Unless you've been collecting mushrooms in the rain forest for the last 18 months, you have undoubtedly heard of the salvation of the knowledge management, data warehousing, and competitive intelligence industries - EIPs (enterprise information portals). On a daily basis, big and small companies grace the world with the news that they, too, are a portal! And, as the term "portal" starts to lose its meaning, EIP companies scramble to get noticed by hawking their technology widgets and gadgets in a space that is quickly becoming commoditized. What most EIP companies fail to realize is that this is not a technology problem, but rather, it is a business model problem. And, unless you get the business model right, all the technology in the world will not save you.
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The hype machine is in full swing as the great beneficiaries of venture capital dollars - marketing companies - crank up the noise in order to hide their desperation. Some EIP companies rant and rave about XML (extensible markup language). It is as though they've uncovered the Holy Grail to portals and have an exclusive right to use this technology. This would be the equivalent of an automobile company getting all excited about its new line of cars that features four, count ‘em, four wheels. Duh! Companies claim that they were built from the ground up as an EIP platform, as though this is a good thing. "Hey, hop aboard our new airline! We haven't actually flown before, but who cares? I mean, I'm not getting on the damned thing with you! I'm just here to take your ticket."
At the end of the day, the companies that will win in the EIP space will be those that deliver solutions that end users actually want to use. Companies that deliver grand initiatives that are fun to program but virtually useless to the enterprise will be unsuccessful. Successful companies will employ a business model that will have these four characteristics (listed in order of importance):
- Delivers a critical mass of daily end users within the enterprise — This creates the community of end users that justifies the initial EIP investment and gives companies a platform for additional EIP investments. Without end users, money will be thrown into initiatives that add little or no value to the enterprise.
- Increases the time spent in the portal - Once a portal has reached a critical mass of users, the next most-important metric is the amount of time these users spend in it - and, what the users' trends are. A successful EIP will show an increase in this metric on a regular basis.
- Increases the total value of the portal through partnerships — One of the key aspects of a successful portal will be its ability to reduce switching costs between vendors of various information solutions. This goes for content sources and software applications, both from internally and externally generated sources. The greater the number of information applications available within the portal, the greater the value to all users. For example, at SageMaker, we judge our portal managers on:
- the number of content sources that are applicable in their vertical markets (e.g. oil and gas, telecommunications)
- the number of software applications that solve business problems in their vertical markets
- the number of internal applications and content integrated into the portal at companies in their verticals.
Reduces the learning curve for new users and new information applications — This is essential. Users cannot be expected to learn to navigate hundreds of half-baked Web sites in order to get work done. A successful EIP goes beyond simply linking users to related sites, only to have them spend most of their time trying to figure out how to get to the information they need. Consistent interfaces are needed to help users get to important information and use it effectively.
Therefore, as you place your bets on EIP companies, check out the strategy and business model underlying their efforts. Are they simply an exit strategy parading around as a business? If so, you would be wise to seek solutions elsewhere. This isn't like the consumer space, where "here today, gone tomorrow" can be tolerated. In the business space, stability, reliability, and experience will save you a world of hurt.
(Ron Bienvenu is president and CEO of SageMaker, Inc.)
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