Collaborative SearchIs collaborative search a missing piece in the enterprise collaboration puzzle?

You would be forgiven for assuming that nowadays no one works on their own but always in a team. Remember the Yahoo! edict earlier this year about how important it was for people to be able to work with colleagues and not shut themselves away at home? Teams need information in order to create information, knowledge and action. However search is currently designed for a single user who undertakes a query and then circulates the information they have found with other members of the team.

There is no ability with most current search applications to work together on a search query in a virtual team environment. This is going to change quite significantly over the next couple of years.

Collaborative Search

Collaborative search is not a new concept. The arrival of online search services in the 1970s resulted in the requirement for information specialists familiar with the command languages (which were powerful but complex) to work with business managers sitting together to refine searches. This process was aided by the fact that search sessions, even half-completed sessions, could be stored and retrieved again later. A landmark in social web search applications was the launch of SearchTogether by Microsoft, and since that time Microsoft has continued to work on a range of collaborative search topics, with Meredith Ringel Morris as one of the acknowledged leaders in this area.

The last few years have seen a very rapid expansion of research, although not application development, in this area, to the extent that Springer has recently published a 200 page book on Collaborative Information Seeking by Chirag Shah. The title of this superb book illustrates the not-uncommon problem of deciding what the title of the domain will be; collaborative search or collaborative information seeking (CIS) or collaborative information retrieval (CIR). In addition, are we talking about collaboration to improve information seeking or information seeking to support collaboration, which are two rather different scenarios?

With search another layer of complexity is added when not all the participants in a team have the same security permissions. Often these permissions are exercised outside of a meeting and only documents with a common security level are tabled. In the case of collaborative search it may become obvious to one of the searchers that they are seeing information that they would not normally have access to. This is sometimes referred to as multilevel collaborative information retrieval (MLCIR).

From Research to Delivery

I wrote recently in CMSWire about cross-device search, which provoked a Twitter comment from another search consultant that there is no use case. I have to differ on this, and since writing the column I have realized there is far more research and development work being undertaken in this area than I originally recognized.

Collaborative search is going in the same direction as it is now being recognized as a missing piece of the jigsaw puzzle in effective collaboration. Indeed one of the most interesting aspects of Professor Shah’s book is the level of detail on the process of collaboration and the importance of information flows as an essential precursor to the delivery of good applications. Some time ago I also wrote about the work that IBM had been carrying out on collaboration personas, which take on another perspective when collaborative searching is involved, and in this respect the scenarios in Shah’s book are very relevant to enterprise situations.

The transition from a single desk-top to collaborative search is a very challenging proposition for most search vendors but could well be an important opportunity for open-source solutions. This is not only because of the speed of development but because in most collaborative situations the scope of the content that needs to be searched is likely to be quite well defined. As a result a case could probably be made for having an open-source collaborative search application in addition to existing search applications. A number of research teams are now working on pilot applications, notably at the Open University in the UK.

This Year, Next Year?

There are quite a lot of factors driving the development of collaborative search, including the increasing use of virtual teams, a continued need to optimize the outcomes of the human capital investment in collaboration, the inexorable rise of the use of mobile devices and for many organizations implementing a vision of a digital workplace.

Expect substantial progress in 2014. Collaborative search is an opportunity for search managers to make an innovative contribution to operational performance. Even if CS applications may not be widely available until 2015, today would be a good time to start understanding the benefits and challenges of collaborative search and then quantifying the opportunities for your organization and for yourself.

Title image courtesy of zentilia (Shutterstock)

Editor's Note: Read more of Martin's thoughts on Enterprise Search: Search in 2013 Will Become a Business Critical Application