The Perfect Purchase Cycle: Portal Software

Collaboration and social networks are more important than ever, but despite their popularity, businesses are still struggling with how to use them effectively. In fact, according to recent research from Microsoft Corp., half of enterprise content management (ECM) deployments fail, which is clearly a low success rate.

In many cases these solutions are built in a vacuum, without the end-user in mind. Or, by the time a solution is rolled out, the business requirements have changed. Here’s what you need to know to ensure your deployment doesn’t crash and burn.

The players
Portals are considered a single point of access for presentation-level integration of information, but there’s also collaboration, Web content management and search components, and increasingly workflow business process and business intelligence components.

“It’s evolved into a Swiss Army knife-type market,” said Al Hilwa, IDC’s program director of applications development software. “This is something Microsoft has capitalized on. One might even say they’ve led that by integrating a lot of functionality into SharePoint.”

In a recent study, IDC interviewed companies using SharePoint with 1,000 to 10,000 employees. Almost all were using it for a variety of reasons, even though they weren’t using its capabilities to the max. They all had a significant number of licences and were planning to get more.
But IBM Corp. likely has the biggest share in this space, he said, which would include a fair amount of content management.
“It’s a different kind of product at a different price point, so it’s not a direct comparison, but IBM has the capability of everything in SharePoint, they just sell it differently,” said Hilwa. “Microsoft has an approach of simplicity with a single brand.”
A lot of companies are also playing with open source tools. “They simply don’t do a lot of the office integration that SharePoint does, so they’re more usable for the outside world,” said Hilwa.
Portals are dumb devices. The trick is what we plug into them, whether it’s records management, collaboration or standardized templates, said George Goodall, senior research analyst with Info-Tech Research Corp.
The large platform vendors provide services to, in large part, enterprises with rigorous needs, such as Open Text Corp. with its ECM Suite, EMC Corp. with Documentum and IBM with FileNet. When we look at any of those subsets, like records management, there are a number of smaller players that provide specific solutions; with tools for dealing with Web content management, there’s traction in open source.
A typical purchase cycle
This usually begins when disparate offices discover a need to share files or push information to employees, said Wanda Yu, senior SharePoint product manager with Microsoft Canada. The IT department usually buys and deploys the portal.

“SharePoint out of the box does a lot of what it’s intended to do already,” she said. “Then customers start to look at different usages for SharePoint.” And this, she says, leads to viral adoption, where it becomes used as a hub for all communications, and that’s when you’ll start to see the adoption of more enterprise functionality. In many cases that’s business-driven, where pockets of departments start using enterprise capabilities and IT realizes it makes sense to deploy those capabilities broadly across the organization.

Realistically, you’re looking at a week to maybe three weeks to implement a portal and collaboration solution, said Yu. With line-of-business solutions, SharePoint is modular, so additional features can be turned on or off or customized through partners.
In many cases, half the time is spent gathering the business requirements, so it can take a week to a month or two for a specific module, depending on its complexity. Customers can deploy pieces at a time, so they’re able to immediately gauge what works and what doesn’t and apply that learning to the next component they’re building out. While the cost ranges anywhere from 20 to 30 per cent of an IT budget, it will ultimately depend on the size of the organization.
What goes wrong
The challenge in purchasing portal software is isolating what you’re looking for. If you look at how many different technologies Open Text now has for Web content management, said Goodall, it’s a lot, so it can be confusing. But it comes down to size, functionality and overall IT strategy.

People often get stuck focusing on a specific business need, but the problem that’s here and now might not be the problem you’ll have in two years. Most organizations haven’t embraced the Web 2.0 paradigm of sharing different types of documents and even grappling with the way they’ve built communities online. “Most IT managers are worried about it. They don’t have a strategy. They have rogue users doing what they want and CEOs saying, ‘wouldn’t it be great?’ even though there’s no budget,” said Goodall.

Often, the biggest consideration is on the operations side. People will rush into purchases without having a fully baked idea of how it’s going to operate, so there’s a real possibility they end up with a huge collection of garbage – it’s not going to grow well, users aren’t going to like it, so you’ll have low adoption. That also leads to unforeseen problems, such as doubling or tripling project costs. “The technology is fairly straightforward, but the operation isn’t,” he said. “There can be issues around scalability and compatibility of existing technology.”
At the end of the day, price is important. The ongoing maintenance might become an IT budget item, but the implementation is generally a line item that has to come out of an annual budgeting cycle, so it’s a significant investment.
Be a better buyer
Not everyone is an insurance claims agent. The average knowledge worker just wants something that integrates with the desktop so they can contribute content. “SharePoint is a great answer for that, but the problem with SharePoint is it’s kind of like Lotus Notes was many moons ago – very viral, spread mostly by users, not controlled by IT, much to their chagrin, so you run out of space or at least you get to large-scale implementations that run out of bandwidth on a SQL Server,” said Whitney Tidmarsh, chief marketing officer with EMC Corp.’s Content Management and Archiving Division.

And because IT can’t control it, they can’t reclaim any of that space, and they’re getting asked to provision new machines at their cost. “It’s completely chaotic, and IT doesn’t quite know what to do with that,” she said. So EMC is starting to see customers plug Documentum into the backend of something like SharePoint for policy management, scale, security and overall IT control – and users never know the difference.

When money was much more free-flowing, companies were at liberty to spend with an eye toward the future. “That just doesn’t fly in this economy,” said Tidmarsh. “Every dollar is triple-justified and you have to have provable ROI.”
But even if you’re buying smaller, you still need to think big. “It doesn’t mean you won’t make those purchases downstream, it just means you’re probably not buying as much upfront,” she said. “Buy and think today, but plan and look ahead to tomorrow, and make sure the vendor you’re ultimately selecting is capable of going there with you.” Don’t get so focused on the here and now that you lose sight of the bigger picture.
Do an inventory of the existing line-of-business or individual solutions in your organization. You might find 10 or 12 tools that have varying functionality but a lot of overlap, said Yu. When considering end-user adoption, it’s crucial to have a technical stakeholder and a business stakeholder onboard.
It’s all about keeping it simple and taking a phased approach. “We see customers trying to understand and plan for every single function within the platform before they take the first step,” said Yu. “Where we see more success is when they phase in those features rather than take a big bang approach.”

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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