As the cutting edge of Employee Experience Management sees leading organizations move from good old Intranets into the Digital Workplace, what will be next for the enterprise portal?

Let me clarify my question, I am not specifically asking about the next generation of portal software, but the sites themselves -- “the portal with a small p” -- whether they are built on enterprise software suites, open source frameworks, or even hand built in HTML5! 

The Portal as the “Way In”

Portal -- a noun: A doorway, gate or other entrance.

The old enterprise portal was the gateway to your intranet, or at least that was the intention. Partly due to the user experience not keeping up with user expectations, or with vendors promises, the idea of a single, horizontal enterprise portal that provided the entry point to all information and tools never seemed to realize its full potential.

Indeed this was reflected inside many organizations by the vision for the single portal actually dissolving into numerous vertical portals; the HR portal providing access to all your benefits information and tools, the business process portal, the collaboration portal, maybe even the enterprise search portal.

Some organizations managed to make it work and realize the vision, but this often proved an expensive endeavour. Often a slightly less ambitious route led to limited success, but we certainly can’t blame the technology for all the problems. Governance, ownership and day to day operational management issues tend to get in the way of “one portal to rule them all” type deployments.

Not that there were not technology issues a-plenty! I have to say my favourite monolithic portal product was the old BEA AquaLogic (now an Oracle product); of course like the rest of you, I have had fun playing with various versions of Microsoft’s SharePoint in its portal role, and I have even played around a little bit with IBM WebSphere. All the big portal software suites are in essence frameworks, development platforms which you use to build your bespoke “portal application” and as such they require investment and not just in capital, but also in time and resources.

The enterprise intranet portal didn’t really live up to the hype, even in the good old days as intranets slowing progressed from internal web publishing platforms, to more integrated and collaboration focused platforms. So what chance do we have of getting them to work properly for us now, as we move into the brave new world, where the Intranet is just one part of the Digital Workplace?

Multiple Doors and Gateways?

It’s a rare house or building of any sort that has only one entrance. It was even rare to find a medieval castle with just one gate! As the Digital Workplace becomes reality for more and more of us, and the cutting edge organizations focus on what SoLoMo (Social, Local, Mobile) means for employees, is it time to reconsider the role of both the horizontal enterprise portal, and the specialist vertical intranet portals ?

Your portal software of choice may well provide multi-lingual functionality, enabling the “local” aspect; it probably has a mobile optimized UI (or three); and it will undoubtedly provide integration with various social collaboration toolsets. So perhaps one tool set / suite can provide multiple gateways, optimized for your access device of choice -- but will this be a highly optimized user experience, or a highly compromised one?

It is probably fair to suggest that your organization's business sector or industry, your culture and even your demographics will have an impact on your business requirements; but let us just say that you don’t need to give universal access via a “full on” portal to all staff via a Blackberry screen. Now you can decide what information and tools can be made accessible via the “mobile gateway” as opposed to via a “desktop gateway.”

Security also comes into play, as the nature of the information and your business sector might mean the “desktop gateway” can only be accessed from a company encrypted laptop via VPN client software, or it could be used from any computer with a web browser via SSL VPN.

What other tools constitute your broader Digital Workplace, and do you need a single place that can help you navigate to the right tool and find the right information? Informational intranet sites, HR tools and content, project team sites, enterprise social business platforms, document management systems, CRM, ERP and specialist Line Of Business applications -- in the old days the enterprise portal would provide you with an Information Architecture that pulled together the links to all these disparate tools and resources, and tried to group them together and categorize them in a logical manner. Can we still do things this way for the Digital Workplace?

The Portal Might Still have a Role!

Portal technology has moved on. HTML5, JSON, REST-ful API's, the list of buzzwords and acronyms can be endless. However I would suggest that as the technology has moved on, it has finally got to the stage where it should be much easier to build a lightweight integrative portal that sits at the “presentation layer” of an enterprise architecture model, and pulls in the required information for a specific user; while also providing them with the guided navigation required to find and access specific tools.

Not that the integration is necessarily any easier as we move applications and data to the cloud. Single Sign On technologies and systems now come to the fore, as might more sophisticated encryption and federated security management tools. Many of the enterprise social software vendors will tell you that their social platform should be taking over the traditional role of the portal, as they can provide the personalized homepage where the user wants to “live” and provide the integrations and connections out to the rest of the Digital Workplace -- they might be right, but then again they might not.

So, how is the portal shaping up in your Digital Workplace environment? Have you left it behind? Or are you making full use of the latest tools and techniques to build the latest iteration? Please let us know and share your experiences, because one thing's for sure, we live in interesting digital times, and it's always good to share and learn from each other.

Title Image courtesy of Sergey Nivens (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more from Jed, check out The Employee Digital Experience - The Need for a User Centric Workplace