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How to solve problems created by fragmented and distributed content

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The fragmentation of content and knowledge poses a challenge to ongoing workplace productivity. An Igloo Software study found that 51% of employees avoid sharing documents because they can't find them or it would take too long to do so. This statistic demonstrates the importance of two necessary elements for successful workplace collaboration: convenience and accessibility. This might be exacerbated by the isolation of remote work arrangements, but still exists in centralized work environments as well. With the ongoing popularization of microservice apps to power productivity, the only answer is better unified search capability—sometimes known as federated or enterprise search.

 Content fragmentation occurs when internal knowledge, documentation or files become distributed among multiple silos. Put more concretely, these silos are established by the utilization of SaaS products that, in most cases, exist disparately from other parts of the employee productivity stack. Since even the stalwarts of industry have capitulated and embraced cloud-based apps as the future of productivity software, this newly created convenience has many advantages, but it’s biggest drawback is the fragmentation that it perpetuates.

How does knowledge get fragmented?

Blissfully reports that the average employee uses 8 SaaS apps for their daily work. They further found that the average company uses 137 apps org-wide to power all of the inner workings of a company’s operations. Most of these never get used org-wide, and many might only be used by one or two individuals. Consider some of the favorites for each department:

  • Org-wide: G-suite, Zoom, Slack, Office 365
  • Engineering: Github, Jira, Confluence
  • Marketing: Mailchimp, Semrush, Canva
  • Sales: Salesforce, Hubspot, Pipedrive
  • Customer Support: Atlassian Suite, Zendesk, Intercom
  • DevOps: Pagerduty, Sentry, Datadog
  • Product: Typeform, Adobe Creative Cloud, Sketch
  • HR: LinkedIn, Gusto, BambooHR
  • Finance: Bill.com, Quickbooks, Expensify

It’s interesting to note that there is little to no overlap with the exception of some parts of the Atlassian Suite of tools, and this is just a small part of the list of tools required. You might be thinking that there’s got to be an opportunity for consolidation or redundancy here, but a solution that involves elimination isn’t so easy. It’s entirely possible for some departments to choose different tools for the same job. Take for example, the humble wiki. Technical teams tend to prefer Confluence, but Customer Support may store knowledge in Zendesk, while HR might just store documentation in Google Drive. Each department has varying needs that might be addressed better by one product or another, but the one thing that remains certain is that all of these various silos create confusion as to where knowledge, documents or content resides. This is the crux of the fragmentation problem that we all observe in the modern workplace. 

How bad is the fragmentation problem?

Fragmentation causes such a prolific problem that McKinsey quantified it as a waste of up to 20% of an employee’s week— that’s an entire workday per week spent simply looking for the information required to do one’s job. The situation is dire, but what we do know is that if we're to overcome the problem of fragmentation, higher levels of convenience and accessibility will be key. Let’s examine the two components of successful collaboration mentioned earlier—convenience and accessibility.

Convenience

Without attention to user experience that drives smooth workflows, employees will default to counter-productive behavior. They might ignore the support issue, defer resolution or delegate to another employee (sometimes more junior or senior), which ultimately creates additional work for team members. An example of a lack of convenience is in a typical customer support workflow. An agent might receive a query through Intercom or Zendesk chat such as “how to promote a user to admin on their account." The agent might quickly check Zendesk Guide for the instructions to copy/paste into a response. This is the type of issue that should be accurately documented in one of many knowledge base solutions, but if it isn’t where the agent first checks, the typical reaction is to ask another agent where the copy/paste script for this support issue is. This takes the other agent away from their existing workflow into a different one and reduces their productivity. This has a compounding effect of increasing customer issue time-to-resolution for both agents.

Accessibility

Getting access to content or knowledge can be a painful experience with a content fragmentation problem. Checking multiple silos can be an exercise in guesswork and frustration. Support seekers trying to triangulate the right location with educated guesses and finding the file or content with multiple queries, might not persist after one or two guesses. It’s a lot like Google searches—if your answer is not in the top 3 results, you may give up—ignoring the second and third page of results. You might try and refine your query a couple of times, but it's not likely that someone will try and look too deep into the millions of possible results without moving on to just asking a friend for help.

What about eliminating silos with service consolidation?

You might be thinking that if a company has hundreds of SaaS apps in use org-wide, that there must be an opportunity to consolidate or eliminate. For example, there are a few products that claim to do more than just a single function, like combining wiki, project management, email, to-do and more, all in a single SaaS tool. For a modest price, companies that offer these products aim to offer users everything that they will need to be productive, which would have the benefit of consolidating silos. The problem with the “Swiss Army knife” approach is that these solutions rarely do everything well and more dedicated microservice apps actually perform and scale better.

So if consolidation is challenging, then the logical solution to explore is better search. As mentioned above, searching silos one-by-one is a painful exercise. The answer to this problem is a tool that searches all of your existing silos at the same time. Tools that employ federated search technology achieve this goal.

What is federated search?

Sometimes known as enterprise search, federated search is a term that is used to describe search tools that retrieve information from multiple sources rather than just one silo. In the knowledge management world, there are two main ways to deliver a single source of truth for internal support. The first is consolidation into a single repository, which we addressed as being challenging given the increasing trend in use of SaaS microservices. The second is far less disruptive, and that is to replace a single silo or repository with better search tools. That search tool becomes your single source of truth.

The reason federated search tools are a strong candidate for solving the fragmentation problem is twofold: low switching costs and workflow. Let’s examine each advantage.

Low switching costs

When your single source of truth is a federated search tool, your silo switching costs are extremely low. You can have as many silos as is necessary to suit each individual business unit’s use-case and not disrupt or compromise the end user’s requirements. You can also switch silos as necessary as business needs evolve or as an existing service fails to scale. As long as the search tool is compatible with the new repository, there is very little disruption to the support function.

Workflow

When you rely on search as your single source of truth, it’s much easier to inject a search tool than a silo into common workflows to maximize adoption and increase the chances of success. Consider the example of a place where knowledge and content are commonly shared in the workplace—internal messaging clients like Slack and MS Teams. So many questions are asked and answers are given in these platforms, and because tools like these are extensible, it becomes much easier to merge a search-based workflow directly where a question would be asked instead. This keeps support seekers on the same path to task-completion and increases overall productivity. By eliminating multiple silo searches, federated searches accelerate issues involving support so that escalation is only required when the user is satisfied that they queried the single source of truth.

Solving a content fragmentation problem requires reframing the issue to examine what the optimal single-source of truth is. When companies continually expand the number of silos in their toolset, the preferred solution is not consolidation, but a better search tool that utilizes federated search technology.

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