverse software programs, databases, processes, and functions -- each employee's work environment can be tailored to his needs. Like its commercial cousins Yahoo! and Excite on the Web, the corporate portal attempts to organize the chaos of seemingly unlimited online information. The most effective corporate portals are built atop intranets that contain applications, documents, and data from various departments. They also can cull data from the Web and integrate e-mail, task lists, calendars, and other functions into a single start page. When a worker logs on, he or she can see instantly what tasks are lined up for the day by simply clicking a button on the Web browser. Then it's possible to drill down to learn more about each task or assignment. Most portals, according to the Delphi survey, provide knowledge and learning support, business-process support, customer services, and self-service capabilities for employees. Some offer collaborative tools and direct access to legacy data systems. At PG&E, for instance, the enterprise portal is helping funnel needed data, including energy-demand reports and electrical diagrams, to engineers, line technicians, and others. In the past a mainframe computer was used to generate printed reports, a process that sometimes took hours or days and required meticulous tracking of different versions of the information. PG&E is using a portal from Viador Inc., which allows those who need the information to create their own real-time reports through the intranet. Attached to an intranet Web server and a datamart, the executive information portal (EIP) from San Mateo, Calif.-based Viador extracts data each hour, presenting it to the employee in an easy-to-understand format. That helps engineering specialists at PG&E, the nation's largest publicly owned utility, track demand on the power grid and obtain up-to-date diagrams and maps. "This type of information is critical in the new unregulated energy market," says PG&E's DeNarie. Although the portal wasn't the only software option, DeNarie opted for it so that information could be made available via a Web browser. When an engineer clicks a hypertext link, he or she receives a Java-based report. In the future, the utility will include an array of other capabilities, including the ability to track trouble tickets, service requests, and network problems. "We have created a dynamic system that puts the appropriate information on the desktop of appropriate employees," he explains. Portals fit the natural evolution of intranets and information management. "The Web browser becomes the desktop, and as applications become increasingly Web-enabled it's the place where information exchange and knowledge transfer take place," explains Alexis de Planque, program director for E-Business Strategy at Meta Group Inc., an IT advisory firm in Stamford, Conn. Of course, one piece of technology by itself cannot reverse the data-overload problem that exists in many companies today. "Too many companies have too much useless data clogging their intranets," de Planque says. What an EIP can do is gather, filter, and sort data far more efficiently than any human. For example, when a sales manager sits down at her computer, she can click to her start page and immediately see where she needs to take action. The portal can show unread e-mail messages, unresolved tasks, and various key indicators -- such as real-time sales figures for different regions or customers. It also can alert her to the fact that she needs to update a benefits selection and then take her right to the online form. Essentially, the portal is a Web page that provides a window into her entire work world. Some companies also are adding advanced search and indexing capabilities to their portals. For example, Xilinx uses its portal, called WebLINX, to consolidate company and industry information. Using software from Verity Inc., the portal allows highly customizable searches for more than 60 company and industry Web sites that hold more than 67,000 documents. WebLINX handles more than 10,000 hits per day. "The challenge today is managing all the information," adds Donnell. A difficult decision for many companies, says Delphi's Koulopoulos, is deciding on a specific software vendor or approach. At present more than 40 companies have entered the EIP business, including Autonomy Inc., Plumtree Software, Viador, Verity, Epicentric Inc., and Glyphica. At the same time, major ERP vendors such as SAP AG, PeopleSoft Inc., Lawson Software, and Lotus Development Corp. are scrambling to recast their products to address the burgeoning portal market. SAP, the leading enterprise-resource-planning (ERP) software firm, uses its portal, called, to integrate its popular R/3 system with e-commerce and e-business tools. Having all this available through a central portal makes it possible to view, among other things, human-resources, supply-chain, logistics, and knowledge-management data in a highly focused way. It eliminates employees having to traverse an array of applications or screens to obtain needed financial information or benefits data. And it integrates group activities such as calendaring and e-mail. Like all portals, works through a standard Web browser. The stampede toward portals has generated confusion. Various products don't always work together -- and no one vendor offers a comprehensive solution. Establishing multiple portals for various business needs can defeat the whole notion of a single place to find documents and data. "In the absence of standards and a defined interface, it's difficult for end users to sort through all the issues and come to a decision," explains Koulopoulos. The most effective portals tie technology and strategy together. J.D. Edwards & Co., the Denver-based ERP software firm, created its intranet, Knowledge Garden, in November 1996 using Microsoft Site Server and Exchange. In the last year, the company has focused on refining content delivery. The portal now handles myriad tasks, including sophisticated document management. "Today, it's necessary to organize information around people rather than departments," explains Alden Globe, program manager for the knowledge-and-information-systems group at J.D. Edwards. Globe, author of Managing Knowledge: A Practical Web-Based Approach (1999, Addison-Wesley Longman), believes that a portal now is an indispensable tool in the corporate arsenal. When J.D. Edwards established its intranet, managers immediately began posting thousands of pages of documents online. But then problems began to occur. At one point, a manager compiled a 250-page document that outlined the firm's software-support policy in 17 languages. Employees around the world had to endure a 10-megabyte-plus download and then search through the file to find the specific information they needed in the appropriate language. Thanks to a portal, ferreting out information is becoming easier. The same document is now available in HTML by simply clicking the country of interest and viewing the appropriate file. But J.D. Edwards doesn't plan to stop there. Soon the 5,700-employee firm will link the portal to ERP data, balanced scorecard information, and more. "A successful portal requires effective technology, but it is more about understanding business processes and how workers use resources," says Globe. "People need to be able to access information without having to stumble through layers of 'infosmog.' '' Many portal software packages cost $50,000 to $500,000. As is the case with many an IT investment, the benefits that result from a portal often are unmeasurable. "The value of a business portal is that it can connect valuable information in ways that otherwise aren't possible," argues Steve Eille, vice president of marketing for Viador. "It can boost the intelligence of the organization." Certainly, the future of corporate portals seems secure. Microsoft Corp.'s Bill Gates glowingly has outlined a workplace filled with "digital dashboards" that provide access and monitoring for all key tasks in an employee's world. Others say the underlying idea of highly focused information management is unavoidable -- even if the concept sometimes is obscured by hype. "A lot of corporate information used to reside in silos, and there was no way to get to it," recalls Koulopoulos. "The portal represents a breakthrough in the way organizations use and exchange knowledge. It is a tool for the Information Age."

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