Wanted: Smarter Mobile Enterprise Portals

The poor enterprise portal. It has had more lives than a cat and more personalities than a summer stock theatre troupe. After a decade of wandering from fad to fad (remember intranets, knowledge management and corporate taxonomies?) the enterprise portal is back, and in a big way. But this time the enterprise isn’t leading the way, it is following.

Mobile portals are exploding all over the consumer Web. If you Google “mobile portal” you can see the latest Internet gold rush. Entertainment, finance, travel, media, mapping, social networking and, most of all, marketing are all industries making a beeline for that shiny computer in your pocket. These modern mobile portals for consumers are not the directories of static content or disconnected applications of old. Instead, the new mobile portals are all about active services that can be personalized, combined and let loose to act on your behalf.

With new broadband networks promising to turn the wireless data hose into a gushing pipe, these new services promise that nothing will be beyond the capabilities of our trusty little digital assistants. The latest offerings? Internet services that let you broadcast live video from your phone. Take that, local news!

At the high end, new smartphones like Apple’s iconic iPhone have finally managed to combine power with ease of use, and have reignited a passion for user experience in the mobile space. Every handset manufacturer is getting on the touchscreen/finger gesture bandwagon. Soon you won’t be able to run your finger along a piece of fruit without it asking you to take a short online survey!

As the line between feature phones and smartphones continues to blur, a more general category of “business-enabled” phones, or, more simply, business phones, will emerge as the new enterprise computing platform. Apple’s new iPhone mobile application portal delivered over 10M downloads in its first week, and a growing percentage of those downloads were for business tools.

Even low-end phones, once relegated to the “voice-only” bin, now support rich media and multichannel communications. Soon you won’t be able to buy a phone that doesn’t handle e-mail access and Web browsing with aplomb. These business phones will replace traditional PCs and laptops to become the standard access point for the enterprise portal.

Bumps in the Road

The transition from PCs to business phones is not without its challenges. Mobile devices are not simply PC-replacements; they are a different kind of beast. Phones, even state of the art business phones, typically have small screens, limited computing power and challenged keyboards. They are also a potential security risk since all data moves over public networks, and the devices themselves can be lost or stolen.

However, sophisticated mobile devices are winning the hearts and minds of business users because of the lifestyle advantages they bring. By not being tied to a desk, mobile business professionals can be more effective, build better relationships, and more easily balance home and work life.

The reason is clear: Mobile devices trade power for intimacy. They are always at hand; they give us a portable “address” in the digital world and help us understand where we are and what is around us.

Even security has improved dramatically. Today, strong encryption and enterprise remote management tools help allay mobile security concerns and make the business phones harmless should they fall into the wrong hands.

With the shift from PCs to business phones as the new enterprise computing platform, the bigger challenge will be with the enterprise portal itself. Consumer mobile portals have dramatically raised business users’ expectations for online services.

Yet today’s enterprise portals are still mostly nothing more than “home pages” for employees. They function as directories of corporate resources and applications. Even the most expensive and sophisticated personalized enterprise portals are still a far cry from powerful, easy-to-use — and free — consumer portals like “MyYahoo!”

So, how will the enterprise portal have to change to keep up with this switch from the 9-5 PC-based business user to always-on mobile workforce? In a word, dramatically.

Portal Intelligence

To match the constraints of small-format mobile devices and the increasing requirements of busy professionals, the enterprise portal will evolve from being a passive observer to an active participant in the processes of the business. Enterprise portals will have to take on more responsibility for understanding why, when and how to reach out and grab the attention of a business user. These “active portals” will monitor, measure and compare the operations of the business against defined business processes and performance targets. And they will reach out and notify business users when something important needs their attention.

At the core of this transition from passive to active portals is a new role for intelligence in business systems. The enterprise portal will have to become smarter: smarter about business processes, smarter about business performance, and smarter about business professionals.

Unlike traditional business intelligence that simply delivers static reports and dashboards, active portals require change intelligence — systems that understand what is expected, what actually happened, and the implications of the difference between the two.

Organizations will start to deploy active portals in areas of the business where working smarter delivers the most benefit, such as in the front office. CRM systems have laid the foundation for internal business processes, but active portals can engage employees, partners, customers and prospects along the entire customer life cycle. For example, dynamically managing a sales pipeline requires the collaboration and coordination of distributed teams and the oversight and coaching of well-informed managers. This is a perfect application of an active portal.

Active portals up the ante for enterprise portals, moving from helping people find things to helping people do things. The transition to mobile devices and active portals will not only lead to an explosion of new ways to work, but will also lead to a renaissance in the way businesses function. For example, by dramatically lowering coordination costs, temporary teams can be assembled on-demand to deal with challenges or take advantage of new opportunities.

By relaxing rigid company structures and minimizing value reducing rote work, active portals will free business professionals to focus on value creation. And that will lead to happier, more satisfied staff and successful, more competitive businesses.

Not bad for those shiny little gadgets we keep in our pockets.

Scott Wiener is chief technology officer of Cloud9 Analytics.

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