A tough truth about complex and integrated software applications is the lack of expertise and professional depth available to implement and maintain them. This explains a lot about why small business units and project teams often find and deploy their own software tools to get work done.
I am particularly concerned at the lack of will by organizations to fund implementation of applications like enterprise search to aggregate at the retrieval-end the content stored within disparate applications. No rational business planning can justify having workers sift through multiple repositories, each with a separate sign-on, search interface, and search engine protocols just to find a single document. True, organizations need highly competent professionals to meaningfully implement, tune, and administer enterprise search engines. They require the expertise of search analysts, taxonomists, librarians, IT specialists with security, platform, and software development training. However, developing a team of six to twelve “search engineers” to give workers in a thousand person company quick access to relevant content is an ROI no brainer when we know workers waste significant (5 – 15%) amounts of working hours hunting for stuff.
This week’s Information Week article by Nicholas Hoover on Web 2.0 contained a comment about Wells Fargo “…on another Enterprise 2.0 front, integrated search, the company has limited employees’ ability to search across data repositories because of the complex authorization schemes needed to keep people from accessing information they shouldn’t.”
Today’s (Feb. 27th) New York Times headlined with a story about Microsoft buying “a specialized search engine tailored to deliver useful medical information to consumers,” Medstory, Inc. The story goes on to cite comments by Esther Dyson who refers to the technology as “an ontology engine.” This underscores another truth about quality semantic (natural language) search; it depends on the existence of meaningful, topic specific vocabulary and concept maps to work well, a complexity in narrower markets.
Finally, we have seen the recent shift of companies like FAST moving from a strategy of selling solutions directly to enterprises for the purpose of aggregating content through a unified search portal to focusing on niche markets and highly tailored search architectures.
These are just three cases of a shift among search companies to leverage their search technology IP in more lucrative offerings. The losers will be organizations that really do need to deliver content more holistically to workers through a single search engine. Yes, security is a concern, and skilled search technologists must be hired and dedicated to delivering search options that tie directly to business operations.These efforts are not one-off projects but need to be sustained as permanent infrastructure. If you are in a position to influence search procurement solutions make your case for the most suitable software that will really help deliver the best retrieval option company-wide. Be realistic about funding and staffing; then go for it. If Enterprise Search is what you need, make sure that is what you get and deploy.
I received an unsolicited email from jetBlue yesterday, one of many that I routinely receive from various travel providers. This one was different. I was not one of the thousands stranded by them last week and I have only traveled on jetBlue for one trip. They could have omitted this mea culpa letter to me in hopes that I had not already noticed all the media hype around their operational breakdowns and plans to recover from a faulty infrastructure. However, by calling attention to their lapses in such public ways this week, they have insured that I will include them in future travel planning.
Years ago as the President of a software company, I received a truly disturbing email lashing from a client sent after 6 PM on a Friday. The accusations about my company’s service were vitriolic and uncharacteristic of client reactions. I stayed at the office late gathering all the information I could find from the customer support database to learn what might have precipitated the outburst because I wanted to send a thoughtful, accurate and timely response. Without attacking the client I sent a chronology of inquiries and responses with a copy of a remedy sent to them weeks earlier. Then I went home with hopes that Monday would bring a more constructive dialog between the client and my company. The issues were amicably resolved, the client remained a good client, gave us high marks in referrals, and the matter was never mentioned again.
Unfortunately, personalization of client vendor relationships is missing in too many business relationships. A great amount of marketing copy appears describing how software tools and search interfaces support “personalization.” We know that SaS (software as service) or ASP (application service provider) models have come into their own. We also see the major search software vendors posting record growth and grand projections for even more. What this all adds up to is the convergence of a perfect storm of client disappointment as we experience a total disconnect between what vendors mean by “personalization” and “service,” and what customers want. Customers want software that is intuitively simple to personalize, and service that places the responsibility for software problems squarely with the vendor.
Based on my recent experiences with vendors, I see huge industry problems ahead. These are being exposed at all levels: discussions with sales representatives, exchanges with search company executives, deployment of software issues, documentation and training quality, and exchanges with customer support personnel.
Here is my list of vendor weaknesses:
> Lack of understanding by company representative how their software works
> Failure to really understand prospect needs, environments, and requirements
> Poorly written documentation and training giving no context for how the software might be deployed
> Technically sophisticated features delivered with no coherent path to deployment
> Inability to communicate honestly with clients
> Lack of clarity on what industry standards and terminology mean to clients
> Failure to use their own products by all employees in vendor organizations
> Inattention to building quality support infrastructures to service clients
I am not calling for a “customer bill of rights” for the enterprise search software industry. Instead, I am calling for you who procure software to take control of your own experience by doing a lot more than looking under the hood for technical specifications, features and functionality.
You need to:
> Look inside the vendor’s organization to see what kind of personnel it has, what the turnover is, how many people are supporting service functions compared to developers, etc.
> Listen to what you are being told; do serious validating research, on your own, to discover customers using the software. Talk to as many as you find; look at blogs and chat rooms to discover where the pain points and good experiences lie.
> Read documentation to understand how much time, effort, and expertise the deployment and maintenance will really require.
> Test drive products with your own data.
Every search company can’t grow 100% year-over-year for years on end. You will be suffering mightily for a long time if you make a big investment in one of those who ignore the customer experience. There is also a good chance they’ll be sold off to the lowest bidder once they realize their inability to service their clients and remain profitable. Take your destiny in your own hands; take enterprise search on in slow and measured increments so you will know what you are getting into.
No matter how small your organization or domain, you are going to need tools to find content sooner than you think. Starting with a small amount of content you should already be thinking about what its purpose is, why you would need to find it again and under what circumstances. Trying to retrofit a search strategy and structure to a mountain of disconnected content, is not only very difficult but it is costly. Waiting means that human intelligence, which could have been applied to organizing content well as the supply grew, must be applied later to get it under control. Adding meaningful context around old but valuable content is a very laborious intellectual process.
Growing an organization successfully means tending to not only the products you are creating and selling. It is also about creating an environment in which your growing work force is well supported with a knowledge framework that keeps them centered and confident that content they need to do their jobs can be found quickly, efficiently and accurately.
I am frequently asked by other consultants if I can give advice on how to organize personal files and records. This is hard to answer because my own methods fall short of where I want to be. But in any new project or venture, I try to get a good sense of how content needs to be organized. I do create metadata using a controlled list of terminology. I also have a couple of search tools that I leverage to produce readings for clients on a special topic, or to put my hands on a specific document, article or Web site. Early stage companies need to think about how to safeguard the results of their work and how it will be made accessible to workers on a reliable basis. There are inexpensive search tools that are great for managing small domains. Invest in tools, invest in someone to manage the tools, and plan to continue to invest in the resulting infrastructure of people and tools as the organization’s content and needs grow. Content management and search are overhead expenditures you must make early to prepare for growth and sustainability.
That reminds me, I keeping wondering how many enterprise search vendors use the technologies they build and sell to support their rapidly growing enterprises. That’s a great question to ask your potential search vendor as you decide what tools to procure for your enterprise. Get them to tell you how they use their tools and the benefits they see in their own enterprise. If they aren’t at least using their own search technology in their customer relationship management and technical support knowledge-base operations, think carefully about what that might mean concerning ease of deployment and utilization.
My silence last week had more to do with information overload than lack of interesting things to write about. Be forewarned, the floodgates of my brain are beginning to creak open. I just returned from Fast Search’s FastForward 07 conference in San Diego where their current and future visions for search technologies were front and center. While there seem to be no lack of innovations for how to make search engines smarter, faster, and more adaptable, the innovations being hyped at FastForward 07, and by others with only slightly less hyperbole, are notable. Search is becoming sexy and not just for the amount of money that Google and second-ranked Fast are raking in. In this arena search is the new business frontier, the marketplace-enabler, the marketplace-maker.
Consider this, search technologies have been business necessities for 35 years. For the first 30, search was strictly a support feature to many other kinds of finding mechanisms. In the earliest days search was performed by specialists as a service to other operations in the organization. Attempts to market search technology options to line managers, analysts, attorneys and R&D staff were marginal in their success. This is because search was not used enough for these groups to acquire the skill required for it to be really valuable. Once Web search engines exposed everyone to the possibilities of search in a far simpler modality, the innovation light bulbs popped off.
Suddenly search for use within the enterprise has become search for the enterprise’s marketplace, a major business driver that will put an organization’s products, services, and assets squarely in front of the right buying audience. What this means for those poor souls who still need to find the stuff mounting valuelessly in inaccessible silos remains to be seen. I am excited by what I saw but concerned by what I am witnessing. It is great that I may be able to find that weird audio adapter on the Web to let me connect to the sound system in the skating rink. But it is really awful when an engineering firm can’t put it’s hands on the schematic that shows how a circuit board was modified and delivered three years ago to a top customer.