First large scale empirical study of enterprise search

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First large scale empirical study of enterprise search & discovery capability published in the Journal of Information Science (JIS) this week. Here

Many organizations have deployed ‘Google-like’ enterprise search engines in order to improve access to their own information, a key part of the digital workplace. Despite significant investments, it has been reported that dissatisfaction with search in the enterprise is widespread and enduring. A study was undertaken in order to develop a deeper understanding of what may be occurring. 

Using a large oil & gas company as a case study on their fourth generation of enterprise search technology, over 1,000 feedback comments from the user interface over a 2 year period were triangulated with interviews conducted with a search service team and management. This was combined with an extensive literature review.

Well known structural and formal factors for user satisfaction such as ‘information quality’, ‘technology quality’ and ‘service quality’ were identified. The study finding that 62% of user dissatisfaction events were likely due to non-technological factors may provide the first empirical support for what some enterprise search practitioners have been saying for some time: effective search capability in the enterprise requires more than technology. For some search queries, improving knowledge organization practices for structuring content may be more useful than tuning the search technology. In addition, the criticality of informal behaviours and agency (information literacy) was clearly identified, which is often downplayed or ignored altogether in the practitioner literature.

 The ‘Google Habitus’ was identified as a generative mechanism influencing expectations and behaviours at all levels in the organization for search, often leading to sub-optimal outcomes. There are aspects of search in the enterprise that differ considerably from Internet consumer based search, which has been well documented. Cognitive biases were postulated as another generative mechanism, such as simplicity bias (technology solutionism), where a preference for simple explanations ‘we can fix search with better technology’ often wins out over more complex explanations.

Whilst general purpose search capability is undoubtedly useful as a utility, approaches which also focus on very specific work tasks may be more likely to gain executive support. Advancing enterprise search capability is therefore likely to lend itself to multi-modal approaches; a system of agency and structure rather than any single component; not a single technology or interface, or single media type (text documents/web pages) or single set of behaviours. It is probable that organizations adopting holistic approaches towards search capability will in the long run, out-perform those that have more reductionist approaches.

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2 thoughts on “First large scale empirical study of enterprise search

  1. Most enterprise search implementations are completely broken, and have been for decades. Intranet systems/platforms come and go, but rarely is search quality evaluated by information professionals (using precision and recall rather than crude comparison grids showing supported platforms and licensing cost). Migrations between platforms are often incomplete. A good company should first and foremost manage its own knowledge well, we’re in the information age after all – in practice, companies suffer from good knowledge management and preservation of knowledge is ad-hoc (dependent on the effort of particular individuals where they exist). I agree the Google Habitus is a strong force, and actually is an instance of a more general trend, namely that consumer-space expectations are propagated to professional and enterprise spaces eventually.

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