When drug reps from pharmaceutical company Schering visit a hospital or GP's surgery, they go through a number of tasks in the build-up to the sale. They may want to review the customer's purchasing history. They may need to print out marketing materials for that customer to review. They may need to access patient trial information to reassure the doctor of the drug's safety and side effects. And, if all goes well, they may wish to submit a customer order there and then.
The information they need is held in a number of different back-end systems located at Schering's Burgess Hill headquarters near Brighton: its Siebel customer relationship management system; a number of Lotus Notes databases containing research, regulatory, market and product information; as well as a range of other relevant repositories and applications.
Fortunately, the drug rep can access all these information sources through a single, web-based interface – a corporate portal. That portal, based on technology from portal specialist Plumtree, provides a unified user interface that enables users to execute an entire business process – in this case, making a sale – regardless of how many underlying systems that process touches.
That helps Schering employees avoid a serious problem, one that is sometimes referred to as ‘swivel-chair integration' – the need to feverishly swap between multiple applications in order to complete a single business process.
Swivel-chair integration can lead to lost sales and irate customers. Take the example of a call centre. According to recent research commissioned by business process management tools company Corizon, 66% of call centre agents use three applications or more to serve customers on a typical call, while 27% use five or more. More worryingly, 71% claim time is wasted on or after a call because of switching between different applications and more than half (53%) admit that errors creep in when entering data into multiple systems.
Forcing employees to hop between different applications can also introduce much higher costs. For a start, they need to be trained to use a wide range of different applications. Not only that, by connecting through enterprise resource planning (ERP) and customer relationship management (CRM) interfaces to get to the information they need, they are also confronted by a sea of data that they don't need.
One way round that – and the approach adopted by Schering – is to replace these multiple interfaces to multiple systems with a single, user-friendly screen that accesses only the parts of a back-end system that the employee needs. In doing so, IT directors are beginning to get around the problem of swivel-chair integration.
Paul Ciandrini, chief operating officer of Plumtree, maps out the new role for such portals. "You do need to combine diverse resources in order for employees to access the information they need to complete a task – but you need to do so in a way that creates targeted cross-process applications that are specifically designed according to user need rather than system functionality," he says.
Process, not content
That vision – embraced not only by Plumtree but also by such software companies as IBM, BEA Systems, Vignette and Oracle – represents a vast step forwards from the early corporate portals of the late 1990s.
"First-generation content portals provided a central access point to all content spread across distributed intranet sites, essentially an interactive table of contents," explains Nate Root, an analyst with IT market research group, Forrester. The second generation took that a stage further, linking to applications. "As web technology matured, organisations began to add interactivity to portals. The addition of web forms and adapters to back-end business applications transformed the portal from a one-way information channel to a two-way interactive tool," he says.
However, that evolution created a tricky problem for many organisations: information overload. In short, the sheer volume of valuable content and transactional interfaces presented through a single portal site became more than users could usefully navigate.
That has given rise to a third generation: ‘process portals'. These aim to cure information overload and make portals more intuitive by presenting individual components of business logic from numerous back-end systems in a set order, thus creating guided business processes. "In short, process portals make users' lives easier because they look the way users think," says Ciandrini of Plumtree.
Like other such technologies, Plumtree's process portal – Integrated Activity Management – makes the portal an interface for a service-oriented architecture (SOA). On top of the SOA sit composite applications, with different amalgams of these components driving different business processes.
The beauty of this approach is clear: portal software typically provides a set of foundation capabilities such as collaboration, workflow, search and personalisation. So organisations are not forced to build these themselves and can thus assemble richer applications more quickly. Also, many business logic components can be reused again and again when building new composite applications, lowering application development times and costs with each.
Finally, because web services standards are used to ‘wrap' business logic components, process portals can access applications and information held in both the organisation's own systems and the systems of third parties, such as suppliers and retailers, over the Internet. That means that a car manufacturer could build a portal-based application for plant-floor employees that enables them to view orders from dealerships, assess likely demand patterns, and order components such as windscreen wipers from suppliers accordingly.
Back to reality
Fulfilling that vision of an SOA-empowered portal, however, is still some way off, says Jim Murphy of IT market research company AMR. "SOA isn't happening for most companies yet and won't likely reach maturity for many years. Only then will we have composite applications based on web services, and only then does the notion of integrated activity management have a chance of sticking," he says.
Nevertheless, plenty of companies are taking early steps along that path, says Root at Forrester Research. "Technologies like business process management (BPM) software and web services are making it easier than ever to circumvent traditional application interfaces and integrate directly with the internal business logic of applications," he says.
"Unlike traditional enterprise application integration technologies, which process transactions across many systems but with few user interactions, process-oriented portal applications typically surface information to users at key decision points within a process," explains Marco Tilli, vice president of portals and hosted tools at Oracle.
Such products link seamlessly with an integration layer that performs translation, transformation and BPM to connect disparate systems, thus moving away from point-to-point connectivity. So-called ‘portlets' in the portal connect only to the integration layer and do not require direct connectivity to a specific application (see box, ‘The process portal architecture').
"Based on the information request, the BPM layer decides which application to tap and how to route specific data and present it to users via a portlet. The translation and transformation layer, which knows how the data is mapped to different back-end applications and taps the specific application adapter for connectivity," explains Tilli.
But until companies have an SOA in place, they will need to decide which parts of those back-end applications are vital to specific business processes and componentise them. "That's why many companies have only made small steps towards process portals so far," agrees Martin Percival, principal technologist at BEA Systems. "It's quite hard to decide how big or small to make those components when you're staring at millions of lines of code. Each component needs to be big enough so that a company gets reasonable return from wrapping it, but small enough to guarantee reusability in a number of composite apps," he says.
That, he says, creates enormous opportunity for systems integrators – a point with which Laura Ramos, a Forrester analyst concurs: "Top integration companies will deliver critical domain expertise in mapping collaborative, cross-functional proc-esses to transactions and back-office apps where the data lives." For example, she says, Capgemini and Deloitte have both notched up successes in helping automotive companies to create dashboards for quality and rework data from across the supply chain, while some of Accenture's telecoms customers have used process portals to extend disparate customer service applications to more users.
Until the large enterprise applications companies, such as SAP, Siebel and Oracle, begin to deliver truly componentised applications that fit well into an SOA, the true market for process portals will be limited, she says. For now, organisations should focus on solving tactical problems. "The wholesale conversion of enterprise architectures to web services and enabling open standards will take another software generation to solve.
Portals can help attenuate some of this complexity, but drive their adoption with purposeful application to supply chain interactions, e-learning in sales and marketing, communities of practice for field support, and other process-specific activities."