Connecting with a successful portal strategy

There seems to be a common denominator for companies that have successfully rolled out knowledge management portals – buy-in from senior management is often best achieved by developing content-specific portals for small groups of customers and then highlighting their achievements to help secure additional funding and support.

“We’ve found the [portals] that get used are centered around communities that develop the content,” said Dan Holtshouse, director of corporate business strategy and knowledge initiatives at Xerox Corp. in Stamford, Conn.

Still, project leaders should beware of potential portal pitfalls, including a tendency among IT professionals to overdo the user interface to a knowledge management portal or lose sight of the portal’s overall goals for end users.

That advice came yesterday from Holtshouse and a panel of CIOs and chief knowledge officers at a CIO Summit on knowledge and content hosted by Basex Inc., a consultancy in New York.

“Don’t introduce a steep learning curve. People don’t want to be hassled, especially if they’re volunteers,” said Anders Hemre, director of enterprise performance and chief knowledge officer at Ericsson Research Canada in Montreal. Hemre was one of several panelists who admitted that his team had “over-engineered” the user interface for his company’s portal, “and we had to simplify it.”

Ericsson’s development team encountered other problems. For instance, Hemre’s team had to replace the base portal technology six months into the engagement — not because there was anything wrong with the technology itself, but because “we realized that it would be a hard sell throughout the organization,” Hemre added.

Hemre isn’t alone. Viant Corp., a Boston-based digital business services provider, ran into problems deciding whether its six-month-old knowledge management portal was being developed “for a team, an enterprise or an individual. You have to know who this is being built for and we screwed that up,” said Chris Newell, Viant’s chief knowledge officer.

Viant had to smooth out some technical wrinkles, too. “At first, [the] search [capability] was terrible,” Newell said. To fix that, his organization evaluated focus groups of users to see how they worked. In time, Viant’s team realized it had to simplify the user interface.

Xerox took a similar approach, spending six months learning the workstyles of its service engineers who help resolve customer problems with equipment. Holtshouse’s group then customized the portals “to best fit their needs.”

The panelists also agreed that it’s difficult to pull together numbers-oriented ROI criteria for projects that are focused on intangibles such as knowledge sharing and content gathering. To gain buy-in from senior management, Newell spoke to top business managers and asked what kind of returns they were expecting from the knowledge management system. Once he was armed with responses such as, “I saved a week looking for these kinds of proposals,” Newell went back to senior management, made his proposal “and that seemed to work.”

The costs of developing knowledge management portals tend to range from several hundred thousand dollars to a few million dollars, depending on the scope and the size of the audience being addressed. For example, Marsh & McLennan Cos. in New York spent US$250,000 over six months to develop one of its portals with others that have cost “several million [dollars] over several years and is still going strong,” said Sandeep Manchanda, CIO of global development at the professional services firm.

For his part, Hemre said Ericsson has spent less than $315,400 to develop and enhance its portal during the past two-and-a-half years.