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Colin WhiteA Personal View: The Business User Workspace

by Colin White

December 2006

 

Information is power, and organizations that exploit that power will successfully grow their businesses. The challenge for most companies, however, is managing exponential information growth and providing business users with the information they need to perform their various roles. The solution is to create role-based personal workspaces.

A personal workspace provides users with a collaborative environment for accessing, sharing and communicating with others about the information they need to do their jobs. Many companies are developing and deploying these workspaces using Web-based portals. The problem is that portal technology is now offered in a variety of software, including application servers, packaged applications, business intelligence tools and content management systems. This complicates the selection of technologies when you’re trying to create a single, cohesive portal environment. Another challenge is that many advanced analysis and collaboration tools are not fully supported in Web environments, so users still need rich, thick-client interfaces.
Personal workspaces will become the main approach for users will find the information they need to make both business and personal decisions. It is crucial, therefore, that organizations develop a strategy for building and successfully deploying personal workspaces to their employees, customers and partners. This article explains how portals are evolving to support role-based workspaces and how organization can create workspaces that support both Web-based and rich client interfaces to business information.

Evolving the Portal

When portals first appeared they enhanced existing corporate intranets with single-sign-on capabilities and facilities for organizing and personalizing information. The focus was on improving employee productivity and efficiency through self-service and on lowering costs by reducing paperwork and network traffic by keeping information in electronic formats in shared stores.
Improving productivity and reducing costs are still the focus of many portal projects, but the capabilities of portals have expanded significantly over the past few years. Most portal products now include collaboration and content management capabilities. Portals no longer simply provide directories that point to the location of data and applications; they now offer powerful tools for taxonomy development, content categorization and personalization, and enterprise search. These enhancements at last provide many knowledge management capabilities promised by vendors years ago.
Portals are also adding composite applications and business process workflows between the user interface and the underlying information. This semantic layer enables users to access information in terms of the activities they wish to perform. In a customer support center, for example, customer service representatives could be presented with a business process workflow that leads them through a series of activities or tasks they need to perform in order to answer specific customer questions. 
The semantic layer not only insulates users from the chaos of the many disparate data stores and applications that exist in most IT systems, it also lets them view information from the perspective of the business processes they use in their jobs. It is often implemented in conjunction with a services-oriented architecture (SOA).
Now that portals offer powerful knowledge management and business process capabilities, portal strategies must now take into account related IT strategies in areas such as collaboration, content management, enterprise search, business process management and services-oriented architecture. If a coordinated and cohesive strategy is not developed across these areas, then a portal project cannot achieve its primary objective of providing a single interface to enterprise wide information.

Selecting Technologies

The two main alternatives for building a portal today are to either select a solution from an IT infrastructure vendor, such as BEA, IBM, Microsoft, Oracle or SAP, or to integrate independent portal, content management and collaboration products into existing IT infrastructure. As always, the choice is between relying on an integrated solution from a single vendor or selecting best-of-breed technologies and going through the effort to integrate them.
Packaged applications often provide portal interfaces, but these interfaces are generally developed using the underlying infrastructure on which the application runs. Microsoft, Oracle and SAP, for example, frequently employ the portal capabilities provided with their application server software. If this application server is different from that used to deploy other types of business applications then this complicates the development of a portal strategy because the organization has to choose between using the portal solution from its applications vendor or its infrastructure vendor, or finding a way to integrate the two environments.

Solving the Microsoft Problem

One of the biggest hurdles to overcome in creating a portal strategy is dealing with the fact that most organizations rely on Microsoft Office for workgroup computing. Microsoft is beginning to tightly integrate Office, Windows and Windows SharePoint Services, and the integration will become especially apparent with the release of Office 2006 and the Windows Vista operating system. These introductions will lead many more organizations to use Windows SharePoint Services at the workgroup level. As the number of workgroups grows, companies will need a portal to manage and search the content stored on the various workgroup servers. Microsoft’s solution is the SharePoint Portal Server.
The Microsoft workgroup environment creates two problems. The first is deciding how the workgroup portal will interact with the enterprise-level portal. One obvious choice is to use the SharePoint Portal Server for both environments. This strategy works if SharePoint provides the required functionality and the enterprise software infrastructure is based on a Microsoft .Net framework. Unfortunately, many large organizations use Java-based infrastructure. These firms will either have to find a portal product that supports both .Net and Java, and that also works well with Windows SharePoint Services, or they’ll have to integrate the Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server workgroup environment with a Java-based enterprise portal. Many companies will choose the latter approach, in which case standards (JSR 168, JSR 170 and OASIS WSRP, for example) coupled with Web services will be the key to success.
The second problem with Microsoft workgroups for portal implementers is that the full functionality of Office is only available from client software. Microsoft has made great strides in Web-enabling its Office interfaces, but many users still need the full, rich-client capabilities.
Reliance on client-based functionality is not unique to Microsoft. For example, many advanced business intelligence tools have the same limitation. The issue has pressured vendors to move toward browser-based functionality, but the Web is not well suited to certain types of processing. In fact, many portal implementations have failed when organizations tried to make rich functionality available through Web-based portal interfaces.
The bottom line is that personal workspaces need to support both Web- and client-based interfaces. The Web-based portal is the main interface for accessing and sharing business information and supporting collaboration. When users need more advanced content management, collaboration, workgroup or business intelligence capabilities, they can switch to rich, client-based interfaces.
This dual approach has been embraced by many software vendors. SAP, for example, emphasizes the use of its SAP NetWeaver portal for enterprise computing, but its joint Duet project with Microsoft provides an Office interface to its applications. IBM, with its WebSphere Portal Server and WebSphere Workplace products, also accommodates both Web- and client-based modes of operation.

Integrating BI

BI vendors have steadily improved Web support in their products over the last several years, yet advanced functionality often remains limited to client software. BI vendors have also recognized that their proprietary applications are not always amenable to less experienced users, so the latest releases of many BI products emphasize integrations with Microsoft Office.
Many BI vendors are also starting to add knowledge management capabilities, including support for collaboration and access to unstructured content. These capabilities are usually accessed and integrated with underlying BI tools using a supplied BI portal. Some of these capabilities, like instant messaging, for example, are proprietary and conflict with the concept of creating a consistent personal workspace approach to accessing business information. Before using these BI product-specific capabilities it is important to evaluate whether they are consistent with the organization’s portal strategy and direction for supporting personal workspaces.
BI vendors are now also providing tools for building business user dashboards that bring together analytics, reports and scorecards for easy access and analysis by executives, managers and less-experienced users. These dashboards are powerful tools for opening up BI environments, but it’s essential that they’re integrated into and work cohesively with personal workspaces. It’s also important that any alert mechanisms provided by these dashboards work in conjunction with the enterprise’s IT alert infrastructure. 
One interesting development in BI dashboards is the ability to add guided procedures that aid the user in investigating business problems and in doing more detailed analyses. Usually these procedures are based on best business practices and interviews with experienced business users and analysts. Over time these procedures are likely to become more sophisticated, employing business process workflows. Naturally, these workflows should be based on a workflow strategy that is consistent across the entire IT organization and portal infrastructure.

Getting to the Personal Workspace

In summary, users need personal workspaces that provide a single access point to the business information they need to do their jobs. This workspace should support both Web- and client-based interfaces that support roles as diverse as that of an employee accessing his or her own payroll or human resources data, that of a business process participant supporting a business transaction or doing analytical processing, or that of a project participating joining a virtual team. Supporting the workspace are technologies including the enterprise portal, content management, collaboration, business process management and business intelligence. The key to success is the ability for these technologies to work together to provide a seamless business user workspace.