Social Business, Search as a Decision Support System
When we measure the value of search only through criteria like speed we miss out on the bigger picture.

According to Information Builders a Decision Support System is

a specific class of computerized information system that supports business and organizational decision-making activities. A properly designed DSS is an interactive software-based system intended to help decision makers compile useful information from raw data, documents, personal knowledge, and/or business models to identify and solve problems and make decisions.”

To me that looks very much like the definition of an enterprise search application. Now I am well aware that the DSS industry sees its products as much more “sophisticated” than just search but to me there could be a lot of benefits from seeing search as a decision support system. It focuses us on the importance of making informed decisions on the basis of the best available information and could well assist with the internal process of gaining investment in search applications.

Searching to support task completion

I’d like to start at the iSchool at the University of Sheffield, UK. The iSchool can track its history back to the founding of a Postgraduate School of Librarianship in 1963. Later the name was changed to the Postgraduate School of Librarianship and Information Science, and later still to the Department of Information Studies.

Three years ago the department became the Information School and continues to be one of world’s leading iSchools both in terms of the quality of teaching and research. I’ve had the honour of being a Visiting Professor at the iSchool for over ten years and will be taking part in the celebrations at Sheffield later this month.

The department has always had a strong information retrieval research group. Professor Elaine Toms is responsible for this group at present and is especially interested in task-based search. This involves looking beyond the metrics of recall, precision and F measures to study what people do with the information they have found through searching.

This is important because finding "relevant" information on a specific topic does not necessarily mean that the task can be accomplished. Search logs may indicate which documents have been downloaded but that does not mean they have actually been of value in task completion.

In my view we focus too much on the elements of search performance we can measure and not enough on process and ultimate value of the documents used to complete tasks or support decisions. It is entirely possible that a set of relevant documents may provide very conflicting views of what action should be taken (perhaps in a health-care setting) and so the speed with which a set of documents can be presented to the user is far from being a good measure of the value of search, and indeed may raise questions about content quality rather than search performance.

Decisions are difficult to make

My clients and my workshop participants over the last few years will be very aware of my focus on identifying tasks and decisions that have to be made in designing intranets and implementing search. In developing information management strategies, I like to work backwards from decision and task analysis to defining what information/data needs to be made available and how it should best be accessed. In that way the impact on the organization of effective information management can be positive, immediate and measurable.

However I often feel that I am treading a lonely path in this approach, so was delighted to read a superb new book from Gower Publishing entitled Decision Sourcing -- Decision making for the agile social enterprise. The authors are Dale Roberts (Artesian Solutions) and Rooven Pakkiri (Collaboration Matters). The best way to give you a flavor of the book is to list some of the topics:

  • The relationship between decision making and organizational success
  • The real difference between data, information and knowledge
  • The convergence of social and analytics for collaborative decision making
  • How the agile social enterprise engages everyone in decision making
  • Clearing up the confusion between consensus and collaboration

With the very rapid growth of data and information perhaps paradoxically it is more difficult for managers to feel certain that they have found all the relevant information on a topic, especially when the organization has a wealth of often poorly organized social media channels.

The authors analyze how decisions are made in social organizations and highlight the need to provide quality information to many more people than the person nominally making the Go -- No Go decision.

Defining tasks and decisions

Search managers love metrics, and I would be among the first to highlight the need to have a good search analytics program. But the metrics are just the start of the journey and we should never lose sight of the need to understand what decisions people are making in our organization, what sources and applications they rely on, and how they integrate data, information and knowledge from a very wide range of disparate sources. This is why search managers need to have a very broad knowledge of how the organization works. That is far more important than how search works.

Title image courtesy of Sukhonosova Anastasia (Shutterstock)

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