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."
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
applications." So rather than having to construct a new system, an organization simply adds another layer to its infrastructure. All thats needed to build a portal are electronic hooks that can pull data from legacy systems.
The uneventful passing of Y2K has opened the floodgates to portal development, especially for electronic business applications, such as e-marketplaces, procurement solutions and other business-to-business ventures. There are corporate portals serving just those people within an organization or department, consumer portals that deliver product catalogs and offer online support, vertical portals that provide all the content necessary to stay abreast of whats happening in a specific discipline, and commerce portals that allow users to buy and sell and find information on particular products.
Know Your Portal
In marked contrast to the rapid rise in and acceptance of portal technology, knowledge management, by comparison, has been floundering around for years, waiting to catch on. Knowledge management has its technological roots in document imaging, workflow and management systems. Prior to automation, paperwork and the intelligence it contained was confined to a small group of workers who had access to the actual files and folders. Once these documents and the way in which they were routed and managed became automated, knowledge sharing began to spread among workers who could view the information on their desktop PCs.
But high hardware and software costs limited the growth of document systems and knowledge management. It wasnt until the Internet came along, and specifically the World Wide Web, that business intelligence could be centralized, distributed and then shared among workers, customers and business partners at very low cost. Finally, the idea of
knowledge sharing as a strategic management tool began to catch on.
Intranets became one way to manage knowledge within an organization. These internal Internets allowed workers to access information specifically useful to their job or their career. Something as simple as an online directory, organized by function and easy to browse using a search engine, suddenly gave people a doorway to resources they never knew they had before.
But before knowledge-based intranets could gather strength, the portal overtook them. Suddenly workers -- and customers -- could visit one Web site and not only find the information they wanted, but could now transact business and interact with others. A whole new era in knowledge sharing quickly dawned, and it has all happened within the past 24 months. According to Knowledge Management magazine, "Portals enable enterprises to extend knowledge management and business-intelligence initiatives with and beyond the walls of their organization in ways that could not have been envisioned two years ago."
Unfortunately, building a portal with knowledge-sharing capabilities isnt as easy as it may appear. Simply providing links to other resources and a few catchy features, such as stock quotes and weather reports, only takes knowledge sharing so far. One of the fundamental roblems with knowledge management in government is the inability to update and classify the constant stream of information that pours into its databases. Failure to electronically tag documents means they cant be properly indexed and searched once they are dumped into an agencys Web server.
Thats why people like Eileen Quam are so important. Quam is an information architect for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. For the past year, she has been working with 13 different state agencies to organize, classify and index tens of thousands of documents pertaining to the states environment.
The result is "Bridges," a unique, collaborative effort at knowledge sharing. Using a software tool from Ultraseek Corp., she has been able to put all sorts of electronic documents into a hierarchical directory similar to those found on such popular portals as Yahoo.
Comparing her work to a library cataloger, Quam has the tough task of persuading
other agencies to cooperate and place meta tags in each document they file on their servers. But the hard work pays off in spades when it comes to knowledge sharing. "We are showing people how they can gather information in a much more effective way," she said.
"By creating an environmental portal, it allows people to find answers to their questions a lot faster than searching without the directory."
Even though Quam has succeeded in getting more than a dozen state agencies to participate in her environmental portal project, its just the tip of the knowledge iceberg when it comes to a government portal. State and local governments must deal with a broad range of information if they expect to be adept at knowledge sharing among workers and citizens. That means providing a well-organized directory for an enormous amount of information, as well as applications for transactions that benefit both the public and thousands of employees.
Getting It Together
One of the problems troubling portal development in the private sector, and sure to hit the public sector as portals become more popular, is integration. Beth Gold-Bernstein, a vice president with eBizQ.net, a business portal company, said that integration is not a new problem,
but its the biggest issue concerning portals. "Theres a growing need for the appropriate skill sets to integrate information on an enterprise scale," she said. And its not just a matter of knowing the schematics of each application, but understanding the business process from end to end.
Another barrier is cost. Portal software is not expensive. But the business-process reengineering, integration and other technical and management issues that must be addressed in order to build a portal can drive a portal budget sky high. Building an enterprise portal can cost
anywhere from $50 to $100 per user, according to KnowledgeTracks Jack Porter. Gold-Bernstein pegs the service costs of building a portal at two to five times the cost of the software.
But perhaps the biggest challenge for government is building a portal that has a consumer-centric versus an agency-centric view of information and services. "People dont remember the names of numerous government agencies when they seek help," said GovConnects Jean
DeLucia. "Thats why state and local governments need to reach the enterprise level when it comes information sharing, not the agency
level that currently exists."
Here Comes the Hyper-Portal
It could be anywhere from five to 10 years before governments offer citizens a truly enterprise view of information and services, predicts DeLucia. In the meantime, his companys Web site offers a glimpse of what he believes the government portal of the future will look like. "We call it the e-center, and its based on the one-stop concept," he explained. Information and services are grouped around consumer-based interests, such as benefits, education, seniors, health, jobs and taxes.
In addition, these government portals of the future will have what Jack Porter of KnowledgeTrack considers to be one of the biggest trends in knowledge sharing: community groups, where citizens with similar interests can come together and discuss, debate and champion their needs. In fact, this will be one of the features with "North Carolina @ Your Service," according to Robert Berton, a managing partner with Andersen Consulting. "The portal will provide local community groups with shared interests," he said. "For example, they can use the portals calendar feature for scheduling and creating a virtual interaction capability."
Another potential with government portals is the ability to organize government services around certain life events. These events include such activities as moving, health care, finding a job, child care and so on. Instead of just providing links to information, the portal would use electronic wizards that would automatically lead the user through all the necessary steps required by
government when a certain life event takes place. For example, when one moves, the person must deal with change of address forms, obtaining a new drivers license, enrolling their children in school and so on. Electronic wizards would speed the application process by filling in all redundant information, saving the user time -- lots of time.
But will state and local governments ever build one super portal for all citizens needs, enabling knowledge sharing on an enterprise scale? Some think not. Instead, the likelihood is a network of portals, according to Delphi Groups Reynolds. "In the future, there will be networks of portals developed around the functions of government," he explained. "This is known as the hyper portal, where one portal refers to another portal." Already beginning to happen in the private sector, the hyper portal is a real possibility, given the entrenched system of agency-based services in government. The trick will be to design a
portal that looks like a universal portal on the outside, but takes into consideration the existing multitude of agencies with their own services and knowledge databases. Building such a portal wont be for the faint-hearted, cautions Reynolds. "The design implications for such a portal are deep."