16 March 2008

Portals: Build it and they may come, but they won't know what to do when they arrive...

Many of our customers ask how they can spur adoption of new portal technology.  In cases where the IT department is leading the charge, we see a lot of "build it and they will come" approaches.  In much the same way Kevin Costner's character in Field of Dreams built a baseball field on his farm to encourage ghosts of baseball players to visit and play the game, IT groups hope that by simply exposing portal functionality to their end users, those same users will figure out what to do with it.  The trouble is that most employees are too caught up in their daily tasks to focus on the use of yet another tool, let alone see the opportunities for making their lives easier.

Portals technologies and other "productivity" tools come and go.  There have been lots of them over the years.  The prime example would be word processing software.  Does anyone remember the resistance to computer-based word processing over a typewriter?  Does anyone remember the fights that erupted in the executive offices when word processing centers (that existed in many large companies) were replaced by a far fewer number of individual secretaries armed with tools like the DOS-based Displaywrite word processor (an IBM created word processing packages from the early to mid-80's), WordPerfect or any of the other word processing packages of that era?  Or how about when the concept of an executive doing their own typing was introduced!  <GASP!>

The difference between a word processor and a portal is the number of functions.  More than likely, anyone familiar with a typewriter can guess how a word processing package functions.  And, with minimal fiddling, could probably figure out how to type out and print a document. 

By contrast, portal technologies encompass a number of functions -- some of them not so obvious.  The fact is and remains that IT or any organization pushing the adoption of a portal product, must help their user community.  This help comes in many forms, but here are some best practices for not only helping introduce the portal, but driving usage:

  1. Pick a few Functions that have broad appeal
    Find those one, two or three functions that virtually everyone in the organization needs or wants.  The old term for this is the "killer app."  Effectively it's any feature of the portal that employees will immediately see value in using and something that you can make instantly accessible.  For example. surfacing a phone directory or portions of frequently used applications -- like electronic pay stubs.  The function needs to be something that users "need" to use as opposed to something that they could use (given the imagination to integrate it into their work).  One customer we recently spoke with implemented an employee lookup feature for a single department and it's now the most utilized feature -- by everyone from the mailroom to accounting to the receptionist.   As a result, this one feature is driving usage of the more traditional functions within their portal.
  2. Train, Train and Train -- but do it quickly
    Most organizations miss this basic concept.  They also tend to focus on "all day" or other time consuming "big bang" sessions.  Remember that the portal is supposed to improve productivity, not create a huge hole in productivity.  By taking valuable resources away from their jobs for a day or more to try and consume loads of information, you not only create a down day, but the trainees will inevitably forget everything but the phone directory by the time they leave the session.  Instead deliver training in very small information blocks that take an hour or less.  Again, if we assume that the portal starts with a few key functions, developing training for these functions to fit within an hour or less session is not all that challenging.  If the functions are too complicated to show folks how to use them in that time, rethink the function.  Further, don't stop there.  Embed ongoing "training" into the portal, such that users can get to 30 second to 1 minute "mini-training" sessions on contextual content.  For example, if your portal has the ability to manage documents, embed links to help material literally next to buttons or links for that document management function.  A firm called Portalogiks has a product called "Virtual Training Academy" that contains 60 "modules" that fit this very description.  Their flash/shockwave-based materials are 30 seconds to 4 minute videos that present focused content around one specific function of SharePoint (e.g. how to upload a document).
  3. Communicate Frequently
    One key to adoption is frequent and useful communication with the user base.  Users tend to forget or simply don't know that the portal may house useful functions  or, in the case of SharePoint, new approaches to accomplish the same task (see our blog entry on using SharePoint Search within Office's Research function).  Again, keep the communications focused around one topic that can easily be consumed in short order by your user community.
  4. Flagrantly Encourage Participation
    One of my former managers, Sue Hanley, used to promote the idea of "bribery" for portal users.  Effectively, the portal won't survive without an active content contributor community and a broad consumer base.  Since the challenge is really a "chicken or the egg" problem, you should consider developing programs that encourage both the consumer and contributor communities.  In spirit of bribery, creating contests with prizes or a simple "gold" star program will help motivate both groups.  What works for your organization will probably be different from other firms, so do a little research and experimentation to figure what sells -- we've seen everything from lunch in the executive dining room to additional vacation days to iPod/Zune giveaways.
  5. Make Incremental Improvements
    For a whole host of reasons, the big bang (rolling out all features at one time) approach simply doesn't work.  By contrast, introducing a new portal with a small set of core, broadly used functions tends to get the ball rolling.  However, without continued improvement, usage will fall quickly (or simply stagnate).  Instead, ensure that the portal continues to expand and grow.  This means not only in terms of functionality, but also approach.  There's a really good chance you won't get it right first time around.  Make sure that you become comfortable with changing how and what you're doing within the portal to keep up with feedback you're getting from your user community.  We typically recommend to clients that they make changes at least once a quarter, but no more than once a month.  This keeps any improvement scoped for a successful rollout and at a comfortable "consumption" interval, such that your users are not overwhelmed by changes.
  6. Measure and Measure Again
    Don't guess at the portal's success, make sure you establish success criteria and gather both quantitative and qualitative data.  Use this data to continually evaluate if you're hitting your goals.  As the portal matures these measures will change, but do not become complacent.

While this list contains just six best practices, they are probably the most frequently ignored.  And, obviously, these best practices represent only a segment of what you should be doing  overall.  However, from what we've observed, just doing these six things well will vastly improve your overall success.

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