While attendees are far ranging in origins, interests, and expertise, Luddites were not well represented at the Enterprise Search Summit. In fact, it seemed as if every other attendee is a card-carrying technophile, clutching the latest gizmo or gadget (or several at once) and deftly splitting their attention between the real world and whatever digital goings-on are otherwise occupying their minds. So it might come as a surprise that multiple speakers at this year's Enterprise Search Summit, held November 16-18 in Washington, D.C., expressed the opinion that effective search is not a challenge that can be met by technology alone.
The first speaker to raise the issue was Daniel Rasmus, consultant and author of Management by Design. In his Tuesday morning talk about The Evolution of Search, Rasmus suggested to a packed hall of attendees that "my search engine's just not that into me" - that search improvements tend to focus on either superficial improvements such as user interface or things that benefit the search engine's creators in some way, rather than efforts to actually improve a user's ability to locate and manage information.
Rasmus also pointed out that many corporations have an anti-search culture, where people at key points in the process may believe that knowledge sharing is someone else's job and few efforts are made to eliminate redundancy when multiple people are conducting similar searches. Rasmus's solution, at least for the former issue, is to encourage HR departments to include knowledge sharing in job descriptions from the get-go. Rasmus also pointed out that there are many examples of "social searching" already in the wild - specifically naming ChaCha, MetaFilter, Hunch, and Yahoo! Answers as examples - and that it is already technologically feasible to create an effective group searching tool.
Later that same day, another attendee questioned how far technology alone can go to improve search. In their talk on The New Complexity of Enterprise Search Evaluation, chief knowledge architect Tom Reamy of KAPS Group and SRA International taxonomy manager Bill McKinney delved into the tricky and sometimes bewildering process of selecting the correct enterprise search solution for your business. Here, it was Reamy who addressed the failings of relying on technology alone.
According to Reamy, enterprise content and search aren't living up to their potential, and the path to effective search requires more than just the latest technology; the best search engine available won't make up for a poor implementation or bad taxonomy. "It's all about meaning," said Reamy, "and meaning is very, very context dependent. The only way to deal with meaning is in your context." Following the session itself, the importance of maintaining an up-to-date taxonomy and periodically revisiting search rules were further highlighted by some insightful comments and questions from the audience.
Throughout the remaining two days of the conference, attendees highlighted some innovative uses of enterprise search. Steve Castor, PSCC Manager for the Erlanger, Ky. police department, described how strategies and technology developed for business intelligence applications are being used by law enforcement agencies. In the process of merging their respective communications operations, Castor's department and several surrounding police departments began looking for ways to improve upon their existing analysis procedures, which were done largely by hand. The departments wound up adopting a business intelligence system from Information Builders that could pull data from the departments' existing electronic databases, collect it in a single location, make it searchable, and even analyze the data.
According to Castor, the departments' officers can now perform faceted searches from the computers in their patrol cars, examine geographic trends in different types of crimes, and more easily share crime data with other shifts and even other departments. That means fewer crimes fall through the cracks, and officers can find connections between incidents that would otherwise go unnoticed.
A number of analysts and experts in attendance were also put through their paces during the conference. Wednesday's Stump the Search Consultant session saw three panelists - Intranet Focus's Martin White (also a regular columnist with EContent), New Idea Engineering's Miles Kehoe, and Consejo's Shawn Shell - fielding questions about problems ranging from coping with "unknown unknowns" and the future of enterprise taxonomy to how to deal with a million-item product database full bad metadata. The latter question saw the panel members getting particularly creative, with Kehoe suggesting that the questioner crowdsource the problem by asking users to tag items, and Shell proposing hiring inexpensive labor - library science students, ideally - to comb through the database manually.
This year's Enterprise Search Summit ultimately presented such a diverse array of speakers and panelists (despite its dearth of Luddites) that it would be impossible to cover every insight and enlightening viewpoint that cropped up over the course of its three-day run. What's clear is that, much like the act of searching itself, the search industry is taking its practitioners in some surprising, and surprisingly intriguing, directions. And in a world that's generating more and more information every hour of every day, it's a good thing that the pioneers and users of enterprise search seem to be keeping up the pace.
[The Enterprise Search Summit 2011 Call for Speakers is now up. The deadline is December 1, 2010.]