Thumbnail image for shutterstock_51632128.jpgThe challenges of using enterprise search to find people -- either by name or expertise -- are considerable, but rarely discussed.

During May there were three major search conferences, Enterprise Search Europe (London), Enterprise Search Summit (New York) and the Findwise Findability Day (Stockholm). The focus of many of the presentations was about how to present relevant information to users, ideally with the one single document that would solve all their problems listed as the first result on the first page. However there is good evidence that one of the most important uses of an enterprise search application is to be able to find people, either by name or by expertise. 

Name Search

Even in organizations which use a single language searching for people by name immediately runs into the problem of how individuals actually spell their name, which will depend on their family heritage and not where they are based. Often the search for a person is initiated by being told that “You should talk to Christian in HR about it.” But is that Christian or Kristian, or perhaps even Kristen?

The problems escalate with Spanish and Portuguese where a person may use as a surname both the family names of their mother and their father. There are no hard and fast rules about which comes first, or which they prefer to use, or which of them they may use outside of their country of birth. Arabic names add an additional layer of complexity but nowhere near the difficulties presented by Chinese, Japanese and Korean names. If you want to delve deeper into name searching then read the excellent briefing papers from Basis Technology.

Looking at the search logs may not immediately show name search failure, especially when there is a single search box. Almost certainly there will not be a zero result instance and yet the number of searches for any one single person will be so far down the long tail that it is highly likely that no one will notice them.

Expertise Search

A search for a document is often the result of needing to find the name of someone in the organization with specific expertise. In theory it would be good if every employee created a detailed cv but a quick look at Dave Snowden’s Principles of Knowledge Management will show that this is not a realistic objective. The answer lies in being able to integrate search across multiple applications, each of which may contain some element of information about the expertise of employees. These might include project files, product design databases, blogs, conference papers and patents.

At the Enterprise Search Summit this year Kas Kasravi (Hewlett Packard) gave a paper on the Enterprise Collective application that he and his colleagues have developed. Details are available in an HP Technical Report. The approach is very comprehensive but I have a concern about how long it will take until a new member of staff gains enough “HP” expertise to be highlighted in a search.

The problems of locating new employee expertise have not been given much attention. IBM have been working along similar lines with its Faces project, led by Ido Guy and his team at the IBM Research Laboratories in Haifa. University College London have been working on an expertise location application called KnowDis and Sinequa presented a very interesting paper at Enterprise Search Europe 2012 on the work they were doing on the French consulting company ATOS. If you really want to dig deep into the technology of expertise search there is an excellent book on the subject published in 2012 by Now Publishers in its Foundations and Trends in Information Retrieval series.

A Strategy for People Search

One of the debates at present, and it was raised by Kara Pernice (NNGroup) at Enterprise Search Europe last month, was whether there should be separate query boxes for subject search and people search. If the people (and expertise?) search is well planned and implemented then a separate query box is appropriate. However the expectations of users will be high! Using the same query box has the merit of not forcing users to make a choice but will the application be able to recognize and deliver people-related results high enough up the results list? Volume 6 of the NNGroup Intranet Usabilty Guidelines has a very good section on employee search with many illustrations.

Some organizations have implemented a results page that places experts in a separate box at the top of the results list. A danger of this approach is that the same people end up being identified as the experts and get constantly interrupted. The HP solution to this is to rotate the names of the experts but this solution may not work for smaller companies.

As I hope I have illustrated in this column the challenges are considerable but there is also a substantial amount of research underway. Your search strategy should have a specific section on the approach you will be taking as expertize of employees, both long-term and newly arrived, provides your organization with a significant competitive advantage.

Title image courtesy of Gunnar Pippel (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Martin has been thinking long and hard about enterprise search. To read more, see A 'People' Perspective on Enterprise Search