Virtual Learning

As teaching and administration processes move increasingly online, enterprise information portals are proving a fundamental tool in enhancing education initiatives

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By  Zoe Moleshead Published  December 4, 2002

Information access|~||~||~|For students of The Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management, learning couldn’t be easier. With the development of an enterprise information portal, using Microsoft’s SharePoint technology, and the deployment of a wireless network throughout its Dubai campus, the emphasis within the academy is very much on information anywhere, anytime, on any device. Furthermore, using the EIP, students can effectively and quickly find a host of course and administration information, and personalise it to their requirements.

“The portal is our one stop shop for information for faculty, staff and students,” says Floor Bleeker, information technology manager, The Emirates Academy of Hospitality Management.

“Students go there for daily administration information, like their grades, schedules, payment and accounts. E-learning is also an integral part of teaching and all of the courses are supported by e-learning elements. Our e-learning engines are integrated into the portal as well,” he adds.

As such, the portal is an elementary part of each student’s course. Aside from providing administrative information, it has become a critical learning tool. While tutors can post lecture notes and study papers on the portal, students can submit work, complete tests, and use the collaborative functionality of the portal to work together on assignments and projects.

“Every course will use the portal in one way or another — whether it is our e-learning software that offers online tests, online collaboration, project teams, online discussions or guest lectures that we publish online as well,” comments Bleeker.

Additionally, the portal is an effective tool for pushing information to students and minimising the amount of time they have to spend searching for papers, books and other course literature.

“The teachers don’t print out the course material anymore. It is in a section on the portal where students can go and pick it up. They can also subscribe to it, so if the teacher posts something that is specific to their course they receive a reminder about it,” says Bleeker.

The academy has also incorporated SMS and e-mail functionality into the portal, enabling it to send students notification when new information is posted online.

“It’s a smart system, it works with notifications. For example, if students are interested in rooms division management they subscribe to that category and anything that happens in that category — it could be a book in the library, an article posted on the intranet, or a new lecture — they will receive an e-mail or SMS notification” explains Bleeker.

However, Emirates Academy is not alone in recognising the efficiencies that EIPs can offer users. Locally, portals are proliferating a host of vertical sectors, including government bodies, oil & gas, retail and education, as enterprises and organisations look to capitalise on the productivity gains and cost savings that information portals ultimately offer.

For Qatar Petrochemicals (QAPCO), the development of its enterprise portal has significantly enhanced the day-to-day activities of its staff, providing them with easy access to their applications and company information. The portal has also been tailored to address the requirements of staff according to their seniority.

“Our portal provides a central gateway for all employees to access the corporate back office applications. Personal information, staff statistics, e-mail & collaboration software, reports and charts, and an area to publish corporate documents and content are also available through the portal,” says Abdulla Al-Hammadi, head of information technology, QAPCO.

According to Al-Hammadi, the benefits to the company have been multiple. “We have reduced paperwork. Information, including statistical reports and charts, is now available on demand, easing decision-making and streamlining the workflow,” he explains.

||**||Enterprise Portals|~||~||~|Staff and faculty members of Emirates Academy are also reaping the benefits of the EIP. The academic institute has transferred many of the purchasing processes and other administration activities online, allowing them to be carried out and approved through the portal.

“For the staff and faculty we also provide a lot of services; purchasing is done through the portal, all kinds of forms that we need can be found on there. It is a document management system as well, certain documents; such as our press clippings are available on the portal. Basically we want to integrate as much as possible into the portal,” comments Bleeker.

EIPs, however, can extend beyond just internal use. Portals can be used to interface with enterprise applications, such as ERP and CRM systems, and consolidate information from intranet, internet and extranet locations.

“EIPs aim to offer a single, uniform point from which all of an enterprise’s data sources can be accessed. The term ‘data sources’ encompasses structured data, like databases, and unstructured data, such as e-mails, files and archives. It also includes the data resulting from specific processes and enterprise applications, such as ERP and CRM tools,” states Veena Dorairajan, technical consultant, Novell Middle East.

Integrating business critical applications in one interface improves employee efficiency, minimising the need to trawl through multiple applications. This in turn impacts a company’s bottom line.

“Enterprises may have Outlook for e-mails, Siebel as their CRM system and SAP for an HR system, but they only use about 10% of those applications. However, by taking that 10% and using web services, you can glue those bits together to create a portal, which will give you everything you need at your fingertips without you having to go into multiple applications,” explains Samia Rauf, head of marketing, Plumtree, Europe, Middle East & Africa.

With the interfacing of CRM and ERP applications, the portal can be extended to customers, suppliers and partners as a platform for them to source information and carry out transactions.

As it began evaluating e-commerce suites, Saudi-based Al Jarir Group also decided to capitalise on the benfits that a portal could offer its retail unit. With 18 bookstores Kingdom-wide and additional stores in Abu Dhabi and Qatar, the group was looking for a solution that would enhance employee interaction, but also fit into its business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-commerce (B2C) plans.

“We were going to implement the [IBM] commerce suite first, but we did evaluations and instead decided to go for the [WebSphere] portal first and postponed the commerce implementation,” says Abdullah Almosa, IT consultant, Al Jarir Group.

“With both the portal and e-commerce suite we will have a complete customer solution — we will have B2B, B2E (business-to-employee) and B2C,” adds Almosa.

The EIP has already been extended to three or four of Al Jarir’s partners that use it to track inventory levels and orders, and chase additional information, such as payment details.

“On the buyer side, because the portal is integrated to our JD Edwards ERP system, the portal is providing them with all the information that they need to track their supplies, update their supplies, and check on the inventory. They can [also] chase the reports, so we don’t have to send faxes. It has really taken a lot from our shoulders, and our suppliers are really shouldering all those activities, so we are saving money,” says Almosa.

With such far-reaching benefits, it is no surprise that analysts are predicting a boom in the EIP sector. IDC is expecting the market to rocket from US$550.4 million in 2001 to US$3.1 billion in 2006, while Meta Group expects 85% of Global 2000 organisations to have selected a portal framework by 2004. Additionally, Meta Group reports that by 2005, 35% of organisations will regard their portal as a core system, an increase from the current 5%.

||**||Benefits|~||~||~|The success of EIP technology lies in a number of different factors, the ability to consolidate and access information quickly and effectively, single sign on access, improved communications and customisation capabilities — all of which ultimately lead to higher levels of productivity and cost savings.

To ensure that users receive concise amounts of relevant information, two factors are critical, a strong search engine and the ability to personalise portals to suit the individual requirements of the user.

“If a user has an information need they should not be worried where the information is coming from. It is our job to provide it [the information] to them. They go only to the search engine and type in what they need and they will get a few options from us,” says Bleeker.

“The information is all indexed so users only get the information they are looking for and it doesn’t matter what the source of the information is — it could be in the library, in the student system, or anywhere on the internet,” he adds.

Additionally, users can customise their portals to suit their own needs. In the case of Emirates Academy, users will only receive information that pertains to their course or their individual student profile. While in an enterprise environment, this can be customised to suit department needs. For example, employees working in the marketing division could receive only the latest press releases, product information and press clippings.

“Users increasingly have limited space on their screens — they are data rich and information poor. Portals help them to have one screen with all the relevant information on it, personalised to them,” comments Sirwen Balder, manager, financial service & major accounts, Microsoft Middle East & South Gulf.

For Emirates Academy, customisation works on two levels; one is group customisation whereby students, staff and faculty members are presented with different information. The other is individual personalisation, which enables users to add web parts or portlets to their portal that are relevant only to them.

“For example, we have a gadget whereby users can see the weather, but they can choose the city that they want the weather for. We have a stock ticker so if a student does an analysis on Hilton for example, they can put the stocks for the Hilton in,” explains Bleeker.

Portals also facilitate knowledge sharing and communication within organisations. Most portal technologies offer collaborative workplaces where users can discuss ideas and work on projects together. The advantages of this being that employees can work together from multiple locations around the world, cutting back on costs spent travelling or sending documents back and forth between the offices.

“The most important aspect of this package [SharePoint] is that it is a tool that promotes collaboration and knowledge transfer within an organisation, allowing employers to empower staff with corporate knowledge and enhance teamwork,” says Balder.

The ability to use a single sign on mechanism is also a key benefit for users of EIPs. Instead of having to manage several different passwords and usernames for every application or site they access, they only require one password and username for the portal. Not only does this benefit users, but it also aids the IT team and, according to Ayman Abouseif, marketing director, Oracle Middle East, cuts costs.

“The cost of resetting passwords and helping people that have lost their passwords is very high. Gartner Group estimates that the cost of resetting a password is around US$14, so single sign on eliminates a lot of this cost,” he says.

“With a single sign on mechanism when employees go to the portal they will be able to log into the portal and access directly without additional passwords all the other applications they are authorised to use. It becomes their desktop to all their applications, e-mail, files, business applications, all sorts of things, integrated in one place,” adds Abousief.

In addition to these benefits, EIPs have also proven fairly easy to develop. While Emirates Academy required its portal to be ready for opening of the academy in October 2001, the development proved relatively straightforward and only took two months to complete.

“SharePoint is very easy to use. It works with the traditional Microsoft interface, like drag and drop documents… It is relatively easy to set up — we didn’t need a lot custom development to make the portal. Development time was about two months, which we spent with two Microsoft consultants and a systems developer of our own,” comments Bleeker.

For Al Jarir Group, development was also completed in a short period of time. “Portlets can be developed in a very short time, its not that complicated to develop and its user friendly,” says Almosa.

||**||Integration challenges|~||~||~|There are, however, still some complications arising from a lack of openness among different vendor’s solutions. For Emirates Academy, their development was hindered by plans to offer users a single sign on mechanism.

“We wanted to give our users one username and one password to access all systems. Integrating single sign on proved to be a challenge. Not all different vendors speak the same language, we had to write middleware to enable this,” explains Bleeker.

Locally, enterprises, large and small, are assessing the benefits that portals can bring as they move more and more business processes online and accumulate greater amounts of information.

“Every company we talk to is looking at some kind of internal portal for their employees — some are more complex, some are primitive and static, others are more dynamic. But its rare to meet someone that knows everything [about their company] and where to find all that information,” comments Oracle’s Abouseif.

Although it seems logical that larger enterprises, with more information and employees, would gain more from the deployment of an EIP, vendors argue that this is not the case. Instead they suggest that any company that amasses substantial amounts of information can find use for a portal and capitalise on the widespread network that it extends to them.

“If the business of a company deals with a lot of information on a daily basis then they will get value from it — whatever size they are — because it is a better way of organising and presenting the information,” says Mohannad Mustafa, senior consultant, Computer Associates Middle East.

Bashar Kilani, IBM’s manager of business transformation & integration software, Middle East & Africa, also believes that as PC penetration picks up throughout the Middle East, portals will prove increasingly valuable to organisations, as they capitalise on the productivity and cost savings that can be garnered from EIPs.

“Workers are more productive; the business process is more efficient. An important issue when I talk to big organisations is getting the right information at the right time to make a decision. If they know where to get that information from and they can get to it quickly they save a lot more time. Customers will be served quicker, more transactions can be done in a shorter space of time and costs reduced,” he says.

“It’s interesting to see how just saving 10 minutes of an employee’s time each day can impact the bottom line of an organisation. And normally portals save you much more than that,” adds Kilani.||**||

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