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Learning Portals: Supporting Corporate Objectives

In today's Web-savvy world, the technology to develop user control offers the best opportunity for improved learning and productivity. That's a far cry from the prevailing approach of only a few years ago, and it says much about how we have evolved from i

June 22, 2007
Related Topics: Technology, Metrics, Measurement, Technology
KEYWORDS metrics / technology

“You control the information age,” heralded Time magazine with its controversial decision in January to name every Internet user its “Person of the Year.” Although some might argue with Time’s choice, there is no denying the revolutionary change the magazine acknowledged — users are in control when it comes to the Internet.

It’s a change chief learning officers ignore at their peril because the same applies to their intranets, as well.

CLOs now face the most crucial challenge to corporate intranets since their initial development in the 1990s: How will you adapt your intranet site to the dynamic environment of today’s Internet — the same Internet that is setting the expectations of corporate users?

Admittedly, it is a time of rampant evolution, a period of exhausting and seemingly endless change because of the newest functionalities users discover on Web sites. Imagine this: One night, an associate surfs the Internet at home, discovers a great feature and expects to find it the next day on the portal at work.

This scenario is not far-fetched. Company associates (your “customers”) will demand a mirror image of the Internet with all the options associated with what is commonly called Web 2.0. When they don’t find it, they might ignore you, placing your intranet on the path to extinction.

New and effective portals are the death knell for the electronic newsletter-style approach still in use on too many intranets. The new philosophical foundation for creating the best portals to meet corporate and user needs is recognizing that the user — not the company — must control the portal at the personal level. That recognition is not always welcomed, but it should be.

In today’s Web-savvy world, the technology to develop user control offers the best opportunity for improved learning and productivity. That’s a far cry from the prevailing approach of only a few years ago, and it says much about how we have evolved from the intranet to portals.

Corporate Intranet 1.0
In the 1990s, intranets were developed to provide a channel to communicate and share company information — they were simply a technological replacement for the company newsletter, containing the same published material and offering little or no interactivity. Back then, technology allowed companies to update the information, create greater access to it and even include work tools. Any thoughts of productivity centered on management’s ability to efficiently disseminate in a timely manner material it deemed important to all levels of the hierarchy.

Still, this was just a slick version of the good old monthly or quarterly newsletter — a classic example of the top-down model with users on the bottom. Managers and employees would have to repeatedly log in, click on associated links, read the text and either simply absorb it or act on it, if necessary. Frequently, they had to spend unproductive search time until they found what they really needed.

This model is of minimal value to the company and, more important, generally irrelevant to users. Associates do not view themselves as mere recipients of information. Many, if not most, have adapted to the whirlwind changes of the Internet, which have altered how they process information on their computer screens.

They want to be understood as more than a human version of those so-called “dumb terminals” that existed before the creation of local area networks. They have become the 21st century’s answer to the “Me Generation,” in that they think they should control the information, not only in terms of what they receive but what they generate.

Clearly, enlightened corporations, aware of this changing philosophy, knew they had to adapt long before Time declared personal ownership of the Internet a cultural phenomenon. Their response was and is the portal, a creation with a vast potential to change the equation, especially for continuous corporate learning. Allowing this potential to go untapped is antithetical to individual productivity.

Creating an Effective Portal
Let’s start with a basic principle about portals: They are not synonymous with a company’s intranet. The latter is a generic repository of knowledge, and the former create an environment in which users can get things done. A portal is a system designed to engage, support and enable customers (your management and employees) because it customizes information and action to meet the needs of each individual user.

Its impact on learning should be obvious. Instead of having to deal with many unrelated and possibly time-consuming topics, a “customer” can quickly access the appropriate and relevant information in a user-friendly and efficient method because the portal is based on the user’s needs.

Technologies associated with these changes are not limited to the usual Web servers, HTML code and search engines. In fact, they can be rather complex, particularly when constructing a portal or portlet (a piece of real estate on the portal with a very specific purpose).

The purpose here is not to explore the technical depths of Web 2.0 but to explain how the use of these technologies can best be applied in an innovative fashion with the goal of productive learning and efficient use of each associate’s time — a result that provides tangible and (equally important) intangible benefits for a company’s performance.

To be effective, your portal must be a tool that enables the user to get work done while meeting the needs of all its customers — users and company. To do that, there are three basic requirements:

1. It must be simple. This means uncluttered and containing just the right amount of information. The key here is relevance. Most users have a narrow focus, and that should be reflected in each individual’s portal.

2. It must be intuitive. Users want their portals to be identical to their Internet experience, which is to say that portals should follow the basic set of conventions associated with Web pages. It’s obviously difficult to facilitate effective and timely learning if one constantly has to adjust to a different user experience.

3. It must be easy. If the portal is convoluted to the extent that multiple actions or clicks are required to access information, it is not going to work. One example is the login, a constant source of complaints from users. Yes, the portal cannot and should not be a one-size-fits-all system, but a single login should be sufficient and save time. Capital One, for example, was able to eliminate multiple logins so that what used to take 15 seconds a day now takes zero. It might not seem like much, but when you’re dealing with more than 30,000 users, that time adds up.

Portals work their best by making three streamlined people-centric connections:

1. They connect people in need of knowledge and experience to others with both.

2. They connect people to information such as product capability or customer service.

3. They connect people to their work (their job requirements and responsibilities).

Make those connections easy for employees. Ideally, they should be no more than a couple of clicks away from anything and everything. And they should know they are on the right path to get what they need.

The goal is to build categories the way your users want them so that each individual’s concern can be accessed with minimal time and effort. Moreover, search engines are becoming so familiar that users expect them to do the work — if your portal does not have a great search function (look at Google) integrated directly into it, you ought to plan on installing one soon.

A sure sign of successful portals is their preferential and continual use by associates without any prodding. On the Internet, it’s called “stickiness,” the repeated return to a particular site because it is stuck in the user’s psyche. For that reason, stickiness should be considered another portal requisite, and you ought to be able to measure it by looking at your monthly usage metrics.

Best Practices to Facilitate Learning
One of the best practices to achieve maximum effectiveness with portals is to leverage them as learning tools. For example, portals can help employees learn about their industry, competitors and the economic context in which the company does business. This increases their business acumen and makes them better at what they do. The portal is truly a valuable tool for CLOs who recognize that learning is-all encompassing, whether the subject is job function or business strategy.

Another best practice is frequent updates. News should change daily, and other dynamic content should be updated at least monthly. Always make certain there is fresh information to access — a sure way to maintain stickiness. Updates reinforce the company’s learning commitment by giving more opportunity to either learn something about the business or act on a project based on the updated information.

A third best practice provides space for users to create communities within the organization. For example, if a geographically diverse company wants to have all marketing personnel discuss concerns, the company can create an online community for this group through a portal. That particular approach, however, requires another best practice that should not be overlooked: Someone has to be assigned to keep the community together and keep the content fresh.

The fourth best practice is no less important. Design your portal so associates can complete business quickly and inexpensively. At the same time, maintain a high level of quality, whether portals are performing simple functions, such as changing an address, or communicating with a broad spectrum of personnel. Your employees are more likely to gravitate to the portal when they realize how much easier and quicker it is to perform the task.

Portals and Governance
It would be naïve to think issues will not arise over portals, largely because they have so many different stakeholders. Capital One has developed cross-functional portal teams under the auspices of human resources, which is responsible for governance. The team sets direction and determines business and customer needs, depending on the nature of each portal or portlet. Despite the number of different stakeholders (such as IT and lines of business), decisions on actual content are left to those assigned as content providers. Issues that might bring departments in conflict are resolved through an expedited path to senior management.

Those charged with governance do not act in a vacuum. Because portals represent personalized approaches, it makes sense for them to have continual-feedback channels from associates whose input is likely to increase because they also have a share in their success.

What About ROI?
A quantifiable ROI for portal development is an ongoing struggle for both chief learning officers and corporate finance — two groups that don’t always speak the same language. Time savings, efficiency and productivity are among the benchmarks for successful portals, but these do not always translate into easily quantified figures.

For example, a CLO can show extensive time savings from single sign-on and dramatic reductions of e-mail, but it might be more difficult to prove the freed-up time has been used to the company’s betterment. The same problem exists in calculating the value of knowledgeable human capital, one of the best resources a company can have. Unfortunately for CLOs, these examples might not be sufficient for those who view ROI only in terms of the tangible: the bottom line.

The challenge, then, must be to emphasize the value of the intangible. A case can be made that the true value of the investment in user-controlled portals should be judged on its positive business impact in developing smarter and more efficient employees while establishing more connectivity with people through networks and online communities. These take resources, investment and time.

At the end of the day, however, portals make the company more productive, communicative and accessible. To some, those might be intangibles. They should be considered assets.

Portals: Not a Spectator Sport
Jakob Nielsen, called the “guru of Web page usability” by The New York Times, says the key to a successful intranet portal is one in which “a company’s content and services work together instead of undermining each other.” For Nielsen, the issue is very basic: “Companies ought to prefer that employees spend time working on business issues, talking to customers or performing other productive tasks rather than navigating a confusing intranet or struggling to make a computer do as it’s told.”

Consider your portals an endangered species if they don’t meet Nielsen’s criterion. Look for such warning signs as associates who lack interest, access that is too complex, users reduced to roles of spectators instead of participants and, most important, the inability to determine tangible or intangible improvements in productivity.

Diligent and concerted efforts have helped previously endangered species again flourish, and the same can be true for your portals. To start, think personalization, customization and ease of use. They are the most important steps toward your most important goals: learning and productivity.

Ted Forbes is the vice president and chief learning officer at Capital One. Brian Gruber is the vice president of human resources at Capital One. They can be reached at

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