Search, Well-Done

Over the past few years I’ve discovered that I enjoy cooking. The reason I’d not learned this earlier was not so much that I would or could not cook, but rather because my wife is so good at it. However, Cynthia provides first-aid support for a soccer club on alternate Saturdays, so I decided to try my hand at a few recipes rather than buy a ready meal at Marks & Spencer. As I started my working life as a chemist, I became rather interested in the science of cooking, which has enabled me to tweak recipes to come up with things that really hit the spot for both of us. I’ve managed never to use the same recipe twice, and that challenge alone has been very stimulating.

Search appliances can be rather like a ready meal. They are almost instantly available; all you have to do is slot them into a server rack the way you would a meal on to a tray in the oven. The meal can be quite satisfying if all you need is “food,” but you learn little from the experience. The hard work has been done by developers and scientists, and while you may marvel at their skills, you certainly don’t learn how to “cook.”

If I have a concern about the Google Search Appliance and its ilk, it is not so much about the way it works but that it makes search so easy. Just plug in a box and voila, your enterprise is search-enabled. The problem is that no one concerns themselves with more than the license required.

Search is difficult, and the solution is not just a lot of technology. Effective search requires effective information management. The term “information management” has grown in popularity, as businesses have begun to recognize that they really should be managing information as a primary asset. I have a fairly basic view of what information management is all about, starting with: “Can I find all the information I need to make a decision?” That is largely about search, but notice I have included the words “all” and “information” in the definition. This is not about finding documents but about information, and sometimes a few relevant references are not enough.

The next question is: “Can I trust the quality of the information I have found?” This has nothing at all to do with search but a great deal to do with content/information management governance. When I start up a project for a client, I am always interested in the metadata on the documents the client gives me. Sometimes the documents are not dated and there is no author, just a department. Individual pages have no header or footer, so if they are printed out and circulated there is no way of identifying the original document. The title of the document can often be unintelligible, especially if it is a PowerPoint file. There has to be a set of procedures in place so that documents have the basic metadata needed to provide an appropriate level of confidence in the information contained in the document, and the same goes for a database or any other file type. One of the issues here is setting out standards of stewardship for information. “Once written, best forgotten” is just not good enough. Even if you have moved on in the organization, does your successor ensure that documents you wrote are updated as appropriate?

The searcher then sits down and, using the information retrieved, prepares another document. Then comes the third question: “Where should I publish this document so that it can be of the greatest value to the organization?” With the increasing use of eRoom, SharePoint, and other collaborative applications, publishing a document to any one specific server may not be the best solution. The author may not know whether or not the server is, in fact, being indexed by one of the multiple search applications that can be found (eventually) in most organizations.

At the most basic level, an information management strategy should be able to be written down on three file cards and given to a new member of the staff. One card provides guidance on search, the second on how to evaluate the quality of information, and the third on where to publish. This all seems so simple. Yet getting to that level of simplicity and clarity takes a great deal of effort and vision. The major problem is deciding who in the organization is going to be responsible for developing and implementing the strategy. Do you know who your information strategist is?