COMPUTER BUSINESS REVIEW

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Issue Date: June 2007

Many systems, one interface: the challenge of enterprise search

June 2007

Enterprise search today is not just an application but a major computing platform. It can increase productivity and reduce information overload by providing employees, partners and customers with the ability to find relevant content in a wide range of repositories and formats. It enables users to go beyond documents and across repositories to unlock information, find people, and locate expertise in the organisation. Yet, says Carel du Toit, operations and technology director at Mint, enterprise search represents a number of challenges for companies.

Why is enterprise search such a difficult and complex concept? Most of us think of 'search' as simply logging onto Google. But Google ranks pages according to user popularity, and you are talking about hundreds of thousands of users all contributing to the ranking through enthusiastic cross-linking. In the corporate space, however, the number of users is greatly reduced, and people just are not that excited about enterprise content. As a result, they tend to search on words in text documents. Add to that the many different types of files that exist, as well as the number of departments and business units that have to be searched and the problems are exacerbated.
Let us take a closer look at the three most significant challenges facing enterprise search customers.
1. Enterprise needs and IT
Companies need a search solution that is built for the enterprise: a solution that is tuned for enterprise content and provides relevant results; respects security and privacy models by only showing content the user may access; and is scalable, manageable and extensible.
The fact is that many companies use search solutions that are not tuned for this level of content because they lack the appropriate search algorithms to deal with unlinked documents and records in the multiple, disconnected, structured and unstructured repositories commonly found inside companies. Without a search solution truly built for the enterprise, customers face the prospect of less than ideal search results and they continue to struggle to increase productivity related to search.
Companies are also struggling to balance access with security. While search is all about providing easy access to information, making sure security and privacy are maintained is vital. The increasing need to implement and adhere to privacy policies and compliance regulations, and to protect intellectual property, means enterprise search must not only unlock business data, but also restrict users from seeing results and content to which they do not have access.
A company’s enterprise search solution must also be able to meet changing scenarios such as increases in the amount of data, and rising operational and administrative costs, along with new content repositories, file types, and systems. This requires a search solution that is scalable, manageable and extensible.
 
2. Vast amounts of data and untapped expertise
A by-product of the large amount of data in an organisation is a large number of repositories. Locating content within these repositories is critical for users to complete tasks. For instance, a user may want to search for a customer’s contact information, outstanding orders, and the amount of inventory on hand to fulfil those orders. This data is often locked in multiple silos and typically requires multiple searches in multiple systems, making it the user’s job to pull the various results together. Additionally, users need to access information from their desktop PCs, e-mail, file share, and public websites. Providing the right technology to solve these issues is proving to be a great challenge for customers.
But that is just looking at the data aspect of search. One of the biggest challenges for any organisation is how to take advantage of the wealth of information and expertise that people accumulate in the course of their work but never write down. According to some estimates, as much as 80% of the knowledge that exists within an organisation is considered to be 'tacit knowledge' – information that is undocumented and therefore difficult to access. People leverage tacit knowledge by tapping into their social networks to discover who can help them.
And while finding people is often just as important as finding data or information, the ability to locate subject matter experts, find a relevant contact, or quickly find and communicate the right person is something that many organisations do not have a solution for.
 
3. The user experience
Users have to search for information in a variety of places using a variety of applications (each with their own search engine and user interface). Often this means the user must log into various systems with different user names and passwords, search for a segment of the information they are looking for, and piece together multiple result sets from these various searches to complete a task.
Say, for example, a user needs to find an e-mail from a customer requesting product information. To provide the best response, the user needs to locate related documents, find the customer’s order history, notify the customer’s account manager so that they can follow up at a later date, and search the inventory system to ensure the product is available. For many companies this would involve more than five separate searches in up to five different systems.
In addition, many of these systems return results that are not actionable – a query for a customer’s e-mail address in a line-of-business system, for example, provides the address, but not the ability to click on it to send an e-mail, add it to Outlook, or perform other similar tasks. The user must write down or copy and paste the address into their e-mail application in order to use the information they find.
The challenge here is to provide an interface that gives users amalgamated, actionable results from multiple systems, thereby increasing overall productivity.
For more information contact Carel du Toit, Mint, +27 (0)11 700 4560, carel.dutoit@mint.co.za


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