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Issue Date: October 2006

Portals: overcoming information overload

1 October 2006

Office workers regularly overwhelmed with the amount of data at their ­disposal are desperately trying to make sense of it all in order to perform their critical tasks more effectively.
Information overload has become a standard feature of the digital age. A solution to this challenge may lie in the business intelligence portal, which Werner van der Merwe, Knowledge Management Solutions manager at nVisionIT says is a tool which is being demystified as vendors like Microsoft focus their research and development efforts on improving the way people access and use information.
Werner van der Merwe, Knowledge Management Solutions manager at nVisionIT
Werner van der Merwe, Knowledge Management Solutions manager at nVisionIT
"The Microsoft Office productivity suite, for example, is the most widely used software of its type, so Microsoft is focusing on improving information access through common tools and interfaces like its Office productivity suite," he says.
Van der Merwe notes that the concept of a BI portal is simply to provide a single point at which an individual can access all the information they require from multiple sources. Starting at a high level, the portal provides him or her with the ability to drill down into more detail should they so desire. "The concept of portals is not a new one, having originated in the 1990s, but portals took something of a back seat as the industry rationalised after Y2K. However, vendors have taken another look at what the portal is and how it can deliver value in the corporate setting in recent years," he explains.
A previous limitation in information access was the presentation of that data to the user; to date, BI tools have tended to be somewhat difficult to use and have come at a high cost. "In recent times the focus has shifted to bringing BI to the user. This means a reduction in the costs - something which can be expected from Microsoft with its volume model of software delivery [with products like Office and Windows which are targeted at the masses]. Attention has also fallen on bringing BI to all levels of office workers, especially mid level management;" continues van der Merwe.
As such, he says certain fundamental changes in the BI approach are necessary. From terminology to the portal interface, the technicalities will be hidden from the user. You do not have to know how an engine works in order to drive a car. Just as the engine technology is hidden from the car user, so BI technology will increasingly be kept under the hood. Users will not require training - or will need far less training - and will become accustomed to BI as a tool for finding information within their office application environment rather than perceiving it as a separate application.
Noting that most individuals use a very small portion of the features presently available in office suites, van der Merwe says Microsoft's Office 12 has a dramatically different interface which is intended to encourage and aid users to use more of the functionality to improve the productivity and on-the-job performance.
"Introducing BI portals into the mass market will only be successful if it delivers usability, is easily understood and demonstrates value to users. Microsoft has done a lot to address these requirements, ensuring that users do not have to understand the intricacies; collecting data is the IT department's problem and the portal is what brings it together for the user and makes it easy to understand," he says.
BI is a multibillion dollar industry that is enjoying rapid growth [Gartner estimates that it is an US$8,3 billion market worldwide, projected to grow at some 10% per annum for the next three years]; behind this growth is that effort to ensure that BI is demystified and delivered to the office worker. Microsoft's commitment to the BI space can be seen in its recent acquisition of Proclarity, one of the leading providers of BI tools.

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