I went into this month’s article research cycle expecting doom and gloom reports from the edge of the economic cliff. After all, when companies are laying off thousands upon thousands, and financial institutions are circling the drain so fast they need us poor folk to bail them out, I imagined it would be hard to justify an investment in search software. I was wrong.
"We had our best month ever, this past January," announces Dr. Johannes (Jan) Scholtes, president and CEO of ZyLAB. "The financial crisis has been good for search!" (Cue sound effect here: that cartoon sound when the coyote gets hit in the head with a frying pan.)
There’s an explanation for his statement, and there’s plenty of caveat to go around. "Granted, the business for generalized search, portal search or search attached as part of another back-office system IS very much slowing down," Jan confesses. "But we’re getting a tremendous amount of business from people who are either being investigated by the regulators or being sued by their stockholders. In Europe, there’s already a lot of new legislation as a result of the credit crisis. So the companies who are being sued now expect that they will be sued again! And they’re cleaning up their records and preparing them for search," says Jan.
Well, I guess we’ll take a silver lining to a dark cloud wherever we can find it. There appears to be, in fact, quite a positive outlook for certain segments of what we’re temporarily calling the "enterprise search market" (more on that later). For example, Rebecca Thompson, VP of marketing for Vivisimo, can name a couple of somewhat surprising bright spots. "The federal government is like a kid on Christmas morning!" she claims. "They expect there will be a huge emphasis on information access in the new administration, and there’s going to be plenty of funding to go around. Until recently, all the spending was focused on intel and DoD-related projects. The expectation is that not only will that work continue, but there will also be more focus on the civilian agencies. President Obama has been talking about having a much more transparent government. In order to be transparent, you have to know what you have and make it findable by the public," she says. "Also among the pharmaceutical and life science markets, the need for information access is as strong as ever." (The entertainment business is also a biggie, these two say, which surprises me a little. But I guess it makes sense; when times are bad, the arts tend to flourish.)
But they are just as quick to point out that certain market segments aren’t faring quite as well. "If you’re being sued by a regulator, you can’t postpone it. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have budget... you have to pay the bill. Either you pay it via extensive legal fees, or you see what you can bring in-house to control the costs," says Jan. "But in other areas, such as automotive, construction, transportation... all their information management projects are frozen. Not entirely abandoned, but just... stopped."
Charles Kaplan, VP marketing and product management for Brainware, adds that the impetus for continued investment in search technology has very little to do with search. "Companies are funding solutions to business problems... not buying ‘search’," says Charlie. "And when it’s a business problem that has a measurable impact on the organization, the software we sell is very relevant, because companies are being required to do more with less. In the transactional portions of an organization, companies are actually forced to automate. They must take costs out at the operational level. So search is a means to an end... but not an end unto itself."
And naturally, in these times, it’s easy to assume that the "end" that Charlie refers to is the application of search into a business process that can show a clearly defined, demonstrable value in exchange for its cost... in other words, an ROI. But oddly enough, there is evidence that search still has credibility as a knowledge tool. Nitin Mangtani, lead product manager for Google Enterprise: "A CIO I was just talking with said that ‘search is THE knowledge management application.’ Search is the unifying application. Whether your content is in SharePoint or FileNet or Interwoven, or in business application databases, search is the central tool that gives users unified access to all information. ROI is definitely important, but we’re almost to the point where ‘ROI’ stands for ‘return on information,’" insists Nitin.
It’s a simple matter of retrieving the costs you’ve already sunk into your investment, according to Nitin. "When you spend such a huge amount on the three parameters—time, effort and money—creating content, the only way to get return on those costs is to use search that goes across all the content in those systems to get that content to the person who needs it. If the efficiency is there (easy to install and use) and the cost is low to deploy the search system (or appliance in Nitin’s case), enterprises can quickly realize that search is helping them be more productive, and the return on their information investment is easy to justify. If you can’t find information, you’re very likely to re-author that information... re-inventing the wheel. And that’s not productive," he says.
The Larger Context for Search
Rebecca Thompson agrees: "Our customers start with search as their criteria. They want to find things. But they often want other things as well... collaboration, expertise location... but the core is search. By the time they talk to an enterprise search vendor like us, they’ve already made the connection that ‘search’ is at the center of whatever their need is. Take sentiment analysis, for an example. Sure, their business need is to know what’s out on the blogs, primarily. But they definitely understand that search is the key technology for doing that. They’ve made the connection... otherwise, we wouldn’t be having a conversation!" Rebecca continues, "It’s true there are certain things happening in the banking sector, for example, that’s driven by regulatory pressure. But for your normal enterprise, it is looking at all the information being created by the applications it has already bought, and is trying to think of ways to get that information to the knowledge workers."
Naturally, it’s a matter of defining the terms, and it can come down to a rather silly conversation about semantics. "Customers don’t say they need ‘search’," insists Charlie Kaplan. "Instead, they recognize that they have a compelling event that’s about to take place in their business. A company about to enter a tax audit might have multiple thousands of documents in a warehouse, and they need to produce a few thousand. And it’s worth thousands of dollars. They don’t say, ‘Hey, we need a search engine.’ But if you can demonstrate that you can solve that business problem, then they’re willing to make the investment."
I point out that the analyst firms have retreated from the term "enterprise search" in favor of a broader definition: "information access." Everyone agrees that the terminology itself is unimportant, but the reasoning behind it makes a lot of sense. Rebecca puts it succinctly: "Search is what people do; information access is what people get out of it."
"The term search implies that you can find and see anything," says Jan. "At least the term information access implies that there are security measures in place, or there’s records management... something going on beyond just search. There are also other related applications, such as text analytics and data visualization, that the analysts cover, so they’ve opened a wider umbrella," Jan explains. "Also, for a lot of people the term search implies that it’s free... and of course, a lot of stuff is not free." Nitin adds, "There’s a big difference between public Web search and enterprise search. There are lots of things that are completely unique to intranet and behind-the-firewall search such as security, connectors to various content management systems or even relevance... we understand the dynamics inside the enterprise are different."