Knowledge Portals: Using the Internet to Enable Business Transformation

Christoph M. JANSEN <>
Volker BACH <>
Hubert ÖSTERLE <>
Institute for Information Management at the University of St. Gallen


The global economy is currently undergoing a fundamental transformation. Market dynamics and business rules are changing at an ever increasing speed. Those responsible for keeping the company on track for the future have a massive need for high-quality knowledge--both from inside and outside the company. These business consultants are facing the challenge to form teams of experts, to collaborate with others, and to make sensible decisions based on their own expertise. However, they need access not only to their own "knowledge source" but to knowledge from various heterogeneous sources. Today, finding the appropriate knowledge or even being aware of all potential sources is more a question of luck and intuition than anything else.

There are many different approaches toward Knowledge Management. However, many concepts focus on social and cultural aspects only and ignore the role of technology. There are other approaches that are very technology-minded but provide no solutions to cultural challenges of Knowledge Management. Therefore, many companies have sophisticated concepts on how to manage knowledge, but have little understanding of how to implement and deploy them, since the link between the two positions is missing.

Knowledge Portals represent a solution to this challenge, as they provide a flexible knowledge environment to a potentially large number of users. The mission of a Knowledge Portal is not only to provide a library-like pool of information, but to actively support the user in his or her business processes.

In the past three years, the Institute for Information Management at the University of St. Gallen (IWI-HSG, Switzerland) has analyzed various existing Knowledge Management solutions and identified design requirements. Based on these findings, it has developed several prototypes of Knowledge Portals. Each portal addresses a different target group and supports different processes and areas of work. These platforms have been used and found useful by a growing number of business users. While the first part of this paper analyzes requirements of a Knowledge Portal in general, the second part describes the contents and functions of one specific Portal developed at the IWI-HSG. Finally, the third part features an outlook on future developments in the area of Knowledge Portals. It explains why Portals will become more than just hype, and how Portals will finally integrate with existing document management systems, Enterprise Resource Planning systems, and corporate legacy systems.



Lew Platt of Hewlett Packard takes the view that "successful companies in the 21st century will be those who do the best job in capturing, storing, and leveraging what their employees know" [1]. However, the implementation of efficient Knowledge Management solutions often proves to be very challenging. It is crucial not to focus on technology or culture solely. The large number of unsuccessful Knowledge Management projects uncovers an enormous conceptual deficit. Many companies are unable to deploy technological potentials to establish long-term solutions for efficient knowledge transfer and skill management.

Knowledge Portals are a web-based solution for closing this gap. They represent a concrete realization of existing theoretical Knowledge Management approaches. However, the most important challenge is not the deployment of the latest technology but the design of a platform that actually supports the users in their day-to-day business.

This paper first outlines recent achievements and trends in the area of Knowledge Portals. The second part features a detailed description of a portal developed by the authors. The final part explains future developments of Knowledge Portals.

The Knowledge Management challenge

Current problems

Almost all authors agree on the importance of knowledge. Davenport and Prusak even think of Knowledge Management as the foundation of competitiveness in the information age [2]. However, every one of us knows the disadvantages and problems associated with the availability of huge amounts of knowledge. The information glut or information overflow poses an increasing threat to current intranet platforms. Many authors are focusing heavily on the use and management of implicit or tacit knowledge, while negating the importance of technology [3]. While these concepts are very valuable as a theoretical foundation, the gap between theory and realizable technological, organizational, and cultural solutions is often huge. As a result, many companies have developed sophisticated concepts about how to manage knowledge, but have little understanding of how to implement and deploy them. Woods and Sheina therefore recommend a more balanced approach toward Knowledge Management. While the consideration of soft factors is vital to every Knowledge Management project, the potentials of new technologies play a decisive role in the design of any Knowledge Management solution [4].

The reasons for companies to execute Knowledge Management projects are manifold: The transfer of lessons learned is most important, while the improvement of processes is second [5]. To achieve these goals and to simultaneously reduce the information overflow, enormous investments into Knowledge Management will be required. Companies will have to consolidate the knowledge at an increasing speed and to provide immediate access to these resources for all employees. Current intranets and Internet-based consumer portals like Yahoo [6] or AltaVista [7] have proven to be insufficient measures for this challenge. They contain too much irrelevant information while making the important bits of knowledge hard to find [8]. This lack of user orientation reduces the acceptance of a platform which itself decreases the frequency of use. But a rarely used platform will lack updated information, and the attractiveness will diminish again--a vicious circle is building up.

To avoid these negative impacts, every knowledge-creating and -consuming process has to be defined in detail. A platform designed to actively support these processes will have a much greater chance of being used on a regular basis. And a regularly used platform will be easier to maintain, propagate, and refine than a rarely used one.

Business engineering: enabling the business transformation

Knowledge Management is not specific to any industry or job function. However, some positions require more knowledge than others. To maximize the return on Knowledge Management projects, it is therefore sensible to focus on one of these areas. One of those knowledge-intensive jobs is the transformation of companies and businesses. We will discuss these aspects in the following section.

As the global economy is undergoing a fundamental transformation, market dynamics and business rules are changing at an ever increasing speed. This poses threats as well as opportunities to the entire economy. Those responsible for keeping companies on track for the future have a massive need for high-quality knowledge--both from inside and outside their company. They are typically consultants working either inside the company they are about to transform or in a consulting company advising their clients on how to cope with increasing demands for flexibility. They are facing the challenge of forming teams of experts, collaborating with others, and making sensible decisions based on their own expertise. They need access not only to their own "knowledge source," but to knowledge from various heterogeneous sources.

Today, finding the appropriate knowledge or even being aware of all potential sources of information is more a question of luck and intuition than anything else. However, the increasing speed of change leaves no more time to reinvent the wheel or repeat mistakes. To survive, companies have to adapt to new environments faster than their competitors. Therefore, these consultants need access to lessons learned from similar projects as well as a methodological framework to engineer the businesses of the future [9].

Knowledge portals

Traditional approaches do not meet the above stated requirements of a process-oriented platform that actively supports the users. The recent concept of web-based portals proves to be very suitable for Knowledge Management. Knowledge Portals are flexible and easy to use and may provide almost any kind of content or functionality. To structure the architecture of a Knowledge Portal, the following three-layer model is being used.

Figure 1. Architecture of a Knowledge Portal

While technically speaking this is not a strict architecture, it represents the component view of a portal very well.

Knowledge base

Depending on the intended target group and purpose, a Knowledge Portal consists of several different types of content. These will be discussed briefly in the following table.

Type of Content Examples
Projects Project documents, lessons learned
Solutions Methodologies, procedural frameworks, FAQs, case studies
Technology/Industries News, reports, suppliers, potentials
Customers Company information, contacts, projects, competitors
Employees Skills, contact information, education, experiences, know-how
Competitors Services, products, company information, best practices
Others Educational material

In addition to the above-mentioned types, it is very important to provide separate content workspaces for different users and/or target group. Therefore, every user should have a personal file folder at his or her disposal. Similarly, every project team or community of interest should have its own working environment. This is vital to ensure the regular use of a portal.


The functions of a Knowledge Portal may be divided into four main categories: process support, teamwork, document management, and personalization. While personalization concerns the entire portal, the other functions may be needed only in some areas of a platform. However, features like search or discussion should be available throughout any platform.

Figure 2. Functions of a Knowledge Portal

According to a study by Delphi Group, process support and teamwork are the most important features of a Knowledge Portal [10]. Active process support may be achieved through checklists, workflows, and to-do lists (if combined with push delivery). Discussion groups and e-mail are the most common communication functions. Depending on the focus of the platform, additional functions like conferencing and skill management may be implemented. The most typical document management features are search and version control. Integration into office automation software may be needed if every user can add and/or modify documents. Personalization finally offers a wide variety of functions, which enable the users to customize their personal working environment according to their preferences.

User interface and navigation

The user interface should be standardized and easy to use [11]. While the knowledge base and functions layers pose new challenges to the developers of a portal, the design of the user interface does not differ greatly from the design of any common website. This paper will therefore not go into this topic any further.

State-of-the-art approaches

Currently, many companies are developing early stages of Knowledge Portals. The following section outlines two very interesting approaches as examples for state-of-the-art Knowledge Portals.

Project management at Credit Suisse

Credit Suisse is one of the two largest Swiss banks. It hosts several internal websites which are used for various purposes. The Business Unit Information Technology/Operations has developed a project management solution that provides advanced features for process support [12]. The platform is being used by approximately 600 employees of the Department for Application Development and Solutions.


The Knowledge Base consists of project documentations (status reports and other relevant documents), solutions (procedural models, result templates, and project structures), and employee profiles. Each project has its own project work space, where current and past documents may be filed.


Every project work space features a default project structure that simplifies the initial project setup. Milestones, required results, and project steps are automatically included in every new project. While every project member may subscribe to any contents to keep up-to-date, the project manager has additional powerful features to support his or her job. A milestone planning component enables the tracking of resources as well as the release of subsequent project stages.

In addition to the above-mentioned functions, several other features like search, user manager, push, and hotlists are implemented to support the user.


The project management platform is basically a very simple structure. It lacks several of the above-mentioned "ideal" contents and functions. However, its strengths in the areas of process support and project management make it a very interesting example.

Client Knowledge Network at Andersen Consulting

Andersen Consulting has developed a platform to support the interaction between project team members--both inside Andersen Consulting and with their respective clients [13].


The Client Knowledge Network features information on employee availability, project documents, and solutions (best practices, methods, instructions, etc.) as well as links to external sources containing market information and news.


While all four functional categories are well developed, the main focus of the Client Knowledge Network is on the teamwork component. Video and audio conferencing may be used where infrastructure and bandwidth permit. Otherwise, discussion groups, e-mail, and chat rooms are provided. A very useful feature is the so-called "Continuous Location Awareness," where the location of every (currently online) consultant may be determined. It is even possible to send him or her a personal instant message via the platform.

In addition to the mentioned functions, several process support and document management features are available. Personalization is realized by providing a personal inbox, customizing, scheduling, individual folders, and user managers.


The Client Knowledge Network covers only part of the suggested content types. However, the most advanced teamwork functions make this platform one of the leading ones in the industry.

Business Engineering Center


The Business Engineering Center (BEC, [14]) was developed by the authors of this paper at the Institute for Information Management at the University of St. Gallen. It is designed as an educational platform for Master of Business Administration (MBA) students. Therefore, most users do not use the portal for their daily work, but for course-related matters only. However, to provide a widely accepted, attractive platform, it must nonetheless support the users' processes [15].

The target group is composed of the students of the Master of Business Engineering (MBE, [16]) program. Every year, 45 new students join the Business Engineering community for their two-year executive education. Current and past students (alumni) are regular users of this platform with its growing community.

Components of the BEC

The following screenshot of the BEC homepage shows the various components of the user interface. It features a standardized, clear navigation bar, and direct links to all relevant components.

Figure 3. Screenshot Business Engineering Center "Centerpoint"

While various topic specific link collections grant access to numerous external resources, the following are the main sections provided exclusively by the BEC:

These will be discussed in detail in the following sections. Since personalization affects the entire portal, it is not mentioned as a separate section.



The Centerpoint is the entry page to the BEC. It provides an overview of the various contents of the BEC rather than containing knowledge itself. An editorial welcomes users and directs them to the most important highlights and hot topics of the BEC.


The most important features of the Centerpoint are the news ticker and highlights section. Other features include additional typical portal functions: the aggregation of the latest and most important news and the organization of the most important links.



The BECommunity is a communication component. Therefore, most content inside this section is user-generated. This includes detailed profiles of every regular BEC user.


The BECommunity features a chat room, message boards, e-mail, and an immediate contact option. This function, the meeting point, allows users to contact other online users and to send short messages to one or more of them. This is a very important community-building tool, since it enables the users to get in touch with other members of the community in a much more personal way than discussion groups or e-mail services would allow. However, as stated above, those traditional communication tools are necessary as well.

Figure 4. Screenshot BECommunity



The primary contents of the MBE @ BEC section are course materials and related information. The course materials are presentations and papers that are directly related to the timetable of the course. Contact information for all students and speakers as well as every student's personal credits account are featured in this section, too. Finally, there are publications and link collections to provide background information on the most relevant topics of Business Engineering. As specified in the following sections, the users may add content, too.


Besides various search functions for contents like course materials, publications, links, and personal profiles, the users have a variety of communication and collaboration tools at their disposal. With the events planner, every user may propose date, time, place, and type of a meeting, which can then be discussed and refined interactively by all users concerned. Similarly, the teamwork component allows for ad hoc team-building. Every user or group of users may initiate an open or closed group with members of his or her choice. Every team has its own workspace consisting of to-do lists, file uploads and downloads, and message boards to enable collaboration among the members and ensure active process support.

Additional functions are specific rating opportunities for courses, publications, and link collections with read/write access for every student and general features like e-mail.

Figure 5. Screenshot MBE @ BEC

Business Engineering


The Business Engineering section consists of general background information on various Business Engineering topics. Examples are Business Networking, Knowledge Management, and Change Management. Links collections, publications, case studies, and white papers make up the greater part of all contents. For easy use, graphical navigation is provided by the Business Navigator, which is currently available as a prototype.


To ensure a high quality of content, only a small team of specialists has write access to this sections. Therefore, the majority of users may just search the contents using one of the search functions or navigate the knowledge by using the topic-oriented, graphical Business Navigator.

Figure 6. Screenshot Business Navigator



Utilities are contents not directly related to Business Engineering. They are integrated from mostly external sources and consist of news, job market information, etc. Link collections and additional useful resources complete this section.


Every user may individually select those topics most relevant to him or her by using the customizing option. A search option makes easily available those links that are not directly selected as personal hot topics. Users may also add their own favorites and make them available to the entire community. The prototype of the presentation maker supports the users' creation of presentations by providing quotations and proverbs. Finally, a feedback option allows the users to interact with the managers of the Business Engineering Center by asking questions or sending suggestions.

Figure 7. Screenshot Utilities


The BEC is currently based mainly on Microsoft products: Internet Information Server and Access and SQLServer databases. The decision to use relational databases was made to ensure a maximum flexibility and to enable personalization features. All pages are dynamically generated based on user and/or user group settings. The mail component is based on Lotus Notes using Domino. The advantage of this configuration is a triple access to the e-mail accounts. Using the proprietary Notes client makes available additional functionalities like replication and forwarding, while access with a standard Web browser is also possible. Finally, any POP3 (Post Office Protocol 3)- or IMAP (Internet Mail Access Protocol)-compliant mail client may be used to access the users' e-mail accounts.

Further information

The BEC's first prototype was developed in late 1996. It was put into regular operation in 1998. In cooperation with the students of the MBE executive education program, new requirements are defined and reviewed on a regular basis. This ensures a maximum of user orientation.

The use of the BEC is basically free for all MBE participants. However, financing is provided through a lump fee that is part of the course fees. External users may join the community for free, although they have just limited access to many resources.


The BEC has proven to be a useful tool for MBE participants during their education. The number of members of the BEC is constantly growing. However, support of additional processes is limited at this time. To position the BEC as a Business Engineering portal that is used not only for course-related matters but also for the daily business, additional contents and features have to be added. Possible enhancements of the BEC and similar portals will be discussed in the final chapter.

Future developments


Portals are one of the most promising developments using Internet technology [17]. But current portals usually cover only parts of the above-mentioned requirements. The development of software packages will both enhance functionality and reduce implementation times. These software packages will be similar to those already widely used as Enterprise Resource Planning (ERP) systems. They will be flexible, customizable, and powerful. Many software manufacturers will create stand-alone out-of-the-box solutions. However, in the near future, integrated packages for both ERP and portal needs will evolve.

New technological standards like WAP (wireless application protocol) and XML (Extensible Markup Language) as well as increasing bandwidths will allow even better process support. Portals will evolve in yet unforeseen areas of application.

Functional models

The above-explained developments will hardly be possible within current scenarios: Companies will not be able to consolidate and structure external information in an efficient way. This would favor outsourcing the operation of a Knowledge Portal or portal in general. On the other hand, outsourcing mission-critical knowledge resources will not appeal to most businesses. Therefore, a combination between completely isolated individual solutions and outsourcing will be most likely.

The following figure illustrates one possible combination model, the distributed portal.

Figure 8. Distributed Portal

While general contents of public interest are hosted on a central, universal portal, company-specific contents are managed individually and locally at a corporate portal. Therefore, no confidential information is being sent over the Internet and stored at a unknown site. The positive effects of a centrally managed portal, such as economies of scale, critical mass, process efficiency, and community building, are secured by tight integration of the two portals. Common interface definitions are one prerequisite for the operation of this constellation.

Business models

There won't be any completely new business models for websites and portals. In the near future, subscription fees, advertisements, and micro payments will still dominate the market. However, new approaches like auctions or market pricing will slowly evolve. While auctions are already common for physical goods (e.g., Amazon [18], eBay [19]), similar pricing models will also apply to information items. However, while the use of a good is exclusive, information may be duplicated without losses. Therefore, market pricing of information and knowledge will probably be more suitable. Yet, it is not obvious whether highly demanded, often used information should be more expensive than rarely used items. The providing costs would imply the opposite while market laws would favor the higher pricing of popular information [20]. Both scenarios are worth evaluating.


The portal market will grow intensely in the next few years. Both software vendors and knowledge-aware companies are investing huge sums in the development of efficient Knowledge Management solutions. These investments and the potentials of new technologies, additional bandwidth, and future Internet services will allow for a completely new form of process-oriented, user-centered portals that will cover far more than just mere business processes.


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