The main project I have been working on since last September is as the leader of the implementation of the student web portal of Tilburg University. It is interesting to be back here, this time in a very different role. Whereas as a student and scientist I was always thinking analytically about information systems development, I am now in the trenches trying to make these systems actually work, a very different ball game!
The original project assignment was quite a different one from the current mission. The initial idea was to build and deliver a portal consisting of a number of predefined portlets (channels to applications). These included portlets like My Week Schedule, My Exam Schedule, University News, Webmail, and so on. Through the portal, these applications are to be accessed from a single location, with a single sign on. The list was compiled by a committee in a preceding project, based on student surveys and a thorough analysis of goals and available resources.
Although such a well thought-through list is a prerequisite for a successful portal, it is not a sufficient condition. Rather than being a frozen technical system, a portal is a living socio-technical system. It is a catalyst for the building of relations between people, applications, and business processes. Much more than a static, hierarchical model, a lateral, evolutionary model should guide the development of a portal. A portal is never finished, but needs to continuously grow in requirements and functionalities, driven by the real needs of the end users, in this case, students, while being constrained by technical and organizational realities.
Having been fully immersed in this process for half a year now, and still to go on for half a year more, it is surprising how much time and effort is needed not only in building technology, but in identifying stakeholders and aligning their needs, preferences, and interests. Not only students, but also the technologists and the owners of the applications and information resources to which the portal links need to have their say. Legitimacy is therefore all-important, as every decision can affect the ways of working of so many in the organization. In fact, the portal project is all about building for a community with a community. More about how we approach this from a community perspective in a later post.