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Searching for the Desktop

With the advent of powerful search engines that can return insightful results culled from millions of sites all over the Internet in a matter of seconds, the difficulty of finding similar documents in an enterprise became starkly apparent. Users began asking: "Why is it easier to find information on the Internet than within my company?"

Enterprise search -- the ability to find company information anywhere in an organization, whether on an individual's hard drive or on a server in another department -- is a critical tool that can cut support costs and increase productivity, says Susan Feldman, research vice president at International Data Corp. The lack of a comprehensive search tool, however, can cost corporations millions of dollars.

"The time information workers spend searching but not finding what they seek costs even a modestly sized enterprise of 1,000 knowledge workers $6 million per year in unproductive time, and even more as those workers recreate the information that exists but cannot be found," Feldman says.

Providing effective search tools can be a difficult task. At Air Products and Chemicals, Inc. in Allentown, Pa., the IT department sought to give its 20,000 users access to corporate information, such as human resources documents and training materials, through a search interface that scoured documents on the company intranet. Search results were dismal. Searches failed 65 percent of the time, according to Mary Moulton, taxonomy specialist at Air Products. Why? "One of the main reasons was the content they needed to access from search was not available," Moulton says.

Air Products' problem underscores the difficulties of enterprise search. Company knowledge was stored inconsistently and in numerous unconnected systems. Indeed, search capability often exists in many different forms: each application may have its own way of searching, as well as its own interface. Operating systems also provide additional unique search capabilities. To be effective, enterprise search should provide a single interface and way of searching for information across applications and servers, IDC's Feldman says. The best tools will provide intelligent, secure access to the right data.

To provide effective search tools, CIOs should first identify the content that will be available to search, as well as the stakeholders who will be searching; plan how the tools should be used; prepare documents to be searched; and set policies that will ensure the success of the venture.

Identify the content and audience

Before examining different technological approaches to search, it's important to identify what content will be searchable, and who will have access to it. "Start looking for a search engine or platform by analyzing what you want it to do and whom you want it to serve," Feldman says.

  • Choosing the content Adding a search tool that scans and indexes every single document on a corporate network is not the right approach. CIOs must audit the data that exists in the company and determine appropriate information for appropriate users. Search programs can dig up information that users or the company might not want to give others access to, such as confidential memos or email messages. CIOs should also decide whether the search tool will comb text documents only, or whether it will also search for drawings, photos, audio files, and video.
  • Identifying the audience To deliver the right search results, CIOs should determine who will be using the search tool. If the information to be searched will be available to employees, via the company intranet, the tool will have different requirements than if it is to be searched by customers, via the Internet.

Plan the enterprise search tool

Before choosing an enterprise search tool, CIOs should get input from different types of users and perform usability testing.

  • Create a task force In order to understand the needs of different types of users, it's helpful to create a task force with members from different departments who will be using the tool as well as developing the tool. These stakeholders can help elucidate the information needs of their respective groups.
  • Invest in usability testing After its initial debacle with desktop search, Air Products has begun rolling out a new version of its search tool that it believes will be much more successful because it studied what didn't work the first time. "Learn what searchers are looking for and how they approach the information retrieval task," says Laura Ramos, an analyst with Forrester Research.

Prepare the documents for search

Internet search engines comb through the entire text of documents. However, searching on text only often produces too many results. Wise CIOs will devise a content strategy that classifies documents so that they can be searched more intelligently. "Search is not enough," Moulton says. "Individuals and different groups of people need to take on the responsibility of managing their own content."

One crucial way to prepare documents for search is to create a taxonomy. A taxonomy is a way of classifying and organizing documents. CIOs need to identify information wisely. Before making documents available to search, they should be classified and described. This means tagging files with information about the document, such as the author, title, and subject. Moulton suggests using Extensible Markup Language (XML) rather than a proprietary type of metadata that is tied to a particular product.

"If you decide to license a tool, and the tool changes, you no longer have access to your metadata," Moulton says. XML is useful because of its vendor-neutral standard way of tagging files to identify them.

Set policies to enable intelligent search

Enabling intelligent enterprise search is an ongoing process. Employees must be educated on how to identify their documents so that they can be discovered. In addition, measuring the success or failure of the search tool is an invaluable way to prove its efficacy, as well as to make improvements.

  • Educate employees On the Internet, people who publish Web pages learn the intricacies of the system, devising ways to make their pages rise to the top of the list of search results. "This is the number one difference between Internet search and enterprise search," Moulton says. Within corporations, this rarely happens. "People put together a memo, or a presentation for a meeting, but they don't think about what happens afterward," Moulton says. By properly tagging documents, search results will be improved. Once employees learn how to tag their documents, search results will improve.
  • Measure results "You have to have metrics," Moulton says. "We wouldn't have gotten as far as we did in terms of improving the search application if we were not able to demonstrate the value of it." Moulton compiles quarterly reports showing the use of search and how people are clicking through to content. CIOs should also encourage usability testing, because by studying how people use the search tool, CIOs can learn how it can be improved.

Security is also an important issue when making data available. CIOs must ensure that confidential data can't be accessed by certain employees or customers. And search technology has come under fire for lack of security; however, search technology builds on an enterprise's existing security measures. Search tools don't introduce security holes, according to Bruce Schneier, founder and CTO of Counterpane Internet Security Inc. Rather, they do what they're supposed to do: find information.

"They tell you about vulnerabilities you already have," Schneir told CIOInsight. "All they're doing is searching, which is exactly what they're supposed to do."

Jodi Mardesich writes about business and is a former staff writer for Fortune, and is a regular contributor to CIO Strategy Center.

Copyright (c) 2010 Studio One Networks. All rights reserved.


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