Today’s enterprise searches inevitably produce more pages of results than most of us can possibly absorb.

So the resulting information overload all but ensures that whatever nuggets of new knowledge do exist are destined to remain buried.

That’s a slippery slope because when we let enterprise search engines influence what we discover, two dangerous things begin to happen: First, the popularity of search results — not their usefulness — starts to define their relevance. Second, information starts to be censored, not by its content, but by its obscurity in search results.

How can we reverse those trends by designing with deeper information discovery in mind? And what new approaches to enterprise search will surface the deeper connections that hold potentially transformative learning implications for organizations?

Searchers Want to Be Intrigued

Fortunately, new research indicates that we may have reached a tipping point where enterprise search users are finally saying, “Show me something I don't already know."

In a recent study I conducted of over 30 organizations in the oil and gas industry, I presented a variety of word association and co-occurrence algorithms to business professionals. My aim was to understand which characteristics they preferred as search refiners — and why.

An unexpected but very powerful theme to emerge was the respondents’ need to be intrigued.  This was especially true for study participants who were subject matter experts as time and again my interview subjects expressed the view that the search results they accustomed to obtaining were “relevant but not interesting.”

Unusual Search Results Spark Curiosity

It appears that certain word associations may stimulate the kinds of serendipitous information encounters that trigger new learning more than others. Unusual, non-obvious or odd combinations of words were more likely to induce curiosity and lead to learning events.

One research participant described his behavior while searching and scanning the word associations that came up in search as analogous to a game of “spot the difference.” When he and other searchers couldn’t readily explain a juxtaposition of words that came up in their search results, they found those associations to be more intriguing and engaging.

For example, given the search query airbags, the word associations, lawsuit, dog and bicycle were more likely to lead to clickthroughs than the far more statistically frequent word, impacts.

Crafting Search Serendipity

Beyond academia, how can these findings be put to work in the service of more fortuitous, intellectually engaging enterprise search?

Activity streams such as Facebook and LinkedIn that have been designed for the enterprise offer alternatives to traditional pull-based search that increase the likelihood of facilitating serendipitous encounters.

One potential drawback of this approach, though, is both platforms’ focus on transaction analytics that track engagement with objects or containers of information rather than the actual content contained within those images or containers. That can lead to so-called “discovery through the rear-view mirror” rather than pure serendipity.

Taxonomies have also proved to be very useful in presenting what may lie buried within search results, although they have sometimes also been guilty of blinding us to new discoveries.

Design to Surprise

Augmenting existing approaches with an enterprise search design principle that values surprise, may ultimately be what unlocks the potential for more fortuitous information discoveries within organizations.

Pursuing search term word associations that are off the beaten track may also hold the key to enabling searchers to make discoveries without being limited by their own existing knowledge of keywords and associations.

The ROI of Serendipity

The business value that designing for surprise could bring to organizations might be considerable, since serendipity has arguably been responsible for some of history’s most important discoveries in science and business.

In his watershed 2008 essay, Is Google Making Us Stupid?, Nicholas Carr famously lamented that, “Once I was a scuba diver in the sea of words. Now I zip along the surface like a guy on a Jet Ski." 

Creating a modality for enterprise search that allows it to be both a workhorse for finding the routine and a creative assistant to enable thought leadership may be what unlocks the treasure trove of potential that enterprise search can represent for today’s organizations. 

Title image by Matthew Maillet