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How to Implement a Portal and Improve Collaboration

This article originally appeared in the Microsoft Canada Midsize Business Center.

Information hub. Extranet. Intranet. Regardless of how it is defined, it seems one thing is clear — the buzz around portals is brewing again. The next-generation of portal technology has emerged and midsize businesses are taking notice.

In the 90s businesses jumped on the portal bandwagon, deploying portal-based sites as information hubs for employees and customers. These first-generation portals were often static in content, not user-friendly and difficult to manage from an IT perspective. Not surprisingly, businesses are replacing them with second-generation portals, which provide an extensive amount of dynamic content. Many of these second-generation portals are designed to 'push' content from departments such as HR or corporate communications to employees. Today, technologies such as Microsoft® Office SharePoint® Services and SharePoint Portal Server have changed the portal landscape and are helping businesses redefine how they communicate — and collaborate — with employees, customers and partners.

"The next generation of portals has emerged," says Rick Martin, Alberta Practice Leader at Vancouver-based Habanero Consulting Group. "These portals are more collaborative in nature. You can introduce them as a corporate intranet to push information to employees, while creating team sites which enable employees to collaborate online. Today's portal technology also allows you to set up an extranet to communicate and collaborate more effectively with customers, partners and vendors, instead of using email."

According to Martin, there has been an enormous growth in interest and adoption of portal software among midsize business customers. Habanero estimates that 30 to 40 per cent of its business is with midsize organizations. "When SharePoint is deployed in an organization, it can spread like wildfire," says Martin.

While enthusiasm for the technology tends to be high, Martin says the company advises clients to adopt the Microsoft-based technology in a structured manner. "The aim is to aggregate and consolidate internal resources," says Martin. "There can be incredible value in the actual process of migrating to portal-based technology. It gives an organization time to sit back and look at what sort of information they have, what information their employees actually need, and what information the organization is storing needlessly. It's an opportune time for introspection around internal business processes."

Too often businesses want to deploy the solution quickly, explains Martin. Instead, Habanero offers a few tips:

Work with technology partners: Deploying a portal requires careful planning. Technology partners like Habanero help customers map out their intranet and/or extranet to ensure the information they need to see on the portal meets their user's objectives and aligns with the organizations business processes. "Corporate vocabulary" must also be taken account when building the site.

"Once we have the information structure in place we advise our clients to roll it out methodically and slowly," says Martin. "By working with organizations like Habanero companies can help stem information growth and ensure an effective roll-out of the technology."

Get executive buy-in: Before embarking on an implementation, it is critical to have executive buy-in to the project. "There is a mind shift that is required on the part of the organization in how they do things internally with SharePoint," says Martin. "Having executives on board with this vision will help drive how well the users embrace the technology." Executive buy-in will ensure there will be a common vision for the portal and that it aligns with business objectives.

Deploy incrementally: It is important to implement the solution in phases, advises Martin. This could mean deploying the solution to select groups first before rolling the portal out to the entire company. Through this process, organizations will gain valuable feedback from users and ensure the growth of the portal solution is controlled.

If implemented too quickly, a business could encounter problems down the road with user adoption. A common problem that can arise is a proliferation of team sites, adds Martin. "In this scenario, the information architecture — namely the way that the information is structured within the site — created at the start of the project is lost," he says. "Documents and files end up all over the outside of the intended information architecture, which reduces the overall efficacy of the overall solution."

Involve your team: "The success of an intranet is about user adoption," says Martin. Ensure business users are involved and engaged throughout the process. It is important to understand how these users work and what they need from a portal. By involving them in the process, you will also help them understand the technology and what it can do for them. "Jumping from having no intranet to this next-generation intranet is more difficult from the user adoption standpoint; you have to be careful to spend enough time training users," explains Martin. "People typically don't understand what to do with it as it is not part of their day-to-day work process. For instance, instead of placing a document on the intranet where everyone can easily collaborate with it, they'll continue to email it. It takes a certain mind shift to change this process."

Looking ahead

A successful deployment of portal technology such as SharePoint will provide businesses with the ability to explore additional ways to leverage the technology.

Habanero, for example, has one client that leverages SharePoint to create weekly status reports for executives. Project managers post weekly reports into SharePoint which then aggregates and displays the information for executives on a "dashboard" showing all the projects.

"Once you have the framework, there is an incredible amount of functionality that can be leveraged," says Martin. "There's an extra tier of value to the portal — which comes back to the maturity of the organization. If they have adopted the technology effectively, they can continue to build on the framework and gain added value for their business and their customers."

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