Promice of Corporate Portals

Did you know that the first intranet websites were launched in the early 1990s? Until recently, neither did I. But the more I think about it, the more sense it makes ... corporate portals are in their early twenties. And like so many of us experienced in our early twenties, they are striving to find themselves and define their futures.

I’m kicking off something new with this article: a three-part series on the new promise of corporate portals. This month, I’ll do a deep dive into the history of corporate portals, the broken promises of collaboration, and how we got where we are today. In July, I’ll explore how we can make the most of the tools and technology currently available. In August, I’ll wrap up the series with my predictions for the future of corporate portals and what we can expect as they mature into adulthood.

My goal is to spark a new dialogue. As we stand at the precipice of the "v3" of corporate portals, I hope to elevate our understanding of how and why they have historically fallen short and what we can do about it. I intend for this to be a dialogue and I welcome your commentary.

Corporate Portals through the SharePoint Lens

Like most people, I first became aware of corporate portals with the game-changing launch of Microsoft SharePoint 2003. SP2003 represented an enormous leap forward for the enterprise. For the first time, a technology platform integrated IT-based server technology and the promise of robust integration with the ubiquitous Microsoft Office system and tools. Users could build team sites and departmental solutions on what was being billed as a new, easy-to-use solution.

A few years later, when Microsoft released SharePoint 2007, it did so on a more mature .NET Framework, which offered new functionality like master pages and the integration of web parts. With this release, we began talking about SharePoint as a "platform."

By the time SharePoint 2010 was released, improved security and the promise of infrastructure unification had become the central focus. This massive platform promised increased productivity, reduced costs, and the ability to adapt more efficiently to meet evolving business needs. "Deploy it and they will come!" became the rallying cry of the enterprise.

But the platform was offering so many features; most IT departments didn’t know where to start. Many turned to offshore support. Unfortunately, this "advancement" meant that a platform that once represented agility and flexibility had become slow and all-too-often "stuck in the mud."

We began seeing a classic impasse between IT departments and end users. End users were disillusioned with the solutions offered by IT; and IT department were frustrated by the demanding and sometimes antagonistic expectations of various departments across the enterprise. The enterprise had pivoted and nobody told the wizard!

This year, with the release of SharePoint 2013, the paradigm has shifted, once again, into the brave new world of social collaboration. Today's enterprise scrambles at the sound of new words like "user experience" and "presence." SharePoint is now built for the way that people work. It’s online, familiar, and collaborative. And it’s a world away from the "revolutionary" SP2003 platform released just one decade ago.

But for all of the progress we’ve made in corporate portals, longstanding challenges persist.

Try, Try Again

From the very beginning, intranets have suffered from a lack of strategy and planning. In too many cases, technology “purists” believe that it’s enough to simply stand up a solid platform -- that the technology will speak for itself. But it won't speak for itself, because it can't. No matter how impressive, no technology can make up for the absence of strategy and planning. And yet, for iteration after iteration, the enterprise continues to ask its corporate portals to do that and so much more.

Additionally, I find that the enterprise is far too accepting of stopgap solutions. Need better social collaboration? Just tack Chatter, Yammer or Jive on top of whatever else you are doing, and call it "good enough." The problem is, these add-ons generally aren't good enough. How could they be, when they lack integration into the basic design and user experience of the portal?

These are a couple of the reasons that so many companies have migrated, at enormous expense, from SP2007 to SP2010 to SP2013. This "try, try again" model is incredibly costly. And with pressure on enterprise IT leaders to reduce costs and demonstrate ROI, it simply isn't sustainable.

In an interesting twist, we're seeing disheartened IT departments beginning to push back -- challenging marketing or communications teams to step up and lead the implementation of corporate portals. In some cases it's even lines of business seeking this responsibility themselves. In either case, you can almost hear what IT departments are thinking: "If you think you can do so much better, go ahead and give it a try!" So now, we add non-technical teams to the legions of enterprise professionals struggling with the deployment of a massive new technology platform (and trying to make it work across multiple teams). This is no way to run a team!

The enterprise is searching for a solution to the challenges of adoption and productivity, but the enterprise is a sophisticated machine. No two companies are alike, and business needs are constantly evolving. We shouldn't be surprised that even after a decade of continual improvement, SharePoint isn't -- can’t be -- the cure all. Not out-of-the-box, anyway. Businesses need to have agile, fluid environments.
If I had the power to strike one phrase from the salespersons' vocabulary, it would be "out-of-the-box." How can "Massive Portal Software 2013" call itself out-of-the-box when 90 percent of its functionality will never see the light of day?

There has to be a better way, and it has to come from strategy and planning. The platform has the ability to do the things the enterprise needs it to do -- if we take the time to put a thoughtful plan in place.
That's where I'll pick up next month as we explore how the enterprise can build and launch effective corporate portal with today's technology and how we can bolster adoption and productivity in a ways that have a meaningful impact and ROI.

Like I said above, I'm looking to kick off a dialogue, so I hope you'll weigh in, too ... bring on the discussion.

Image courtesy of urfin (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Be sure to check out Kevin's Head in the Cloud - Is Your Enterprise Ready to Make the Move?