How to Avoid Empty Portal Syndrome

Marcus Liban

Marcus Liban

January 15, 2015

Originally posted on Inmagic blog 7/30/2014
The majority of firms that approach us are struggling with low intranet /portal user adoption. There are many factors that contribute to this problem, but “empty portal syndrome” can be overcome if administrators stay focused on some key success factors.

What Does Success Look Like?

Law firm portals should be the primary source for information storage and access, advocacy and contributions from executive management must be expected, and the portal should be actively, continually managed. Legal portals should offer:

  • Relevance to target users (know your audience!)
  • Site structure and logic that supports those target users
  • User-centric design with an intuitive, dynamic, flexible interface
  • Support for search, without dependency on search, through automatic content mining from critical in-house systems (HRIS, Finance, DMS, CRM). This provides a complete picture of the firm’s:
    • client lifecycles and details(from initial matter intake to identifying a roadmap for the client based upon firm expertise and other services relevant to the matter, client).
    • practice areas
    • work product (who, what, activity level)
    • experience, successes and failures
  • Integration with external systems offering access to:
    • research
    • customer/industry/market trends

Pitfalls to Avoid

Representatives of firms struggling with user adoption tell similar stories. For many mid-market firms, Phase I of their portal project is basic software installation – with the expectation that everything should “just work.” The reality: intranet/portal software is never turn-key or immediately relevant.   Portals are continually evolving platforms that require expectation setting, thoughtful planning and an understanding of business needs and workflows. A SharePoint project, for example, is not complete simply as a result of having installed the software.

Installation is the initial, foundational step. Project teams must then consider site navigation informed by the activities and preferences of the firm’s departments and practices, the content types and application relevant to these teams, and the needs of other stakeholders. Phase I deliver must deliver attorney relevance and business value in order for adoption to take off. If the best foundation isn’t set, problems ensue –they tend to fall into three major categories, all of which are related:

  • IT dependency – experience has shown that most project failures result from this
  • Lack of relevance
  • Lack of governance

IT Dependency

Often the IT department is given responsibility for Phase I of a portal project, even though they are not subject matter experts, nor can they usually influence or change the firm culture. Problems include:

  • Responsibility for content publishing ends up in the hands of IT
  • IT staff become content owners for Administrative departments or Practice Groups. Familiarity with the tools doesn’t guarantee familiarity with content requirements, workflows or external resources
  • Portal Sites conflict with (and sometimes compete with) other systems, e.g.:
    • Exchange Public Folders
    • DMS and SP document lists (resulting in confusion as to which are authoritative documents)

Lack of Relevance

The term “empty portal” is a figure of speech. We hear many stories about portals that contain lots of content, but not necessarily the right content – and it may be organized in counterintuitive, illogical ways that don’t mirror the firm’s own structure and workflow. It might as well be empty. At Lucidea we refer to this problem as the content being physically captured but logically lost. Problems include:

  • Site structure doesn’t reflect the firm’s organizational structure
  • Sites are shallow and focused on primarily administrative content (e.g. staff directories, office maps, weather, office events etc.) with little substantive work product
  • Compromised access to important information due to bad layout, poor navigation and dependency on user structured search
  • Static content, often submitted by a few die-hard users who do actually publish– but who often aren’t subject matter experts  and  don’t know the true context, value or priority

Lack of Governance

As mentioned earlier in this post, legal portals must be “continually and actively managed.”  Adhering to this is the biggest problem of all for firms who struggle with poor user adoption. They tell us:

  • The portal is a “free for all” and content is not filtered or targeted
  • Information is dated and mainly administrative
  • Staff see portal engagement (publishing, leveraging work product, updating content) as just one in a group of responsibilities and place it low on the priority list
  • There is no formal information governance policy that dictates retention, expiration of content, etc.
  • Portal contribution and usage isn’t part of performance measurement, so staff aren’t accountable

In another post, we’ll focus on the ways in which a basic content dashboard can be a powerful tool for content and knowledge managers to view and influence how firms value and leverage their critical information assets.

Sometimes it’s only possible to succeed because we know what failure looks like. Avoid the pitfalls of legal portal implementation and management and stay focused on the key success factors outlined at the beginning of this post. Then you need never suffer from empty portal syndrome!

Marcus Liban

Marcus Liban

Marcus Liban is a Lucidea knowledge management solution architect who works with national and multinational law firms, corporate legal departments, businesses and government entities. In his spare time, the San Francisco / Silicon Valley-based fisherman tinkers with his mid-1980s BMWs and unique woodworking projects.

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