This blog has not focused on non-profit institutions (e.g. museums, historical societies) as enterprises but they are repositories of an extraordinary wealth of information. The past few weeks I’ve been trying, with mixed results, to get a feel for the accessibility of this content through the public Web sites of these organizations. My queries leave me with a keen sense of why search on company intranets also fail.
Most sizable non-profits want their collections of content and other information assets exposed to the public. But each department manages its own content collections with software that is unique to their specific professional methods and practices. In the corporate world the mix will include human resources (HR), enterprise resource management (ERP) systems, customer relationship management (CRM), R & D document management systems and collaboration tools. Many corporations have or “had” library systems that reflected a mix of internally published reports and scholarly collections that support R & D and special areas such as competitive intelligence. Corporations struggle constantly with federating all this content in a single search system.
Non-profit organizations have similar disparate systems constructed for their special domain, museums or research institutions. One area that is similar between the corporate and non-profit sector is libraries, operating with software whose interfaces hearken back to designs of the late 1980s or 90s. Another by-product of that era was the catalog record in a format devised by the Library of Congress for the electronic exchange of records between library systems. It was never intended to be the format for retrieval. It is similar to the metadata in content management systems but is an order of magnitude more complex and arcane to the typical person doing searching. Only librarians and scholars really understand the most effective ways to search most library systems; therein lies the “public access” problem. In a corporation a librarian often does the searching.
However, a visitor to a museum Web site would expect to quickly find a topic for which the museum has exhibit materials, printed literature and other media, all together. This calls for nomenclature that is “public friendly” and reflects the basic “aboutness” of all the materials in museum departments and collections. It is a problem when each library and curatorial department uses a different method of categorizing. Libraries typically use Library of Congress Subject Headings. What makes this problematic is that topics are so numerous. The number of possible subject headings is designed for the entire population of all Library of Congress holdings, not a special collection of a few tens of thousands of materials. Almost no library systems search for words “contained in” the subject headings if you try to browse just the Subject index. If I am searching Subjects for all power generation materials and a heading such as electric power generation is used, it will not be found because the look-up mechanism only looks for headings that “begin with” power generation.
Let’s cut to the chase; mountains of metadata in the form of library cataloging are locked inside library systems within non-profit institutions. It is not being searched at the search box when you go to a museum Web site because it is not accessible to most “enterprise” or “web site” search engines. Therefore, a separate search must be done in the library system using a more complex approach to be truly thorough.
We have a big problem if we are to somehow elevate library collections to the same level of importance as the rest of a museum’s collections and integrate the two. Bigger still is the challenge of getting everything indexed with a normalized vocabulary for the comfort of all audiences. This is something that takes thought and coordination among professionals of diverse competencies. It will not be solved easily but it must be done for institutions to thrive and satisfy all their constituents. Here we have yet another example of where enterprise search will fail to satisfy, not because the search engine is broken but because the underlying data is inappropriately packaged for indexes to work as expected. Yet again, we come to the realization that we need people to recognize and fix the problem.
Let’s agree that most if not all “enterprise search” is really about point solutions within large corporations. As I have written elsewhere, the “enterprise” is almost always a federation of constituencies, each with their own solutions for content applications and that includes search. If there is any place that we find truly enterprise-wide application of search, it is in small and medium organizations (SMBs). This would include professional service firms (consultancies and law firms), NGOs, many non-profits, and young R&D companies. There are plenty of niche solutions for SMBs and they are growing.
I bring this up because the latest Gartner “magic quadrant” lists Microsoft (MS) as the “leader” in enterprise search; this is the same place Gartner has positioned Fast Search & Transfer in the past. Whether this is because Fast’s assets are now owned by MS or because Gartner really believes that Microsoft is the leader, I still beg to strongly differ.
I have been perplexed by the Microsoft/Fast deal since it was announced earlier this year because, although Fast has always offered a lot of search technology, I never found it to be a compelling solutions for any of my clients. Putting aside the huge upfront capital cost for licenses, the staggering amount of development work, and time to deployment there were other concerns. I sensed a questionable commitment to an on-going, sustainable, unified and consistent product vision with supporting services. I felt that any client of mine would need very deep pockets indeed to really make a solid value case for Fast. Most of my clients are already burned out on really big enterprise deployments of applications in the ERP and CRM space, and understand the wisdom of beginning with smaller value-achievable, short-term projects on which they can build.
Products that impress me as having much more “out-of-the-box” at a more reasonable cost are clearly leaders in their unique domains. They have important clients achieving a good deal of benefit at a reasonable cost, in a short period of time. They have products that can be installed, implemented and maintained internally without a large staff of administrators, and they have good reputations among their clients for responsiveness and a cohesive series of roll-outs. Several have as many or more clients than Fast ever had (if we ever know the real number). Coveo, Exalead, ISYS, Recommind, Vivisimo, and X1 are a few of a select group that are marking a mark in their respective niches, as products ready for action with a short implementation cycle (weeks or months not years).
Autonomy and Endeca continue to bring value to very large projects in large companies but are not plug-and-play solutions, by any means. Oracle, IBM, and Microsoft offer search solutions of a very different type with a heavy vendor or third-party service requirement. Google Search Appliance has a much larger installed base than any of these but needs serious tuning and customization to make it suitable to enterprise needs. Take the “leadership” designation with a big grain of salt because what leads on the charts may be exactly what bogs you down. There are no generic, one-suit-fits-all enterprise search solutions including those in the “leaders” quadrant.
I am surprised how often various content organizing mechanisms on the Web are compared to the Dewey Decimal System. As a former librarian, I am disheartened to be reminded how often students were lectured on the Dewey Decimal system, apparently to the exclusion of learning about subject categorization schemes. They complemented each other but that seems to be a secret among all but librarians.
I’ll try to share a clearer view of the model and explain why new systems of organizing content in enterprise search are quite different than the decimal model.
Classification is a good generic term for defining physical organizing systems. Unique animals and plants are distinguished by a single classification in the biological naming system. So too are books in a library. There are two principal classification systems for arranging books on the shelf in Western libraries: Dewey Decimal and Library of Congress (LC). They each use coding (numeric for Dewey decimal and alpha-numeric for Library of Congress) to establish where a book belongs logically on a shelf, relative to other books in the collection, according to the book’s most prominent content topic. A book on nutrition for better health might be given a classification number for some aspect of nutrition or one for a health topic, but a human being has to make a judgment which topic the book is most “about” because the book can only live in one section of the collection. It is probably worth mentioning that the Dewey and LC systems are both hierarchical but with different priorities. (e.g. Dewey puts broad topics like Religion and Philosophy and Psychology at top levels and LC puts those two topics together while including more scientific and technical topics at the top of the list, like Agriculture and Military Science.)
So why classify books to reside in topic order? It requires a lot of labor to move the collections around to make space for new books. It is for the benefit of the users, to enable “browsing” through the collection, although it may be hard to accept that the term browsing was a staple of library science decades before the internet. Library leaders established eons ago the need for a system of physical organization to help readers peruse the book collection by topic, leading from the general to the specific.
You might ask what kind of help that was for finding the book on nutrition that was classified under “health science.” This is where another system, largely hidden from the public or often made annoyingly inaccessible, comes in. It is a system of categorization in which any content, book or otherwise, can be assigned an unlimited number of categories. Wondering through the stacks, one would never suspect this secret way of finding a nugget in a book about your favorite hobby if that book was classified to live elsewhere. The standard lists of terms for further describing books by multiple headings are called “subject headings” and you had to use a library catalog to find them. Unfortunately, they contain mysterious conventions called “sub-divisions,” designed to pre-coordinate any topic with other generic topics (e.g. Handbooks, etc. and United States). Today we would call these generic subdivision terms, facets. One reflects a kind of book and the other reveals a geographical scope covered by the book.
With the marvel of the Web page, hyperlinking, and “clicking through” hierarchical lists of topics we can click a mouse to narrow a search for handbooks on nutrition in the United States for better health beginning at any facet or topic and still come up with the book that meets all four criteria. We no longer have to be constrained by the Dewey model of browsing the physical location of our favorite topics, probably missing a lot of good stuff. But then we never did. The subject card catalog gave us a tool for finding more than we would by classification code alone. But even that was a lot more tedious than navigating easily through a hierarchy of subject headings, narrowing the results by facets on a browser tab and further narrowing the results by yet another topical term until we find just the right piece of content.
Taking the next leap we have natural language processing (NLP) that will answer the question, “Where do I find handbooks on nutrition in the United States for better health?” And that is the Holy Grail for search technology – and a long way from Mr. Dewey’s idea for browsing the collection.