Building the Search Center of Excellence

With this new class of intelligent business applications, "search" is moving far "beyond the box" and taking up a role that is as central to today's Internet-connected businesses as relational databases and ERP systems were to the pre-Web era of IT. In the most advanced enterprise and commerce implementations today, "search" acts as the crucial business information filter—bringing to life the "long tail" value resident in both enterprise and Internet information.

Taking advantage of these new capabilities in search platforms requires an evolution in internal processes and practices for aligning business goals with technology management. It requires a new collection of skill sets for developing composite applications with disparate data. It requires a change in thinking from data models to consumption paradigms.

Enter the Search Center of Excellence

In adopting a "search center of excellence" (COE) approach, organizations are moving search from the level of technology detail to the level of business innovation and strategy. With a strategic approach and executive-level support, they are adopting a centralized management capability to turbocharge a diversity of search projects across the enterprise.

The development process for the COE takes place on a number of levels. In order for the COE to succeed in its management and strategy dimensions, it must first and foremost gather sponsorship and authority at the senior-executive level. The COE governance model establishes the interaction protocols between the COE and the various business units and technology support groups of the enterprise. In order to align search projects with business objectives and to leverage the benefits of knowledge sharing, experiential learning and technical search expertise, the COE unifies executive-level interactions among all the business units who are or will be making use of search technologies.

Within the operations of the COE itself, the key success factors are: (1.) ensuring that appropriate roles are identified to support the anticipated activities of COE projects (see sidebar, "Typical Roles in a Search Project") and (2.) ensuring that the competency models and interaction patterns for those roles are thoughtfully specified.

Search technology makes unique demands across the entire spectrum of traditional IT roles, from systems analyst to architect to developer to database administrator to user-interface designer. It also introduces non-traditional knowledge engineering and customer-experience management elements to projects and programs.

The COE leverages resources from across the firm and potentially across the customer and partner universes. In order to deliver high business value and quality user experiences, the COE incorporates input and participation from line-of-business managers, business-process designers and business analysts, human-factors experts, business-intelligence analysts, merchandisers, marketers and other stakeholders of search applications.

The COE practice brings together people with deep business-domain expertise, broad search-applications experience, cutting-edge software infrastructure knowledge, complex project-management skills and demonstrated facility in knowledge transfer. This group has the ability to act as a central point of contact to facilitate collaboration between lines of business, functional specialties and customer, service provider or partner resources. It may provide the resources to staff each of these components of search projects: application architecture and design, project methodology, best practices and standards, user interface design, education programs, support services and analytics for continuous improvement.

By putting a dedicated team in place, companies adopting the COE process gain the ability to:

  • Identify core patterns of search success;
  • Share best practices and facilitate innovation in next practices; and
  • Leverage search technology, knowledge engineering and search infrastructure skills across the enterprise.

The Search Center of Excellence Practice

Using the COE to create a repeatable process, common business rules, standard best practices and custom methods and components tailored to the business will drive down the cost and improve the success rate of implementing search projects.

By providing a project office for search, the COE practice can integrate training programs, business consulting and project portfolio prioritization, best practices examples, advanced solutions "tiger teams," implementation services, application monitoring and continuous improvement services. These capabilities deployed within the context of an organization's business priorities offer a fast-track approach to high search quality. In our view, it's time to adopt this approach to driving business innovation with quality search.

Typical Roles in a Search Project

1. Executive sponsor—budgets and overall success of project.

2. Business owner—representation of business/user community and clear definition and communication of their requirements to the project.

3. Program/project manager—all project planning, resources, communications and deliverables.

4. Information architect—content planning and management (e.g. meta tags and taxonomies).

5. User interface engineers—design, development and integration of search front end with existing applications.

6. Hardware engineer—all hardware and O/S installs, in addition to DNS, DB or other software.

7. Network engineer—network configurations as required for the implementation.

8. Operations—daily operations of search solution, including all first-line support.

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