A Conversation with ...
Derek Murphy, CTO, Perceptive Search
An Enterprise Philosophy; A Logical Approach

Enterprise search has gotten beaten up lately. There was a short time—maybe a year or so—when "enterprise search" was the darling of the information management press (me included, admittedly) and the analysts. Search could solve everything. Search could save the world. Enterprise search—for a while—was as popular as puppies.

Then... something changed. Marketers fled from being labeled as "enterprise search." The Big Analysts switched their designations from "search" to things like "information access" and, worse, "findability." (Ugh. That's about as Sesame Street a term as I've ever heard spoken by a straight-faced software maker.)

So as you can tell, I never quite followed that trend, but I sort of understood it. To confirm my suspicions, I made it a point to seek out someone who had a legitimate stake in the market, and the experience to back it up, to help me examine the current state of the enterprise search space. And yes, I still call it that. More on that in a minute.

Derek Murphy has as much mojo in search as anybody I know. Derek is chief technology officer for Perceptive Search, a business unit of Perceptive Software. Perceptive used to be ISYS until it was acquired in March, 2012, by Lexmark International and integrated into its Perceptive Software division. They've come a long way since. More on that later, too.

When we got on the phone, I got the main question out of the box first: "Why has enterprise search fallen out of vogue?" I asked.

"There are a couple of reasons I've noticed out there in the wild," he began. (He says that "in the wild" a lot. It's an Aussie thing, I reckon.) "But mainly, enterprise search was initially thought of as an application unto itself, rather than a platform component to other applications. All the vendors struggled trying to sell enterprise search as a solution in its own right. Didn't work. So vendors eventually began licensing various search engines to create line-of-business applications on top of them. The ‘application versus platform' understanding was a big realization in the search market," he explained. An epiphany that still resonates today.

But it hasn't always been a clean transition, Derek thinks. "There's also been some of what I would call ‘faux specialization.' Essentially they've taken search products, which are necessary, but then simply labeled them as specialized applications, such as ‘call center support,' or ‘compliance,' or ‘e-discovery.' This is what has caused people to stop talking about enterprise search, and start talking about the specialized business applications," he said. In other words, search may be the engine, but cars have engines, too. And cars are not all alike.

Form Versus Function

"If you look at enterprise search from a technology basis alone, and therefore try to serve many different and varied use cases, it's very hard to be identified," admitted Derek. This was, he thinks the challenge that the former ISYS company faced. 

So the effective search providers rely on solutions groups—professional services teams with domain expertise—"who are very eager to build verticalized applications." Perceptive has done something very smart in this regard, I think. By fielding the search group as a separate business unit while allowing the solutions groups to go after the business, it allows the tech group to focus on their knitting—making the technology the best it can be.

"We take their suggestions and requests, and develop products for them...  but the core technology remains under our watch," he explained. I asked for a hypothetical example. "That conversation may be, ‘Well, if you used this piece and that piece and this other piece, the total would  solve the problem.' Or," he continued, "the conversation might be ‘well, wouldn't it be good if...'" And new innovation arises from the combination of a knowledgeable technical team with the vision of a thoughtful market development group. It's actually ingeniously simple. (That's easy for me to say; I just sit here and write about it.) The tool that legal needs, versus the tool that HR needs, versus the tool that customer-care needs may end up not being the same product. "Enterprise search is the sum of the parts. It's the union of all things. There's a slice of the problem that can answer one group, but a totally different slice than can answer another." That describes the Perceptive go-to-market plan pretty well. When the solutions group wants to pursue a new market, Derek's technical group can often say, "Well, take this piece and add it to that piece and that will speak to your need. But the conversation can also be: ‘Wouldn't it be nice if...?'" And that's when the technical people hunker down and create a new module. Over time it adds up to a pretty variable and robust set of solutions. Neat idea, I think.

So Perceptive sees its search tools as hybrids of many pieces, applied in many places for many reasons. They have many examples, including their Secure Content Monitor for one. It's a compliance monitoring tool, and it is essentially built from several other components, repurposed for this application, and now sold as a turnkey solution. "The solutions group took core pieces of technology from the various business units, and put together a use-case-specific new product." I get the impression Perceptive could do this all day. "Yep, we have quite a few others on the drawing board at the moment," laughed Derek. "We'll see later which ones win. We love to see search used in all these scenarios. We [meaning his technical group] get to think about the core of how search works, and how to make it scale, how you give relevant answers, and so on. they [meaning the solutions group] get to think about how to apply our stuff to turnkey or vertical situations.  It's a good harmony."

And it so happens, that's exactly my definition of enterprise search today. There is no "omnipotent" tool that is deployed on Monday and running the show by Wednesday, but rather it's a philosophy of harmony and similar approaches throughout the organization that is planned and thoughtfully (and usually slowly) deployed until each department feels adequately served. Derek agreed: "It's unlikely that any organization has one omnipotent search tool. That might be the goal of many enterprise search deployments, but trying to boil the ocean is pretty hard and has a very long tail."

I think enterprise search should be considered more of a strategy than a purchase. And I think Derek would agree. "It [enterprise search] may be a goal on the horizon, but it is not the way to deploy from the start. The goal should be to get closer and closer to it. Enterprise search is not a thing. It's an approach," Derek succinctly summarizes.

The Value Proposition

Enterprise search is by nature a platform not a product. Vendors can easily fall into the "when your customer is everybody, it's nobody" problem. This has verticalized the search vendor marketers into a number of "claims to fame," or particular use cases. Thus, the enterprise search landscape has fragmented into its various business solutions focuses due to its go-to-market approach. There ain't no more enterprise search.

"The best way to get a happy customer is to get them deriving value quickly," said Derek. Smartest thing I've heard in a long time. But enterprise search isn't famous for that. Customers are now way past the early stage where enterprise search was a mysterious novelty, and are now more focused on search-based applications and the value proposition of applied search for business processes.

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