Enterprise Search continues to go through transformations to improve its usefulness for all employees, since information is common currency for practically everyone in every organization.

To be able to agilely collect and reconcile information across disparate repositories and formats, unified search platforms will have to combine multiple search capabilities from enterprise and internet search technologies, as well as BI search and other kinds of analytics. And for it to work well, people need to be able to make use of these layers of disparate search technologies through a single point of access.

It is critical that all employees have the ability to find and analyze information and data across the enterprise. Search is not a separate technology or program, it must integrate with business processes and corporate initiatives as vital infrastructure. Search for all employees aligns with communication, connectedness and collaboration -- bringing us into Social constructs.

Social Search Tuning for Enterprise Search

Many attributes of Social Search can help Enterprise Search work better, but Social Search alone isn’t enough to replace Enterprise Search. Too many capabilities are needed to deliver what employees need from comprehensive search inside the firewall. But Social can serve to fine-tune or filter search by leveraging additional information about the Searcher, as a valuable enhancement.

Social also aligns well with one of the key success factors for Enterprise Search: Context. Many have advocated role-based context as a particularly powerful filter for effective search results. Contextual factors are usually the over-arching driver for a particular search by a particular person. As such, search needs to engender the right user experience to return the best results.

Enterprise search can tap into employee profiles, internal networks, other work-related interactions, and systems usage to personalize search and extend context in order to return the most relevant results. Beyond the usual "systems of record," social networks and activities provide a great deal of contextual information, especially in terms of topics. The composite of all of these attributes can indicate each person’s professional purview and work focus, which can better connect that person to the right information.

Social helps Enterprise Search through:

  • Social Networks -- people who know stuff, connections to other people who know stuff
  • Social Artifacts -- opinions about information, expressed through ratings / rankings, reviews / comments, tagging

Social Learning

Concepts from Harold Jarche for Network Learning provide lessons for the social aspects of enterprise search, both through inter-dependent connections and collaboration, and through independent pathways via technology (tools) and the information itself:

One way to look at network learning is as a continuous process of seeking, sensing and sharing.

  • Seeking is finding things out and keeping up to date. Building a network of colleagues is helpful in this regard -- it not only allows us to “pull” information, but also have it “pushed” to us by trusted sources.
  • Sensing is how we personalize information and use it. Sensing includes reflection and putting into practice what we have learned. Often it requires experimentation, as we learn best by doing.
  • Sharing includes exchanging resources, ideas and experiences with our networks and collaborating with our colleagues.

Also of importance is the serendipitous or accidental acquisition of information or knowledge, very much an affect of social interactions.

Social Networks: Information Acquisition

Software vendor IBM Vivismo (the Velocity Information Optimization Platform) provides an interesting story from 2009 describing how the U.S. Air Force has used social capabilities to improve enterprise search. The USAF information system is called Air Force Knowledge Now (AFKN) and has been around for several years in various iterations.

Organized into thousands of “Communities of Practice,” Airmen share their expertise in postings that range from F-16 tactics to procurement regulations. AFKN was launched in 2002 and now rivals the largest corporate intranets. Open to anyone with a .mil email address, AFKN has nearly 300,000 registered users who view 10 million pages per month. AFKN supports about 170,000 searches a month, but Adkins expects that to double with implementation of the new features (based on Vivisimo’s platform).

“We want the tags and ratings to make the system smarter as a result of hundreds of thousands of people interacting,” says Adkins. “The secret to success is it has to be easy for folks to use, or they won’t use it.”

AFKN aims to provide quick, easy access to millions of pages of content. Social search adds two elements that improve relevancy of results. First, keyword tags, ratings and comments add new navigation aids to AFKN users, speeding access to results they need. Second, social search tools make it easy for users to contribute their insights and experience to AFKN. When these insights become part of the search index, search relevancy is improved for the next user."

Social Networks: Relationships as Search Filters

Sociology in the workplace provides insight into the value of social networks for improving enterprise search. In environments where collaboration is encouraged and communication across the enterprise is effective, the natural way to search is to ask colleagues for ideas on how to find what’s needed, to share information, to brainstorm on how to refine search results, and to figure what’s missing (leading to more searches). Obviously search relative to social networks is collaborative.

The social network as a construct doesn’t engender successful search activities. It’s how individuals connect to and work with people in the network for finding information that make social networks useful for search. Gartner’s Larry Cannell examines “the synergy between search and enterprise social network sites”:

As enterprise social network sites integrate with more business applications, the similarities between enterprise social network sites and search will become evident from two perspectives. First, from the point of view of how workers will expect to interact with business application information via a social network site. Second, there are significant similarities between how business application information is aggregated into a social network site with how the same is done with search-based applications.

In addition, these integrations (business applications and social networks) offer longer-term opportunities to build the enterprise social network into a powerful knowledgebase that consolidates information across business applications; much like the role enterprise search can play today."

There are also obstacles to finding the right information through social networks:

As multiple business applications become integrated with a social network site, a significant challenge will be the normalization of business entities across applications. For example, aligning a customer record in a CRM system with the same customer record in a warranty claims system. Without this alignment, cross-business application relationships cannot be captured within the site’s social graph and workers participating in the network will see duplicate customer profiles (one from the CRM system, the other from the warranty claims system)."

Social networks and collaborative processes are growing in many enterprises, as effective conduits for helping employees work better and more efficiently. It’s now falling to the enterprise search platform to orchestrate alignment of the knowledge held by social networks with current information repositories.

Part of that integration is to incorporate search capabilities already provided by social applications into the enterprise search platform. Since social venues enable real-time collaboration, enterprise search may need to change from displaying results to becoming a sort of a command center that allows actions to take place directly from search results, such as adding a comment to a blog post.

Activity Streams: Topics as Filters

Activity streams are another social venue that has been gaining increased enterprise adoption. Streams can be personalized for individual need, subscribing to an array of topics that tie to work activities.

These streams are more about real-time information as it is created and shared, but are rapidly becoming large information archives as real-time continuously becomes "yesterday." And a new challenge, and opportunity, emerges for enterprise search bolstered by analytics, since most of the information resides in multi-structured content.

While it is not meant to be an enterprise search tool, Tibco’s tibbr offers activity stream collaboration driven by a topic-oriented approach that is designed to find the people who need particular information items. The focus on topics is meant to cull out irrelevant information -- employees subscribe to the topics that matter to them. Topics can be information, colleagues, software systems, and business processes. The business process is of particular importance, since the tibbr approach, coupled with Tibco technology, ties information acquisition to the work being done by employees.

In activity streams, topics are context and the streams capture continuous collaborative "conversations." In the Forrester Wave for Activities Streams, Rob Koplowitz comments:

Social activities streams are a bridge to this enterprise social vision. They connect workers to each other and to information. On its own, the information workplace lacks a mechanism that pulls together events, along with their context, background, and required actors, in a manner that is attractive and easily consumable for knowledge workers."

The Evolving Workplace

There is quite a bit of research on the significant value of making the right information available to the right person at the right time -- and quite a bit of research shows clearly that Enterprise Search has a direct impact on the success of organizations. So enterprise search platforms must include social capabilities to tap into powerful ways to find the information that employees need more quickly and accurately. This calls for integration into a single platform that continuously evolves as the workplace changes.

Editor's Note: As you can tell, this is not the first time Julie has tackled the Social Business. To read another of her articles, try Achieving the Social Business, Inside and Out