by Colin White

November 2007

The Impact of Web 2.0 on Business Portals

The number 2 seems to be dominating the headlines and vendors’ marketing strategies at present. Nearly every major IT technology suddenly has a 2.0 tagged on the end of its name. This in turn has lead to conferences, books, and seminars touting the latest 2.0 technologies and architectures.

It all started with Web 2.0, which has its origins in a series of Web development conferences started in 2004 by O’Reilly Media and MediaLive International (now owned by CMP Media). The objective in creating the concept of Web 2.0 was to identify and bring together a set of technologies that represent a new way of deploying Web applications that are not only more powerful, but also easier to develop and use.
One of the key enablers of Web 2.0 technologies is the business portal. This article discusses the use of Web 2.0 in portal development and looks at how Web 2.0 technologies help improve user productivity and information self service.

A Look at Web 2.0 Technologies

Web 2.0 can be broken down into those technologies that support information collaboration and those that support application development. The information collaboration group of technologies offers new ways of creating, publishing, and delivering information on the public Internet and corporate networks. Examples here include wikis, blogs, real simple syndication (RSS), and social networking. The application generation group of technologies help simplify Web application development. Examples in this case are mashups, AJAX, and scripting languages such as PHP and Ruby.
The impact of Web 2.0 on information collaboration and application development can be demonstrated by a portal application that won a portal award at the recent Shared Insights Portals, Collaboration and Content Conference in Boston. The winner of this award was Avenue A | Razorfish.

The Avenue A | Razorfish Portal

The Avenue A | Razorfish wiki is the interactive agency’s user-driven knowledge management portal, deployed in its 14 worldwide offices. Frustrated by the limitations of its employee intranet, the company decided to employ the philosophy and structure of the collaborative online encyclopedia, Wikipedia, and use it to create an internal knowledge sharing and collaboration portal.
The overall intent of the wiki-driven portal is to help consultants share knowledge and best practices, regardless of where they are located geographically. It is also used to access research resources, to develop new ideas in an innovation lab, and for social networking and collaboration via people pages and community-specific content.
The communities of the Avenue A | Razorfish portal improve knowledge management across the company’s seven disciplines. The technology and user experience communities are the most active. In addition to discipline-driven knowledge management, the portal also supports project-based collaboration and client knowledge management, including the ability for any user to create new projects, accounts, offices, case studies, and general pages using an easy-to-use template system.
Features recently added to the portal include blogging, cloud tags, search, custom Google maps, RSS feeds, links to popular social media sites, privacy features, and user ratings. Integration with external features such as Flickr for images, Delicious and Digg for social bookmarking, and Google maps for mapping are enabled through a combination of PHP and Javascript programming.
Existing Microsoft Outlook mailing lists are integrated automatically with associated blogs ensuring that important mailing list conversations are indexed and available. E-mail and blog interactions are associated with wiki content using a custom-built tagging engine. When a user searches for information, the result set includes both wiki and blog content, which helps put the information in context.
One of the main long-term goals for the portal includes integration with other enterprise applications such as marketing, HR, and time-tracking applications.
The software that runs the portal is a modified version of Mediawiki, the system used by Wikipedia. The blogs are powered by WordPress, a popular blogging platform. Single sign-on and authentication are achieved through PHP calls to the corporate directory server. The portal runs on a Red Hat Linux server and employs an underlying MySQL database system.

A More Traditional Approach to Portal Deployment

It’s interesting to compare the Avenue A | Razorfish portal with a knowledge management system developed for in-house use by Accenture. This application was also a finalist in the Shared Insights portal awards program.
The development of the new knowledge management system enabled Accenture to retire more than 40 databases and offer a single point of access to information through the existing Accenture employee portal. This new approach was in striking contrast to the previous approach, which involved multiple access points dispersed across the organization. Consolidating the knowledge assets paved the way for the enterprise search engine to index the content and apply a consistent taxonomy.
The principal users of the knowledge management application are Accenture’s workforce of 133,000 people working across 48 countries. Accenture consolidated its knowledge assets into a central repository based on the Microsoft SharePoint Portal Server.

A New Approach to Portal Deployment

The objectives of both the Avenue A | Razorfish and Accenture knowledge-driven portals were the same – to provide consultants with a single knowledge-driven tool for research and for publishing and sharing best practices. The development approaches, however, were quite different.
In Accenture’s case, the portal used traditional technology to consolidate existing knowledge-based systems. These assets were organized around a formal taxonomy and accessed using an enterprise search engine. The portal was implemented using the Microsoft SharePoint portal. The Avenue A | Razorfish solution, on the other hand, was developed and deployed using a wide range of new Web 2.0 technologies and open source software. In this case, the knowledge assets were organized based on a user-driven tagging, rather a formal methodology. Features such as tag clouds were then used to aid user searches for information.
Although quite different, the approaches used by the two organizations both resulted in successful implementations; therefore, it cannot be said that one approach is better then the other. The benefit of the Avenue A | Razorfish approach is that its less rigid Web 2.0 approach makes it easier to develop applications and to encourage users to publish and share information. The result, however, makes governance more difficult. One thing to note about using Web 2.0 technologies is that they simplify information generation and application development, but require a completely different approach to governance. As users start to create their own throw-away applications using Web 2.0 technologies such as mashups, the governance issue will become increasingly more important.
As the Avenue A | Razorfish portal demonstrates, Web 2.0 technologies offer a powerful and alternative approach to building and deploying portals and their associated workspaces. Web 2.0 is here to stay, and IT organizations must plan for its use. At present, Web 2.0 approaches are being used by more technically focused staff such as consultants, and it remains to be seen if less experienced business users will adopt them. What is quite clear is that for some time to come both old and new Web technologies will need to coexist in portal and workspace applications.