Next portal wave hits the customer

Next portal wave hits the customer

Integration is the new focus for e-commerce firms that are learning how to add KM and CRM elements to customer-centric portals.

By Paul Montgomery

The concept of the enterprise information portal is all very well for the corporate employee who wants a single view of the company's knowledge assets through one interface. Australian information managers are just getting used to the concept, and some are even starting implementations of the largely untested technology.

But what about the customer's view? The benefits of integrating internal corporate data sources into an easy-to-use interface are just as valid for a company's customers and clients, and several companies are starting to learn how to take the lessons from information management to the new world of electronic commerce.

Phillip-Marc Ngoma, Australian country manager for search software vendor Verity, said the definitive measure of success in the modern economy was the ability for a company's Web division to manage its inventory correctly.

"The Web is now about a service mentality," he said. "Now, it's about an experience, of whether I'm happy or sad. If you don't have what I want on your shelves, I will go elsewhere. It's all about the emotions of the customer."

Verity is one portal provider which has plans to extend the reach of the portal outside the firewall. SAP is another which is exploring this area in the business-to-business area with, a Web site which hosts an extranet and is also linked to the latest version of its R/3 enterprise resource planning suite.

Tying together back-end systems is the province of systems integrators, and technologies like workflow and middleware are becoming more important to e-commerce projects. FishTech is one of the few systems integrators that have gained expertise in building corporate portals, and as reported last issue, it is developing its own portal interface (Image & Data Manager November/December 1999, page 74).

"It's all about the emotions of the customer."

"Infrastructure is not a differentiator to businesses on the Internet," said Nick Fish, MD of FishTech. "I've got an AS/400, and you've got an AS/400. You have to spend more time on your e-business strategy."

FishTech has been gaining experience recently in setting up application service providers, most notably for Centrum. The ASP model has some cross-over with portals - the idea that if a corporate portal can be run from an ASP, the same can be done from an e-commerce Web site for consumers and business clients.

"It must be integrated. The key to delivering [on e-commerce] is integration," said Mr Fish. "The customer's question is how many bridges they have to build before it becomes cost-prohibitive."

Xpedior, an American systems integrator whose Australian base is in Perth, is another to experiment with building portals. In its case, the company brings experience in building e-commerce Web sites for the like of Hewlett-Packard.

Kevin Morgan, MD of Xpedior, said that the company would not just "design flaming logos", but would develop a detailed online strategy with their clients, including for internal audiences.

"It's no different to the architecture we use to build business-to-business or business-to-consumer Web sites," sad Mr Morgan. "It's just that the customer happens to be the employee."

Xpedior's skill set includes - but Mr Morgan was at pains to point out that it is not restricted to - BroadVision's combined e-commerce/KM system, Forte's middleware application, and various Web servers and database systems.

As part of what the company calls a "digital business transformation", Xpedior has also had to address the non-technical side of knowledge management - specifically, the problem of inducing employees to use a portal-based system once it is in place.

"A core part of developing a [KM] strategy is to put a process in place to change the corporate culture. Sometimes employees are even forced to give up their knowledge," said Mr Morgan.


Much of the promise of this software is built on the capabilities of the eXtensible Markup Language (XML), the metadata standard which can act as the "glue" connecting data from different applications. The language can have a dual role, of delivering content which has been produced from within those applications - like Microsoft Excel spreadsheets, reports from SAP R/3 or images from a FileNET document management system - and also of sharing operational data between applications, so that a workflow or other event in one can trigger a response in a different application.

German-based middleware developer Software AG is moving into this area in February with a new XML database called Tamino, which would add to its EntireX middleware product and an object-oriented programming platform called Bolero to make a combined development environment for integrating legacy systems for e-commerce applications.

Ken Burrows, MD of Software AG Australia, predicted XML would replace electronic data interchange (EDI) as the language used on corporate e-commerce networks within five years. Mr Burrows said Tamino "provides an effective environment for integrating and Web-enabling data from disparate systems".

"Tamino stores XML objects in their pure, native format. Developers don't have to convert them to relational tables," he said. "We're isolating the development from the underlying infrastructure."

Mr Burrows said Software AG had three competencies it could bring to a development project: its own application development environment, the ability to integrate to other systems, and experience in content management. The EntireX component of the company's suite can also be used to construct Web-to-host interfaces for client/server and mainframe applications, one of the important functions for building an enterprise portal.