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Portals Evolve from Link Lists to Enterprise Information Gateways

UNICCO Services Company is widely known as a leading provider of facilities services. Its customers come to the operation to outsource everything from janitorial services and landscaping to production support, lighting and administrative/office services. Information technology innovations are, says the company's VP of IT Jeff Peterson, the last thing on their minds.

"They don't think of us as a technology company," he says, "but we're using technology as a competitive differentiator."

About three years ago, the company began investigating the potential of Web portals, primarily as a means of improving account management. The overwhelmingly positive response of both internal and external users to some pilot projects led to a portal strategy that focused initially on external customers, but has grown to include a solution for its mobile workforce and an online workplace for its 20,000 employees across North America.

The evolution of UNICCO's portal strategy roughly mirrors the evolution of portals themselves. Since they first appeared back in the early 1990s as basic lists of links, portals have morphed into powerful enterprise information gateways capable of tying together an organization's front- and back-end IT systems to create browser-based collaborative work environments.

“In the early days, customers were looking at portals to provide a more effective way of managing Web content and integrating Web applications,” says Ken Bisconti, VP of workplace, portal and collaboration products for IBM Software. “Within a couple of years we saw that need evolving into a broader integration need, and the portal took on an increasingly important role in the integration of data and applications, combined with the role-based personalization of that information.”

Analysts at Forrester Research have noted this evolution. Technology that was used primarily as an employee-centric tool five years ago is now in use in business-to-business and cross-enterprise collaboration, they concluded in a recent report. By 2009, they predict, portal software will provide an intra-organization collaborative enterprise. Even now, enterprise investment in portal software upgrades is second only to security upgrades.

“When some people first see a portal, they think, oh, I get it, a portal is just sort of a dashboard where you pull some stuff together, and manage the integration of some different Web sites or disparate Web content on the glass,” says Bisconti. “But the real power of the portal is behind the scenes, not the integration at the glass and how pretty the screen can look. It’s much more about the back-end integration, everything from single sign-on integration among disparate back-end applications to the personalization of information where you’re tailoring the content that somebody is seeing based on their preferences and/or their role within or across an organization.”

The possibilities of the portal were not lost on Peterson and his 20-person UNICCO IT team. After some market research and testing, the company settled on IBM's WebSphere Portal product, in part because the two companies were already strategic partners in other areas, Peterson says, but also because WebSphere provided an infrastructure for integrating and managing personalized content that could ultimately serve as a kind of integration platform.

“At the end of the day, what we’re trying to do is to keep almost a mini-data warehouse of all of the information that makes up our services accounts, so that we can be proactive in driving different decisions with our customers,” Peterson says.

UNICCO is implementing its portal strategy in phases. Phase I, the development of an external customer portal, is now complete, and the company is well into Phase II, the development of an internal workforce mobility solution for 500 of its employees in the field. In Phase III, planned for next year, the company will use the WebSphere Portal to create an online workplace where internal users begin and end their day.

"We see the portal as the new desktop,” Peterson says. “It drives both the internal workforce, whether it’s my back office or my management team, and it links me to each of my customers.”

About the Author

John K. Waters is a freelance writer based in Silicon Valley. He can be reached at john@watersworks.com.

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