Internet portals that deliver electronic services to citizens are appearing faster than you can say "Yahoo!" But in the rush to go online, many governments may be overlooking the portals potential for knowledge management.

By Tod Newcombe | Features Editor

North Carolina is the latest state to launch a high-profile state portal. Working with Andersen Consulting, Bell South and the king of portals, Yahoo, the state has ambitious plans to construct a portal where citizens will be able to apply for a fishing license, check a stock quote, read e-mail and schedule appointments on a calendar, along with a host of other services.

The project, known as "North Carolina @ Your Service," is the latest in a series of state and local government portal initiatives that are sweeping the country. The Center for Digital Government, a research firm based in Folsom, Calif. (and a division of e.Republic Inc., which publishes Government Technology), lists more than 30 portal projects

underway in states and localities, and that list is constantly being updated.

But rarely mentioned, either in the North Carolina announcement or for other government projects and RFPs, is the fact that portals allow an organization to manage knowledge in a way that was never possible before. "Portal technology is the first killer application for knowledge management," said Hadley Reynolds, director of research of the Delphi Group, a consulting firm based in Cambridge, Mass. "Theres been no good way to pull together an organizations knowledge until the portal came along."

Portal Popularity

Setting up a portal is a relatively easy step in itself, according to Reynolds and other portal experts. Whats not so easy is overcoming the cultural, bureaucratic and funding barriers necessary to make a portal a fully functioning platform for knowledge management and electronic-government services. These hurdles can end up diluting government efforts to build enterprise portals that deliver services and manage knowledge. "Government agencies are taking a piecemeal approach [to portal development]," said Jean DeLucia, president of GovConnect. "Its the easiest and fastest way to get electronic capabilities on to a portal, but not the most effective."

The public sector is rushing to join the portal bandwagon for the same reasons that the private sector has. At their very basic level, portals provide a way for an organization to deliver fresh information to their Web sites. "Portals present a personalized view of the Web," said Jack Porter, president and CEO of KnowledgeTrack, an enterprise portal

development firm. "Instead of viewers only seeing something static when they visit a Web site, they see new stuff every day."

The information can be presented in a simple manner, such as headline news from the Associated Press, the weather and the Dow Jones average. Or it can be highly personalized, allowing the user to read only the news that pertains to a certain topic or location, to look only at individual stock quotes and read a calendar listing their personal days schedule. At a more sophisticated level, a portal can provide access to transactions and links to ERP solutions, such as health benefits if he or she is an employee, or, if the user is a supplier, access to personalized procurement information, such as the latest RFPs or catalogs for purchasing office supplies.

Virtual Pocket Knife

For anyone who remembers mainframe computers and their complex programs and limited application functionality, a portal appears to be the software version of a Swiss Army knife: easy to use and capable of doing just about anything. But its sophistication masks a certain simplicity behind all the bells, whistles and widgets that make it run.

"Portals dont replace the systems you have invested in," Reynolds explained. "They dont run all the applications you see there, they provide links to the

Tod Newcombe  |  Features Editor