Do you need a portal?

Back in April, I presented some sessions at the International SharePoint Conference held in London. One of the sessions was titled ‘We need a portal’. It was part of the business track, exploring how to run SharePoint projects.

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Intranets and IBM vs Microsoft

At the beginning of last week came news about updates to two competing intranet platforms – Microsoft’s preview of the next version of SharePoint and Office; and IBM’s latest incarnation of Lotus and related technologies, renamed the Intranet Experience Suite.

Despite sharing very similar feature sets, the two announcements were positioned very differently.  Microsoft’s announcement seemed aimed at the individual user. IBM seems to be targeting the people holding the budgets for the software, the CIOs and CMOs.

One interesting soundbite by Turbotodd when talking about IBM:

By 2017, the CMO will have greater control of the IT budget than the CIO, according to Gartner. Marketing budgets will grow 7-8 percent over the next 12 months, which is 2-3 times that of IT budgets

Well Gartner are hardly the most accurate source for predictions and I doubt CMOs will have greater control of the entire IT budget given it serves more than just marketing purposes. But many organisations have yet to leverage the current big Internet trends of social media, mobile devices and big data, internally or externally. Marketing is one of the departments with the most to gain or lose (along with Customer Services and R&D). It makes sense that a chunk of any increase in their budget should be spent on using enabling technologies. And that means CMOs and CIOs are going to need to work more closely together over the next few years.

IBM does seem to be taking the more strategic approach to the next generation of Intranets that are beginning to emerge. Microsoft, for all the gains made in the enterprise space, still focuses on IT departments and end-users when articulating what their products are for. I shouldn’t complain because that’s what Joining Dots was set up to help with (out of frustration whilst at Microsoft). But it is interesting to compare the different approaches the two largest vendors take.

From experience, few organisations have well thought out plans for how to use Intranets to drive better decision and actions. The successful projects always start with a strategic slant or business case, even when it’s a new feature that seeds the idea…

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Related blog posts

Modernising intranets

Just over a week ago, Microsoft released to manufacture their latest range of products and services that fall under the Office brand, including a heftily revamped Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 (MOSS). MOSS brings together and upgrades two former products – SharePoint Portal Server 2003 and Content Management Server 2002. For an overview of the history behind MOSS and an introduction to some of the new features, please check out the following blog posts:

This release comes at a good time. Information and communications technology have advanced rapidly over the past five years, but most of the benefits seem to have been realised in the consumer world. Internal business systems involving people have been much slower to evolve.

The central internal information system for most organisations is the intranet. And it seems that many organisations are coming round to the idea that the intranet is long overdue for a refresh. But whilst the IT department is ready to install new technology, there seems to be little focus on leveraging new features that mirror some of the biggest successes on the Internet. Instead, the requirements list is based on making some incremental improvements to the existing system – more structured document management, some extra workflow for web content publishing, a little more personalisation within the classic portal interface, some improved search results would be nice….

When I ask if people are familiar with internet services such as eBay, Flickr, YouTube and MySpace, the typical response is “oh yes, we don’t let our people access those sites from the corporate network” or “we don’t want anything like that – how on earth would we manage it?” or “our users aren’t interested in technology, I don’t think they have ever used those sorts of sites”… I usually start sighing when that last excuse is rolled out. It never ceases to amaze me how much and how often people underestimate each other.

Refreshing internal systems provides an opportunity to introduce new ways of working. You don’t have to be bleeding edge – let the Internet shake out what works and what doesn’t. And introducing new features doesn’t have to be expensive. Quite often, the opposite is the case. The best way to try out ideas is to keep systems simple – minimal up front design and see how ideas grow as people start to experiment.

A good example of this approach can be found within the BBC, as documented by David Weinberger: The BBC’s low-tech KM. And the man behind the process – Euan Semple – is now a free agent and advising other companies on how to adopt his approach. Don’t believe me? Book a session with Euan.

Other organisations are also beginning to wake up to the idea of bringing Internet trends to internal systems, as blogged by Jon Husband over on Wirearchy: Enterprise 2.0 – on its way to a workpace near you?

If you are going down the Microsoft route, MOSS includes a variety of features modelled around some of the best successes on the Internet – blogging, wikis, news feeds, social networking tools, easy publishing to team and individual sites, integrated instant messaging are just a few for starters. Why not give them a try instead of sticking with the traditional ways of working?

When helping people design new information systems, I always give out the same advice: “be careful what you wish for”. The more managed the environment, the more effort will be required to contribute to it and the less it will be used. The more rational the design, the less it will represent reality and the less it will be used (hint: people behave rationally when asked what they want – “I want all documents categorised so that I can search based certain properties” – and behave irrationally when it comes to the actually doing – “yuk, all these dropdown lists, I’ll just use the default setting for my documents”). These days the effect is magnified. Whilst you set up immigration procedures to prevent information from entering your intranet without adhering to strict management rules, your customers will just go search the Internet and find out more about your organisation (and/or your competitors) than your employees know. Is that a good result?

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