New year, new search application in your organization? If that's the case, you are likely getting ready to evaluate your options. 

Enterprise search is a significant asset in any organization (or it should be). It’s widely used across all business unites, departments, job roles and locations. If implemented well, it can be part of everyone’s day-to-day work life. 

Getting started with a new enterprise search program involves answering a multitude of questions: Which search engine? What content sources should we connect to search? What types of content should we filter out? What backend-configurations to apply? How to design the UI? Do we need only one enterprise search application, or multiple, specific search applications? That's a lot of questions. One of the first you'll be faced with when narrowing down potential vendors is this: proof-of-concept (POC) or pilot?

Let's go into the differences to see which you should choose when.

Defining Proof-of-Concept vs. Pilot

Most search vendors really like doing a proof-of-concept (POC) to prove the value of their tools. Others create pilot projects. The two concepts might seem to be similar, or maybe even identical – but in practice, they are not. What's the difference?

POC — Proof of Concept

Wikipedia defines proof of concept as: “Proof of concept is a realization of a certain method or idea in order to demonstrate its feasibility, or a demonstration in principle with the aim of verifying that some concept or theory has practical potential.”


It defines pilots as: “A pilot study, pilot project, pilot test, or pilot experiment is a small scale preliminary study conducted in order to evaluate feasibility, duration, cost, adverse events, and improve upon the study design prior to performance of a full-scale research project.”

Related Article: Proof of Concept for Enterprise Search: Good Idea or Time Drain?

Proof-of-Concept: Establishing Basic Functionality

A proof-of-concept is all about establishing the functionality. It might not be a fully functional application and potentially may not even involve production content. User permissions, quality and depth of content, as well as metadata might also be simplified with a POC.

However, a proof-of-concept gives you a general sense about the application, its usability and might help you make a high-level decision around if it fits your organization’s needs or not.

When doing a POC, the POC itself is the task the users need to do. They still have to do their everyday tasks separately, in the (separate) production system and will get no real immediate value from the POC environment.

The risk with a POC is that the data, information architecture, users and their permissions in the proof of concept might not represent the production environment. Therefore, you might have a false impression about the feasibility, complexity, as well as costs of deploying the application in production.

Figure 1 — Search POC
Figure 1 — Search POC

Example: In a POC environment, you might connect test, dummy or limited content sources to search, to prove search can crawl these items, extract metadata, etc. The users in POC might be test accounts like [email protected] — with limited user profile information, limited permissions, as well as activity history.

Users search for “Lorem Ipsum,” use filters that don't make any real sense to them, etc.

All of these limitations simplify the deployment and running of a POC, however, they also limit the depth of the POC results and consequences.

Related Article: Making a Business Case for Enterprise Search

Learning Opportunities

Pilot: Working With a Search Application in Context

A pilot's goal is not only to prove feasibility, but to also give your employees a chance to work with, test and evaluate the application in-context: with their own in-production data (or an identical copy of it), with their existing permissions. In most cases, a group of people use the pilot search application for specific cases instead of their existing search.

With a pilot, people will create, use and search for production data, and immediately see the benefits of the new system. Collecting feedback from these test users is critical to inform the next procurement phases.  

The pilot case(s) must be very specific and very well defined.

Note: In case of search, it’s important from a security and maintenance perspective to separate deploying an application in production vs. search application using production data. Every organization has different rules, policies and security concerns.

Clearly a pilot requires more preparation, more time and more resources. Security, compliance and other considerations may also arise.

However, the benefits and lessons learned can be much more useful and significant, for many reasons:

  • Using the application in-context helps people understand it better.
  • Employees will provide in-context feedback, while using the application in their everyday work.
  • While working on the pilot application, the complexity of the feasibility becomes visible instantly.
  • If the pilot is considered successful, all the lessons learned can be applied directly.

Figure 2 – Search Pilot
Figure 2 – Search Pilot

Example: When a pilot is implemented, it is integrated into the context of production environment as much as possible. Even if it’s deployed to a separate system, it mirrors production content, taxonomy, as well as users and permissions. When you ask people to use this system instead of the production one, they might need some training, but the processes and the flow of work are familiar to them. They know what they need, and will be able to use the pilot system. They search for real business keywords, use filters that make sense to them, etc.

A successful pilot makes it easy to move forward, add new features, and/or extend to more and more use cases. The transition is smooth and solid.

Related Article: Orchestrating Rapid and Successful Proofs of Concept

No One-Size-Fits-All With POC or Pilot

As always, there is no one size fits all. In some cases, you'll need a POC. Other times, doing a pilot might be a much better choice. What is important in case of search is that you have to make a decision about POC vs. pilot while planning and evaluating. Both can be useful when you've already narrowed down the possible vendor options to one or two.

Whenever possible, I recommend doing a pilot, even if it needs more investment in advance. It might save you much more in the future.

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