It's easy to get despondent about the state of search. But then a company takes a fresh approach, and it gives one hope. The example below from DNV-GL serves as a reminder that search can act as both an application and a platform.
I recently spoke at Intranett 2015 in Oslo about how to get the best from intranet search. Some of the papers were in Norwegian and others in English, and it was my good fortune that Jerome Colombe's, the Intranet Manager of DNV-GL, who previously was responsible for the Alcatel-Lucent intranet in Paris, was in English. DNV-GL is the outcome of the merger between Det Norske Veritas and Germanischer Lloyd in 2013. Its mission is to enable organizations to advance the safety and sustainability of their business.
The DNV-GL intranet is remarkable in that it is based almost entirely on search-driven "navigation." Equally remarkable is that the intranet platform is Microsoft SharePoint 2013, and not a specialized commercial or open source search application. I say "remarkable," though in fact the SP2013 application is in itself a search-based application, so extending this to creating a structure-free intranet is relatively easy. Philips Electronics has taken this approach as well, which it announced in late November.
Managing Information Overload
Both of these intranets use "search" to present users with a highly customized view of information resources. One of the reasons why business managers want Google-like search is to emulate the way Google personalizes results based on the user environment.
This is not difficult to achieve inside an organization, but requires careful initial analysis of not just what information people are looking for, but why they are looking for it. Understanding the tasks they are undertaking, and more important, the decisions they need to make, is fundamental to the success of an intranet and of a search application.
Search logs often highlight the number of searches for applications. Although organizations may have a hundred or more applications in use across all employees, an individual employee usually only uses a few. And yet users still search for an application by name — Self Service Portal — rather than by what it does — “Update my vacation plan.” If you anticipate these requirements, users will feel that the system is designed specifically for them, and that makes for some very satisfied users.
Most intranet redevelopment projects start with a long series of card sorting/architecture testing sessions which rarely consider search as an adjunct to browse. By their very nature, information architectures are compromises. In some organizations they work well, but in larger, more diverse and more rapidly changing organizations finding the "right place" to put any one item of content is a significant challenge.
With search it does not matter where the content item is located, or whether it has been tagged to within an inch of its life. Search platforms act as application integrators, delivering search cards of information from multiple sources, not just documents.
Search really comes into its own in delivering personalized news. This personalization can be created not only through matching news to a role/location-based metadata structure, but also by using the fundamental features of search. “I want to see all news items about how we are going to adopt ISO9001:2015” A search engine can use entity extraction to identify and present items about 9001:2015 and just as easily turn that off when the requirement is over. Try doing that with tagging!
One of the features I liked with the DNV-GL intranet was the way it reviewed search logs to identify the small amount of content that's valuable across the organization. This content can then be hard-coded to appear at the start of a set of search results, or given a specific placement on the intranet page. This is an extension of the importance of search dialogue. Search engines are very good at being able to respond to a request with “Do you mean ..?” or with auto-suggestion of options that users can select from.
Searching For Flexibility?
Don't assume that the work of developing information architecture isn't needed for a search application. The preparatory work will have a different focus, but still will take vision, time and effort. If delivering a more personalized experience is the goal, users will expect the experience to match (or be very close to) their expectations. Without this close alignment, the chances of a search-based intranet being a success are poor.
Not all intranets will benefit from a search-based approach. But this could be a very effective solution for organizations that need the flexibility and adaptability of a user-centric intranet.