Social Business: New Promise of Corporate Portals, Intranets
How can we make the most of the portal and collaboration tools and technology currently available and what does it take to build today's most effective enterprise-grade portals?

This is a follow up on last month's deep dive into the history of corporate portals, the broken promises of collaboration and look at how we got where we are today. 

A big thanks to those who weighed in on the first article. Many commented that SharePoint is just one part of the overall corporate portal ecosystem. I couldn’t agree more. There are several strong platforms for enterprise collaboration, but the majority of enterprise clients are focused on Microsoft SharePoint. Our learnings about SharePoint apply across all of today's enterprise platforms, but SharePoint is the natural platform on which to focus. I appreciate the community's feedback and I hear you loud and strong!

My intention is to inspire dialogue among readers, and I encourage you to weigh in -- send me a note here or via Twitter. Your thought leadership and collaboration thus far has been amazing.

The Elevation of Expectation

When it comes to getting it right, one group's opinion matters more than any other's. That group would be end users. One of the challenges of satisfying today's end user is that their expectations for technology continue to rise. As we conduct user experience research and requirement gathering for our enterprise clients, we find that employees continue to expect more and more from their corporate portals.

They expect a consumer-style interface and user experience -- something that is intuitive and responsive. They expect tools that improve efficiency and foster collaborative communication. And they expect content to be prioritized in a way that anticipates and meets their individual needs.

Why on earth would employees expect corporate portals to be able to meet these lofty standards? Because the devices they buy for themselves for US$ 200 and load up with 99 cent apps do all of these things ... and more.

Employees didn’t need to be trained on how to use their shiny new smart device. And they figured out that they could use it to connect it to virtually any network, except for one -- work.

The curtain had been pulled back, and the wizard wasn't a wizard at all.

Today's average enterprise employee is a sophisticated consumer of technology. Open his or her briefcase, and you probably find some mix of the following: laptop, tablet, smartphone, e-reader, hotspot, GPS, etc. And the list is only getting longer.

The amount of information at their fingertips is essentially limitless, and thanks to leaps in the indexing of data over the past few years, finding specific information has become a breeze.

It's no surprise, then, that enterprise employees have similarly high expectations of their corporate tools.

The good news is that the enterprise can meet these expectations and get corporate portal design and execution right if (of course there is an if) they focus on a few critical elements.

Individualizing the Enterprise

Enterprise organizations are, by definition, huge. And no matter how cohesive a corporate culture may be, the needs of end users are going to vary. We've learned that "one size fits all" often means "one size fits none."

The best corporate portals take this diversity of need into consideration. They accommodate the unique and evolving needs of end users in a few important ways.

First, they aggregate and prioritize content in a personal way. They allow individual users to establish preferences that deliver the content that matters most to them and to store and manage documents, tasks, links, etc., in a personalized navigation.

Second, they unify tools on which employees rely on a daily basis. They provide access to email, calendars and colleague profiles via a single sign-on.

Third, they allow employees to create robust and relevant online personas that make colleagues aware of areas of expertise, current projects and shared connections.

Finally, the best portals have great search functionality. Search may be the single most important function for meeting the unique needs of individual users. Keep in mind, though, that a great search tool isn't one that delivers a gazillion results. It's the one that delivers what your employee was looking for. Good search functionality reduces frustration and builds trust in a tool.

One size will never fit all, so portal functionality that enables an individualized experience is critical to success.

Organizing Meaningful Collaboration

Our experience has led us to understand that different types of collaboration require the support of fundamentally different technology tools. We've come to focus primarily on three types of collaboration sites, but your organizations may need something more.

The types of collaboration sites on which we've come to rely include:

  • Work Groups sites: organize communications and resources around a permanent organizational group. Work group sites are used for formal discussions, the distribution of information about news and events, and the sharing of documents or images. Work group sites are typically open to members of specific business units or enterprise teams.
  • Project Sites: home to project-specific resources such as tasks, schedules, members, and conversations. Project sites bring together collaborators from different business units or teams who are working together on specific projects.
  • Community Sites: can be established ad hoc to promote discussion, ideation, communications or events related to specific topics. They add value via knowledge sharing, the identification of subject matter experts, and by convening employees around topics of shared interest or priority.

These different approaches to collaboration complement each other, and they allow employees to engage with one another using situation-appropriate tools.

Avoid Obsolescence

All too often, by the time that clients reach out for help, their corporate portals have long outlived their usefulness. While the portal is still technically in use, it gets used less and less over time. Individual teams cobble together ad hoc solutions to meet evolving needs.

Too many portals are created as static platforms, improved only through major overhauls that are both infrequent and expensive.

Really good portals are dynamic, accounting for the fact that there will always be unforeseen needs. You can "ship it and forget it." You must maintain and enhance features regularly. Stop thinking about new release cycles in years and begin thinking in terms of quarters and months.

A dynamic portal design allows a platform to grow along with an enterprise. It anticipates advances in technology and leaves room for additions and improvements. It acknowledges that business needs change over time and the enterprise must be in a position to respond.

Getting it right, right now means doing our best work with an eye to the future -- fostering continual improvement over than time rather than a slow march toward obsolescence.

Up Next

In the first article of this series we talked about the history of corporate portals and where they're still falling short. Today we talked about what it takes to make a killer portal by today's standards. Up next -- Building the Future.

I'll make some bold predictions about what corporate portals will look like in the coming years: the features and systems that will bring us into the future. I am as excited as all of you for the future -- the cloud, single sign on apps, federated collaboration -- and what it all means for platforms. 

Title image courtesy of Bruce Rolff (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: To read more by Kevin, see his Where Does Good User Experience Come From?