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The Path to Universal Search

This article is part of the Best Practices White Paper Enterprise Search [May 2008]
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Historically, most companies that had deployed "enterprise search" technologies had used them largely for departmental uses. For instance, search within a call center environment, or search for the marketing department or the engineering department. While departmental search alleviated some of the end-users’ frustrations, it never delivered on the true vision of providing a one-stop, secure search. Increasingly, leading companies are gravitating toward true search across the enterprise, or universal search. These companies are realizing that with universal search, they can move rapidly and claim a winning position in this competitive marketplace.

Departmental Search: Not a Long-Term Answer
The reasons for search being limited to departmental uses are many. First, companies still operate largely in a siloed manner. For instance, the sales group might want its own portal or its own repository, so that salespeople can share RFPs, presentations, marketing collateral and other documents. In most cases, while this information would be useful to the rest of the company, the sales repository ends up being a closed system. The result? According to research from the Delphi Group, 91% of enterprise end-users search two to three repositories or more, with a full 29% searching more than four repositories—and still don’t find what they’re looking for. In the consumer world, that might equate to searching four different search engines—and still be unsatisfied.

Reinforcing this point is the fact that enterprise search had never been at the forefront of senior IT executives’ minds. So when a department’s end-users were seeking a solution to find and share documents, it was much easier for that department to just get a solution rather than go through the central IT department.

A second reason for shying away from true enterprise search might have been fear—fear that by opening up the enterprise search engine to all the repositories in the enterprise, a particular department’s vital information would get buried among volumes of irrelevant content. Salespeople don’t want results from the legal department when searching for a sales presentation. While this fear seems irrational—the relevancy in the enterprise search engine should ensure that only the appropriate results are served—there might be some history to this fear. After years of using search engines that in fact have poor relevancy, where the actual sales presentation might be buried on the third page of results, who can blame the decision to limit the search to a departmental one?

Migrating to Universal Search
Recently, there has been a trend among leading companies to adopt true search across the entire enterprise, or universal search. The idea behind universal search is that all content in the enterprise—including that in intranets, file shares, databases, content management systems and business applications—can be accessed through a single search box. Senior executives within these companies understand that common access to data is the first step to breaking down silos. Further, they understand that true enterprise search offers far more than just increased productivity for their employees. Specific benefits include:

  • 360° view of the customer. Many companies have numerous touch points with the same customer. For instance, in a consumer bank, the teller might deal with routine transactions, while the loan officer accepts a mortgage application and the fraud manager deals with a stolen credit card—all from the same customer. In such an environment, having powerful search technology can quickly help the bank managers access the customers’ data from multiple systems instantly.
  • Enhanced customer satisfaction. Contact center agents might have search functionality across a limited knowledgebase, but could gain immensely from access to engineering and product information. With such access, they can respond to customer queries faster and increase first call resolution. Small achievements like this go a long way to increasing customer satisfaction.
  • Increased pace of innovation. Engineers in fast-moving tech companies constantly strive to leverage each others’ work within the company to get products to market faster. Similarly, pharmaceutical scientists strive to save millions of dollars by cutting down the drug development time-to-market. In either case, search is a proven mechanism whereby companies can leverage their intellectual capital.
  • Enhanced decision making. For managers and executives across all industries, being able to instantly access all of the business intelligence and other systems in an enterprise means having the right information at the right time to make the right decisions.

Further, from a technology standpoint, senior executives are starting to realize that universal search is the missing link that truly generates their content management ROI. Content management systems are very good at providing a central repository for content, but after uploading hundreds of thousands of documents, users simply cannot find the right document. Most of the built-in search engines in these ECM systems are limited to their repository, and even then, have poor relevancy. Senior executives have understood this problem—and have been looking toward universal search as the answer.

A Step-by-Step Guide
Convinced that universal search is the way to go? Here is a step-by-step guide that will help you make the critical transition from departmental search to universal search.

1. Determine user needs. As with any project, you should start by understanding what your users are actually trying to do. For instance, it’s not sufficient to know that your sales reps need search capabilities to the sales portal; you want to get an idea what they look for. Do they need to access to product documentation? Contractual info? Do they need access from their mobile phones or PDAs because they are always on the go? While you certainly don’t need to go through formal use-case definitions for all scenarios, it helps to informally make some calls and get a sense of what your users might need. Here, you also might consider a quick user survey; in addition to user needs, you can solicit their input on which vendors’ products they’d be interested in trying out.

2. Evaluate vendors. Based on the rough requirements generated, you can eliminate a certain number of vendors. For the remaining vendors, there are five criteria that you should be specifically looking for:

  • Usability—Does the search platform offer extreme ease of use? For instance, is typing in a query intuitive, or does it require extensive guidelines? Does the platform offer user-friendly features such as a spellchecker or "Did you mean ...?" Are the results displayed in an easy-to-comprehend manner to swiftly scan through them? Ultimately, search is a wasted investment unless your end-users actually use it, so usability becomes the most important criteria.
  • Relevancy—While usability initially draws users to search, relevancy is what keeps them using it. Users immediately know if they get their results within the first three listings or if they have to go to the third page of listings.
  • Comprehensiveness—Can the search platform search all of your content in the enterprise? It most likely searches files in your intranets and file shares, but can it search information in content management systems, such as Documentum or FileNet? Can it search structured content in databases and business applications? In the case of certain business applications, conducting real time queries is important; for instance, if your CEO is doing a search for "sales east coast," she might be looking for a chart showing the latest sales numbers in the Eastern region. In that instance, a real-time query into your business intelligence system is what’s needed.
  • Security—It is critical to verify that the search platform has two levels of security. At a base level, does it work with all of your single sign-on mechanisms to properly authenticate a user before showing search results? Additionally, does it have document level security—to enable certain documents be accessed by only specified people?
  • Ease of administration—Finally, to what extent will you need a team of administrators to maintain the system? A search platform should work out of the box, requiring minimal ongoing maintenance. If a particular vendor’s platform requires multiple people to maintain it and ensure relevant results, then it will most certainly lose its freshness over time. Further, if it requires an army of external consultants to integrate it with all of your systems, then the costs will multiply and you may never see a positive ROI. Rather, a platform that’s architected to easily connect to any new systems ensures that it can grow with your organization without much effort.

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