Rethinking the Intranet - Where Does Search Fit In?

6 minute read
Jed Cawthorne avatar

There have been some great articles this month on CMSWire on the future direction for intranets, and how your organization might want to "re-think" or re-imagine its intranet. Subjects such as Information Architecture, the changing nature of work, and developing employee trust in your digital workplace have been covered. I would like to follow up with a few paragraphs on how search and your search strategy fit into your views of an ever evolving intranet. So, how is search evolving on your intranet? Are you equipped from a strategy and personnel point of view, or have you been fooled into concentrating purely on the technology?

The Evolution of the Intranet

If we sum it up succinctly, we could say the intranet as a "system" has progressed from a simple CMS for "internal websites", through more structured "publishing" of news and information, into the collaboration sphere, then into more "social" collaboration, until now with the introduction of terms such as digital workplace when we can say that the intranet is an ecosystem, or a complex system of systems.

As such your intranet may have many constituent parts, a Web Content Management system, a portal platform, a enterprise social business platform, a digital asset management system with internal or externally hosted streaming media servers, web interfaces to document management, ERP, HRM systems, the list goes on........

The way your organization manages search in such a complex scenario depends on your industry, but also on your organizational culture, and how much worth your board or executive management place in information management. For example, if you're a Law Firm or other professional services organization, then knowledge management normally has a high profile, and that normally means a considerable focus on metadata, and a high level of investment in search. Similarly if you're a big Pharmaceutical company then the ability to search within your document management system(s) will be key. Either way, in these scenarios your probably lucky enough to have an "enterprise search" system from one of the major vendors, or one of the many high quality mid-tier vendors. If so, then adding a "social" dimension to your intranet ecosystem for example, might be as simple as ensuring that your enterprise search platform has the right connector for your social platform of choice.

However, if you're a small to medium manufacturing company, then your search facilities are probably those that came with your intranet platform. This could be a licensed and possibly cut down copy or variant of a major search vendor's technology (or ever more likely these days, the Apache Solr variant of the Lucene search engine). Either way, you might be lucky if there are pre-built adapters available to index your newly added systems/repositories, or you may rely on clever code-monkeys writing to the CMIS interface or a custom API.

So, depending on the size, shape and nature of your intranet and your wider digital workplace, you may be well prepared technologically to evolve search as the systems, repositories and business use cases evolve and your intranet heads into the future.......

But I bet you're still not fully prepared!

Learning Opportunities

Your Search Strategy

It's not the first time I have written about this subject in CMSWire articles, but your organization's ability to evolve your intranet, your digital workplace, your information and knowledge management capacities in a rapid and agile manner require a strategic framework within which to undertake planning activities. As they like to say in the British Armed Forces, it's all about the 5 P's -- Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance!

However in my previous experience as a consultant, there is often a total lack of planning when it comes to the ongoing management of search. Search is so frequently seen as a "project" that I find it frankly mind boggling. The business side of the organization says "we can't find anything", IT says "we need a new search engine", and a new procurement project is born. Eight times out of ten, no one seems to consider what can be done to improve the existing search facility -- be that tweaking relevance settings, clearing out the indexed repositories or examining the use of Metadata. So the "project" puts in a new search system from a new vendor, and guess what? Still no one puts any thought into the ongoing management of search, the quality of the data/content, the complete lack of metadata, etc...

A good search user experience means people running it the background. It means someone examining the search results, examining the queries, examining the clickthrough rates, tweaking the relevance ranking and the "best bets". This does not necessarily mean a massive team with attendant overhead, and if you're lucky enough to have a resource in the intranet team that is allocated to analytics, then they could pick up this role.  You also need to sort out the relationship between the business group that "owns" search -- if any -- and the IT group that supports the search engine. Search ownership may even be a committee affair; but the warning here is simply this -- make sure someone does have ownership.

People, Process and Technology

Note the order here -- People first, the "search team". Then processes, the ongoing management of search, and only then, finally, do we need to fuss over the technology! Hence my not dwelling on the features and functionality of various search engines at the beginning of this article. I realize you may have an uphill battle increasing head count in the current financial climate, however if you do the math, adding two or three people to properly manage your existing search facility, whether it's "simple" intranet search or full on enterprise search, may well turn out to be at least a bit cheaper than investing millions of dollars on a new platform for no really good reason. The 5 P's is a good maxim, but as all military people love to remind us, no plan ever survives contact with the enemy. So if your enemy is poor search results, and an army of unhappy end users, then the ultimate flexibility of staff who understand the basic tenets of search, as well as the ins and outs of your specific platform, will be the secret weapon that can snatch a search victory from the jaws of information management defeat.

Editor's Note: Also from Jed, a regular columnist on the enterprise topics: SharePoint Enterprise Search: Lessons Learned in the Field.

About the author

Jed Cawthorne

Jed Cawthorne is principal product manager at NetDocuments. He is involved in product innovation and product management and working with customers to make NetDocuments phenomenally successful products even more so.