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March 04, 2009

Searching for Strategy

Lynda Moulton of The Gilbane Group in a recent blog poses some excellent questions that every team, committee or RFP writer should consider before entering into the process of choosing a search technology. I will share some thoughts on why these problems exist along with some of the things we have seen in the space that contribute to the current state of these problems.

Search is purchased more often like a piece of software than it is purchased as a strategic means to an end. Questions like does it stem or perform lemmatization, can it highlight terms or can it perform natural language processing appear as if the very presence of the feature instantly solves a problem. By the time RFPs are formed the hard questions that might actually assist in selecting the most appropriate technology have been lost in vendor hype and turned into a feature war.

When the strategic end is lost, darkness falls and the wolves start to stray out of the forest. Suddenly features that the vendor's marketing department dreamed up in an attempt to distance them from the competition are starting to drive the decision. When everything begins to look the same you will at least be no worse or better off than your competition if you choose what they did. How was I to know the system with the most bells and whistles could not solve the problem? Everybody was choosing it! Nobody got fired for choosing IBM syndrome sets in.

This lack of strategy flows from a deep disconnect within firms. A majority of firms can recite to you that their most valuable assets are their people. Somehow they fail to connect the relationship between their most valuable asset and the information their most valuable assets produce. Good people make both good decisions and good knowledge. These little nuggets of information are stored across the enterprise in every imaginable form.

It is easy to see that an employee needs a computer and so many computers need a given number of servers to support them. Budgeting for search however has many unique considerations and is often an afterthought. We find many corporations do not have any planned set aside for search let alone continued search improvements on a year to year basis.

We also routinely see firms spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on search technology without a penny spent on any research into the unique nature of their company’s information and workflow. It is assumed that the unique knowledge workers that power their firm’s competitive advantage somehow produce and consume information like everybody else.

Until search takes its proper place as a strategic information systems decision rather than a simple infrastructure afterthought we will continue to see firms inefficiently leveraging search.


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Almost a year ago, I wrote a post entitled "Can Search be a Utility?" Sadly, the thinking it was meant to address still persists today.


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