While websites such as MySpace and Facebook are changing the way humans interact on a social level, other sites like LinkedIn and Twitter are changing the way businesses exchange information. Web 2.0 tools like wikis and blogs are common to sites like these and have become a common means of business communication. Furthermore, valuable business content is often disseminated through these channels. While traditional means of business communication (e.g. documents, emails, etc.) can be tracked, searched, and managed using many of today's off-the-shelf content management tools, harnessing these new Web 2.0 communication threads can be difficult or impossible using traditional technologies. Today's enterprise search vendors realize the importance of managing social networking information as part of universal business intelligence and are evolving their products to address this business need.
WEB 2.0 TOOLS POSE UNIQUE SEARCH CHALLENGES
For enterprise search to effectively address the need to manage social networking communication in a business environment, technology vendors must first fully understand the challenges Web 2.0 tools impose on the search process. "There used to be a one-to-one relation between a document and the information it contains," says Laurent Simoneau, president and CEO of Coveo. "Documents then followed a life cycle — from their creation, review, publishing, and ultimately archival. With social networking, content is no longer structured and stored in a static way. Instead, the information is dynamic and is presented to users in a personalized manner. This quality makes tagging and identifying this information a complex process."
The dynamic nature of the information generated by Web 2.0 technologies also makes content authorship more difficult to track. For example, wikis and blogs have fuzzier definitions of authors, reviewers, contributors, commentators, and readers. Furthermore, any number of people from all walks of life (i.e. not just employees within the enterprise) can comment on a blog entry or submit their own entries that may provide some value to the organization.
SEARCH VENDORS MUST ADAPT TO SOCIAL NETWORKING
While the challenges Web 2.0 tools bring to the search process may seem daunting, many search vendors are addressing these issues in stride. "While search vendors now need to account for social networking technologies, these are just changes to the format of the data — not the goal of the search product itself," says Craig Carpenter, VP of marketing and general counsel for Recommind. "Search technologies still need to connect users with relevant information, expertise, people, and projects — instantly and in context. If anything has changed, it's that new social networking methodologies have made enterprise search even more critical to an employee's ability to do their job efficiently and effectively."
The critical nature of search in today's business can be illustrated by the fact that a business conversation can now take place over a wide variety of channels (e.g. part of the conversation can take place over email, another via instant messaging, and another on a wiki). Trying to reconstruct this conversation manually or even a week later would be inefficient and potentially damaging to the business. Therefore, there is a strong need for an automated system that can integrate all related discussions in a sensible way.
To provide this automated system, an enterprise search platform must provide a bridge between these new social networking repositories (e.g. wikis, blogs, and cloud-based applications such as SalesForce.com) as well as classic content repositories such as intranets, SharePoint, and Microsoft Exchange Server. These repositories are typically heterogeneous and unintegrated, so their coexistence is limited to a minimum on the same network. Enterprise search must have an increasing role in consolidating both new and existing digital assets.
"Many enterprise search tools fail to facilitate these new means of collaboration and see social networking capabilities as just another kind of repository to index," says Simoneau. "For instance, some 'superplatform' vendors want all content to be stored within their systems and have a difficult time providing unbiased access to these new repositories which often compete with their own products."
The search tools that adapt best to these social networking tools will not only be able to bridge these disparate repositories, but also provide a centralized knowledge base for search results and team collaboration. Furthermore, these search tools will provide users with the ability to act (i.e. blog, comment, and reply) directly from the search result list.
WHY ENTERPRISE SEARCH IS MORE IMPORTANT THAN EVER
While the changes in search initiated by the rise of social networking may be interesting, you may wonder whether having a comprehensive search platform is important for your business. One of the best ways to answer this question is to determine how much money your company loses due to a lack of productivity and how exposed it is to litigation.
In a marketplace where companies are continuously expected to do more with fewer resources, employee efficiency and effectiveness becomes paramount. In fact, the cost of failing to enable worker efficiency can be enormous. "The Basex analyst group recently estimated that knowledge workers' inability to efficiently search data stores costs U.S. businesses approximately $900 billion per year in lost productivity," says Carpenter. "Furthermore, an IDC study indicates that even with traditional content management tools, employees still don't find what they are looking for 30% to 50% of the time. This is a staggering indictment to 'Enterprise Search 1.0' offerings. Companies need to look beyond simple keyword search products that return thousands of results in no particular order and no regard to the needs of specific user groups. Technologies such as concept search and expertise location are key to increased productivity."
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Litigation is another area you can address with enterprise search. "With companies laying off employees, stock values plummeting, and the credit crunch revealing past wrongdoings, businesses will see an increasing number of labor-related disputes and shareholder lawsuits," says Simoneau. "Organizations should prepare themselves for this, and an enterprise search solution with social networking capabilities can help a company locate relevant information, conduct an internal investigation, and prepare for a trial through the e-discovery process."
Obviously, some businesses have a more profound need for an enterprise search solution than others. For example, larger enterprises with content dispersed among several disparate repositories will get more value out of a search tool than a centralized SMB. Furthermore, companies that have recently gone through a merger or acquisition should look to enterprise search as a way to collectively manage the respective repositories of each merger company. In either case, you'll want to ensure the enterprise search tool you select can handle today's social networking tools. Even if you don't need to manage Web 2.0-generated content today, a search system built to accommodate this information will ensure the solution you put in place will scale to meet your future needs.