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Could Google transform enterprise mobile search?

The presentations at the 2016 Search Solutions conference, organised by the Information Retrieval Specialist Group of the British Computer Society on 30 November, were uniformly excellent. For me the most interesting was given by Dr. Qin Yin from the Google Research Laboratories in Zurich. To explain why I need to provide some context. In general the enterprise search experience on a mobile smartphone is poor. As the desktop UI has become more complex with multiple filters and facets it has also become more difficult to provide a sensible UI for a smartphone. Responsive design is not at option. There have been attempts over the years to develop mobile enterprise search UIs.  Autonomy offered one briefly and Sinequa does have a mobile solution but I remain unconvinced of the value of using a smartphone as a terminal device for enterprise search applications. It may be possible but is it desirable?  Another search product that is now largely history is desktop search, overtaken by improved (in relative terms!) Office search and the challenge of indexing (in my case) 10GB of stored data.

Qin Yin’s paper was about the work that Google has been undertaking on offering users the ability to search content that is already on their smartphone, in effect providing the mobile equivalent of desktop search. Now I know that Apple offer the Spotlight search through Siri but that is not a good experience in my view. Google is now offering the initial versions of what it describes as App Indexing, using its Firestorm suite. In effect you can now search through content you have downloaded into apps on your smartphone. The index is held within the smartphone but is revised periodically when (rather like with software uploads) from Google when there is sufficient bandwidth. There are some case studies on the Firestorm site.

Now for another bit of context. People tend to want their internal enterprise search to be as good as Google. We know that is technically not possible but at least it provides a default benchmark for the user experience. What occurred to me is that as this mobile internal search improves users will start to say “why can’t I have the Google App search on internal content”. I discussed this with Qin Yin after her presentation and the answer is that in principle you could, especially as Google ramps up its enterprise cloud offering. This would give the user effective access to people and expertise directories, policies and task applications, especially where the mobile desktop is getting rather crowded and you just can’t find the app with the information you need. Offline access would also be facilitated.

Now I may be off track with this but I think that as the application develops, along with Google’s enterprise cloud service, there could be a new dimension to enterprise mobile search. Although Apple have something that is sort of similar in concept  (but certainly not in execution) it is not in the enterprise information services business at all. I would be the first to admit that some of the systems architecture diagrams and descriptions from Qin Yin passed me by.  Mobile app development is not among my skill sets and I have to say that it was only half-way through the paper that the enterprise angle occurred to me and I transformed into a very active listener.  Even so I would recommend that you keep monitoring the way in which Google develops this approach so that you can be prepared to respond to the “Why can’t our mobile enterprise search be like Google?” question.

Martin White


Enterprise search management as a ‘wicked problem’

In 1973 Horst Wittel and Melvin Webber authored a paper entitled ‘Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning’ (Policy Sciences 4 (1973), 155-169). In this paper they set out the basis for what they regarded as ‘wicked problems’, which were beyond the capacity of traditional methods to resolve. In particular wicked problems cannot be addressed by a linear project management methodology because of the multi-dimensional nature of the problems that need to be resolved. Over the last few years a design thinking approach has been used with some success. Design thinking in management is a creative process, in which after gathering information (often through ethnographic techniques) the manager approaches problems through imagining possible solutions, rather than analysing the existing issue reductively. A key element in resolving wicked problems is that the leader’s role is in asking questions in order to help define the complexity of the problem facing the organisation and create conditions for ‘collective responsibility’ in addressing it, rather than the traditional expectation that they will offer a solution.

All too often I find that organisations are treating enterprise search as a project. At the end of the project the team is dispersed and gradually whatever quality was there at launch gradually fades away. The complexity of the workflow between the content being indexed and then found is rarely appreciated. If it doesn’t meet requirements then it must be the technology! In my experience that is very rarely the case.

I have created a table that looks at enterprise search as a ‘wicked problem’  Looking at the 16 elements of a wicked problem shows that traditional waterfall or even agile project approaches are totally unsuited to enterprise search applications. The requirement is to work as a team across multiple elements of an enterprise search implementation with a leader who has the experience to challenge and then work with a team to resolve an element. Even then there is a high probability that not all the elements can be resolved, which is why enterprise search applications need to be well supported with a search team post a nominal implementation. Earlier this week I was talking with Darron Chapman at CBResourcing, one of the most experienced recruitment consultants in the information and knowledge management sectors here in the UK. We agreed that the demand for experienced search managers was well in excess of supply and that salary requirements were very much on the high side. Organisations are now recognising that enterprise search is indeed a wicked problem and there are just not enough people around to solve all the problems. That raises another problem – where can people get a thorough training in enterprise search that is vendor-neutral and covers both commercial and open source applications?

Martin White


Life inside a search lab – London 6 April

You can tell that when politicians walk around a laboratory they probably have no idea of what life is like inside one. I still have happy memories of discovering the solvent power of methylene dichloride and what happens when ether escapes from a leaky joint in a distillation retort. I’ve had a number of inquiries about what my Search Lab workshop is going to be like in April. Think of it as Applied Schadenfreude, a wonderful German word that means gaining pleasure from other people’s misfortune. Of course inside the enterprise this misfortune is difficult to assess. Have you noticed how rarely you ever see an intranet search application actually demonstrated at a conference, or even website search?

The moment we play with website search we usually become very aware of the misfortune of site visitors. But it’s one thing to see poor search implementation and another to understand how to fix it. The purpose of the Intranet Now Search Lab in London on 6 April is to provide you with a framework for assessing the quality of search performance and use it in action on a range of websites. To make the workshop work well we will have a number of pcs available so that you can work in small groups and then report back – much better than doing it all on a single big screen. Doing search hands-on enables you to try out various query and filtering options and build up a set of ‘search good practice’ notes for both your website and your intranet/enterprise search applications. I have a wonderful Black Museum of search implementations which defeat all my attempts to understand what the designers, developers and managers thought they were trying to achieve. It is rather like watching the adverts on television and trying to guess what the ‘creative’ conference must have been like to have come up with such a strange approach to customer communications. I also have some very good examples to demonstrate.  Of course the ideal approach is to offer up your own website for a trial run.

The Search Lab is run on the Chatham House rule that nothing said at the meeting can ever be attributed to a participant, so your secrets will still be secret for ever after the event. What else we will cover in the workshop is up to you. I started in search in 1975 and in 1980 worked with Unilever on the development of the first UK enterprise search application. So as well as the fun of playing with search you can also have fun in trying to stump the consultant. If you do that’s fine with me – I want to learn from the workshop and find out where my search weaknesses are. I’ll also bring along a collection of books on search and there will be a discount offer on my own book for participants.

Even if your own search application works perfectly please consider bringing the event to the attention of less fortunate colleagues in other organisations. They will be very grateful to you.

Martin White

An end to ‘killer apps’ please

We live in a very dangerous world. Once again ISIS has shocked the world with violence at a new extreme for the 21st century and still there are people who want to settle scores by shooting adults and children.

Despite the incalculable sorrow caused by these acts of violence the IT software and development industry feels that it is quite OK to refer to ‘killer apps’. I’ve also seen the term used by web and intranet managers. It is both instructive and of great concern to carry out a search on Google for “killer apps” and find the number of results indexed in just the last 24 hours. Apart from anything else the term makes semantic nonsense. Just think about it for a moment.

To me it is a sign of marketing managers with both a serious lack of language skills and an equally serious lack of social responsibility.

The next time you are offered a ‘killer app’ you might want to ask the vendor exactly why they have chosen to describe the app in that way and what other adjectives they discarded in the selection process.

Martin White



Digital Workplaces and Virtual Teams workshop. London, 9 October

I am running a workshop on digital workplaces and virtual teams in London on 9 October for UKeiG, but non-members are most welcome to attend. The registration fee for non-members is £210 plus VAT. The workshop will be run in three sessions. The first session will be an introduction to digital workplaces.  It be based on the outcomes of the 2013 Digital Workplace Trends report and work that I have been doing on defining ten characteristics of digital work places. There are quite a number of posts on digital workshop development on my blog which you may find of interest.

The second session will explore the issues of managing virtual teams, as these are a precursor to the development of digital workplaces. There has been quite a lot of research published on virtual team management and I will be summarising this research as well as providing some practical advice on how to get the best out of virtual teams. The third session will explore how digital workplaces are likely to develop over the next few years, and explore the role of the information profession in supporting their development.

The workshop will be low on technology and high on identifying the information management and knowledge management opportunities and challenges around digital workplaces. I’ve been developing a list of books, reports and research papers on digital workplaces and a copy of this will be provided to delegates ahead of its publication later this year together with a digital workplace development checklist, so there will be a lot to take away from the workshop.

If you are an intranet manager and/or engaged in collaborative working and social media applications and are starting to read about and think about digital workplaces then you will find this course of value. I will be setting up a Basecamp site for the workshop so that the discussions can continue after the event. You can register for this workshop through the UKeiG website

Martin White


Enterprise search master class – London, 21 March

If you are planning to come to my Enterprise Search Master Class in London on Thursday 21 March it would be helpful if you could register by Thursday 7 March. This is because the event venue, which has its own kitchens and serves a very good lunch, needs advance notice of roughly how many delegates there will be.

The registration form can be obtained from Val Skelton, the Event Manager, at

Among the topics that will be covered in the Master Class will be how to get the best out of your current search implementation (either internal or web site), measuring search satisfaction, using open-source search software and guidance on how to develop a strategy for search enhancement.

However the scope will be determined by the problems and queries you list out on the registration form, so you can be certain of having all these addressed by the end of the day. You will also receive a copy of my SearchCheck search benchmarking toolkit.

Martin White

So far it has been another very interesting year

Now that July has arrived I’ve been looking back over the projects and other activities that Intranet Focus has been involved with since the beginning of this year. Our Research Notes series has been a success, judging by the number of downloads there have been of the individual publications.  We’ve covered enterprise search teams, digital workplaces, enterprise mobile implementation, managing virtual teams,  legal issues for intranet managers and trends and developments in enterprise search. The series is taking a summer break but will resume in September with SharePoint 2010 implementation, measuring the impact of intranets, using risk management to make business cases and manage projects and then in December we will review papers, books and reports that have been published in 2012 that you may have missed.

As for client projects, one involved a complete survey of digital content technologies, covering search, content management, collaboration, social media and mobile applications, then auditing what the client was using and developing a gap analysis of the current technology stack against what is available in the market.  Several projects this year have involved unravelling SharePoint 2010 implementations and offering advice on governance and implementation strategies.  Although most of our work is in the intranet area undertaking an audit of the web strategy of one of the largest UK universities made an interesting change and led to some interesting outcomes on the search implementation they were using.  We are currently working on a corporate information management strategy for a large  multinational company. Although there is general acceptance that SharePoint implementations benefit from having an information management strategy most of the published strategies are those developed by public sector organisations in the UK and the USA.  The objective of this strategy is to develop a set of technology-independent guidelines to support the effective management of information in a corporate context where there are some challenges with the use of multiple languages.

In May I keynoted the Step Two Designs Intranet 2012 conference in Sydney. Superbly organised and with many inspiring presentations it was well worth the long flight out to Australia. I arrived with a presentation on intranet governance almost completely written, but in discussion with James Robertson I totally rewrote it into a paper into one about the importance of search. Later in May I chaired Enterprise Search Europe 2012, with excellent keynote papers from Paul Doscher (Lucid Imagination) and Stephen Arnold.  Over the last few months I have enjoyed working with Kristian Norling (Findwise) on the global Enterprise Findability survey and was delighted to be asked by Findwise to keynote their Findability Day in Stockholm in June.  Another highlight was having Michael Sampson give a collaboration master class in London in March.

The next few months are already looking nicely busy, with a couple of fascinating search projects, the completion of the information management guidelines and a review of a global intranet strategy for a very large multinational company.  I’m looking forward to the Interaction 2012 intranet conference in London and KMWorld in Washington. My workshop in Washington is on managing and participating in virtual teams.  I’ll also be continuing my work with a great team at the Royal Society of Chemistry (where I’m Chair of the eContent Committee) on some innovative projects around chemical information publishing,  chemical data management and professional communities for chemists.

Martin White

Intranets 2012, Sydney. Conference report.

It was well worth spending a day in a 747 to attend the Step Two Designs Intranets2012 conference in Sydney on 16-17 May. This is the second time that James Robertson and his team have run the event, which like the Intrateam event in Denmark is based around the Step Two community of intranet managers, though of course open to all. One of the benefits was that the speakers were remarkably honest about the problems they were facing with their intranets as well as presenting some very significant successes. The two most pressing problems were gaining understanding and support from senior managers and coping with a SharePoint 2010 implementation.

Many of the papers were outstanding, including

  • William Amurgis (American Electric Power) on his company’s social intranet
  • Michael Sampson on collaboration issues
  • Maish Nichani (Pebble Road) on service design for intranets
  • Deane Barker (Blend Interactive) on C-suite concerns about social intranets
  • Steve Baty (Meld Studios) on persona development
  • Karina Smith and Helen Geraty (New South Wales Department of Education and Communities) on rolling out a LifeRay portal to 120,000 teachers
  • James Robertson with an extended and very inspiring on how to design intranets that inspire and delight.

My own keynote was on the subject of search, and the need to consider search, browsing and alerts on a conjoined basis to deliver an effective discovery experience. Michael Sampson has summarised many of the papers.

The organisation was faultless, as was the timekeeping, making it easy to move between the two tracks. The audio-visual, catering and wi-fi worked perfectly throughout the event, something that is unfortunately quite rare in conferences nowadays. Above all there was this strong sense of community, of being not a delegate but a member of the Step Two family. I enjoyed the conference immensely, and am leaving with many new insights and ideas. Congratulations to James Robertson and all the members of the Step Two Team.

Martin White

Enterprise Search Europe – three weeks to go!

I was asked yesterday why we brought forward the Enterprise Search Europe conference to May 30/31 from its October timing last year. The answer is quite simple – there is so much new to discuss and yet old questions still need good answers.  The search landscape has changed significantly since October 2011, with major acquisitions by Oracle (Endeca), Lexmark (Isys-Search) and IBM (Vivisimo) and the gradual integration of Autonomy into HP. In addition in just over a year FAST ESP will no longer have main-stream support from Microsoft,.  Any acquisition tends to take a while to work through, and it is not surprising that companies seem to be increasingly interested in exploring open source initiatives.  The opening keynote this year is from Paul Doscher, CEO of Lucid Imagination, and I am sure he will have some interesting perspectives on the future of open source search.

Any list of major search companies has to include Google. Over the last few years Google has steadily been enhancing the ESA appliance product, and in terms of shipments I would not be surprised if Google has the largest installed base of any search vendor.  The closing keynote on the first day of the conference will be given by Matt Eichner, who is responsible for enterprise search products at Google. Matt is unlikely to be disclosing the ESA installed base but it is very unusual to have such a high-profile Google executive address a conference. Matt’s participation is both a reflection on the reputation of the conference and the commitment of Google to this market.

The closing keynote will be given by Stephen Arnold. If you have not seen Stephen in action then be prepared for verbal fireworks. Stephen tells it like it is, and he has a track record of being spot-on with his forecasts and insights, based on years of tracking the search industry and working on some very complex search projects in the USA and Europe.

It is not only Google that does not disclose installed base information. The entire industry is wrapped in secrecy.  This year Findwise have been undertaking a global survey of search implementation, and the results will be presented at both the Enterprise Search Summit and Enterprise Search Europe conferences. I’ve seen some the initial results but my lips are sealed until Kristian Norling takes to the stage immediately after Paul Doscher’s presentation.

Add in an introduction to search technology from Matt Mullen, a couple of very good panel sessions, almost all the main search vendors participating as sponsors and some of the best case studies we could find, and I’m sure that you will find two days in May well spent in listening and networking at the Hilton Olympia hotel.

Martin White

Enterprise mobile – planning for 2013

Although there were many organisations exploring the potential of mobile access to information in 2011 the emphasis was on the use of smartphones. Most of the early adopters were in the IT industry, anxious to gain experience that would enable them to offer commercial solutions in 2012.  In the course of 2011 there were a number of important developments in enterprise mobile delivery, notably the realisation that Bring-Your-Own-Device (BYOD) was going to be a very important strategy to support, and in addition tablet devices (in particular the Apple iPad2) began to be widely adopted in organisations around the world.

Over the last decade intranet investment has focused on providing support to employees based in offices. Most organisations have a substantial number of employees who are almost constantly on the road, working with suppliers, customers and prospects. There is now the capability to deliver a wide range of information content and services (notably collaboration) to these employees, making use of a combination of smartphone, tablet and pc devices. The need to support a BYOD policy means that employees may well start asking why their organisation is being slow to move into mobile services when they see competitors being more innovative and committed to this approach.

In 2013 Apple will probably be releasing the next version of its iPad, Microsoft will be launching Windows 8 and Office 15 with strong mobile capabilities and 4G/LTE broadband services will be widely available in the USA and starting to be rolled out in Europe. Not all organisations will need to invest in mobile-ready websites, intranets and other enterprise applications, but for many others the quality of their mobile services offering to employees in 2013 could have significant business 0utcomes.

In our new Research Note we highlight the outcomes of a number of recent research reports, consider issues such as information security, Apple’s enterprise strategy and the dark side of mobility and make ten recommendations for actions that should be taken in 2012 within the context of planning for enterprise mobile delivery in 2013.

Martin White