Cognitive barriers to information seeking

From time to time I turn into a Visiting Professor and work my way through recent papers in academic journals. One of the core titles is the Journal of Information Science and in the Online First section I have just come across what is probably a seminal paper on cognitive barriers to information seeking. The author is Professor Reijo Savolainen from the School of Information Sciences at the University of Tampere. The School has world renown for the quality of its teaching and research.

The author addresses two challenging issues; the conceptualization the features of cognitive barriers to information seeking and the characterization of the impact of cognitive barriers on information seeking. This was undertaken by a very thorough review of the literature, and the bibliography extends to over 50 citations.

From the analysis six barriers are described.

  • Unwillingness to see needs as information needs
  • Inability to articulate information needs
  • Unawareness of relevant information sources
  • Low self-efficacy, where the user feels that it will be difficult to obtain the documents
  • Poor search skills
  • Inability to deal with information overload

From my own experience working as an enterprise search consultant none of these barriers would be recognised by what is often a technology-led enterprise search team. The objective of the team is to develop “intuitive search”,  seeking to emulate Google web search in the enterprise without understanding the futility of doing so.The issue is not one of information retrieval but of information management, and the need to train employees in how to manage their personal and professional information life-cycles. Picking up on the low self-efficacy issue, there was a paper given at the CKIM conference last year which raised the issue that relevance assessments do not take into account a user’s perception that a document is going to be difficult to obtain (the JIS paper above is behind a pay-wall) that it is ignored as a ‘relevant’ result.

The author comments in the conclusion to the paper that a limitation of the study is that it approaches the cognitive barriers from the viewpoint of an individual actor seeking access to information and there is a need for expanding the research perspective by making use of ideas framed in practice theories, for example, because they would take into account how cognitive barriers are constructed socially within work teams and communities. It is easy to focus on the obvious issues around poor search performance (primarily content/metadata quality) that we do not take into account more complex issues around cognition which require search managers to be mind-readers, or at the least have a background in cognitive psychology.

Martin White

Management information and ‘conduct risk’

Deloitte has recently published a report entitled Management Information for Conduct Risk – Underpinning Better Decision Making. According to Deloitte ‘conduct risk management information’ covers market propositions, conduct, behaviour, culture, breaches of policies or regulations and the effectiveness of conduct risk mitigants and controls. Now the primary focus of conduct risk is the effective management of financial services market but the principles are, in my view, applicable across all organisations.

The report sets out ten elements of a conduct risk MI and these are

  1. Linked to strategy, culture and risk management framework
  2. Outcomes focused
  3. Holistic and used to support analysis of trends
  4. Forward-looking
  5. Efficient and proportionate
  6. Accurate and timely
  7. Measured and reported on at an appropriate frequency
  8. Comprehensive and traceable
  9. Supports open communication and challenge
  10. Acted upon and recorded

That is a very good set of elements for any information management strategy. All too often ‘management information’ is seen as the output from a business intelligence application. This report emphasises the need to integrate data and information, and also the need to have staff with appropriate skill sets. When I speak to senior executives I always ask them how much confidence they have in the reports that they are presented with on organisational performance. The answer is always that they have total confidence but when I probe they often have no knowledge of where the data and information has been sourced from. Many years ago I was working on the intranet of the International Monetary Fund and had an opportunity to look at the documents that were going to the Executive Board. Almost every item of information was tagged with the name of the expert taking responsibility for it. Good intranets take the same approach but many other enterprise reports have no personal accountability stamped on them simply because there is no appropriate field in the database.

New regulations from the Bank of England will require a much higher level of responsibility by managers for the decisions they take and the basis on which those decisions are made. Of course this is at present a specific requirement of the financial services sector but it should also be good practice in all organisations where shareholders increasingly want to know why a particular decision was made. Even if you are not in the financial services sector this 20 page report is well worth reading as a way of starting discussions in your organisation on personal responsibility for information quality. I’m always looking for ways in which I can sell information management to organisations and this is an approach that I can see having some merit.

Martin White

The Organisation in the Digital Age

Jane McConnell (NetJMC) has just released The Organisation in the Digital Age, the 2015 edition of her global survey of the way in which digital workplaces are being implemented. A good place to start this review is with a paragraph from the preface to the report. “Every organization has a digital workplace today. Every organisation has digital platforms, tools and services, that are more or less well organized and coordinated. Every organization has work and management practices, different cultures and leadership styles. In all organizations people work together – sharing information, taking part in projects and collaborating. All these elements combine to form the digital workplace: the intersection of people, organisation and technology”.  Absolutely!

It is virtually impossible to review this report in a conventional sense. The analysis is based on replies from over 280 organisations around the world, which as far as I know remains the largest such survey of digital workplace trends. Jane is also in the position of having a wealth of information from surveys carried out over the last decade, and many organisations have participated on a regular basis. The survey outcomes are presented in the 108 figures and tables. This year Jane has commented herself on some of the trends. This is a valuable innovation as in the past the report was faithful to the information from respondents but now there is the added benefit of Jane’s insights based not only on the survey but on her many consulting engagements.

Another innovation this year is the use of a portrait format for the pages, which for me makes it easier to read on a screen, and the graphics quality is even better than in previous years. The opening section looks at the progress achieved over the last year. This is followed by a section that assesses developments through four business scenarios.

  • The learning scenario – how easy is it for people to learn and develop their skills
  • The customer scenario – what is the level of support provided to customer-facing staff
  • The agility scenario – the extent to which the organization can react to major events
  • The knowledge scenario – how can the knowledge of employees be retained when they leave

There are then three chapters looking at some specific aspects of digital workplaces, including the importance of trust, the collaborative and social dimension, and the extent to which organizations need to embrace an open and informed culture. Then comes a chapter on leadership and transformation, which for me is probably the most important single element of the report, as the maturity of a digital workplace is directly related to the extent to which senior managers support the initiative. Finally comes an analysis of the drivers for the adoption of digital workplace principles and practices.

This 130 page report is priced at £360 plus VAT (€490 or $550) and this is a site license so that you can make multiple copies for your colleagues. This is important because the value of this report is significantly enhanced by being shared and discussed, perhaps even page by page and figure by figure. Even if you are currently sceptical about digital workplaces this report will help you decide whether now is the time to think about changing your mind. The report offers no easy solutions, or a list of “10Things To Do To Be Digital”. The advice is embedded throughout the report and put into perspective through Jane’s own comments on many of the issues. My digital library has almost 100 reports and papers on digital workplace development but none come close to emulating the information and wisdom of this report.

Martin White


The pleasures of being an intranet consultant

The last two months have been the busiest since I set up Intranet Focus Ltd in 1999. I have been working on two global intranet projects at the same time, with some similarities (e.g. a potential migration to SP2013 and almost total user dissatisfaction with search) but in other ways quite different in their current situation and in business drivers.  I have been working on one project for some time and then Sam Marshall (Clearbox Consulting) asked me to join him in bidding for a project where our combination of skills would be a winning proposition. The client certainly agreed and even better it’s been a win-win for us as we have shared out the tasks and introduced each other to some of the ways we each approach intranet management. Of course Sam and I have known each other for around a decade but this has been the first time we have worked together, and I hope it won’t be the last.

The first pleasure of being an intranet consultant is that there are always new things to learn. When I started up Intranet Focus in 1999 the chairman of the business I was working for warned me that all the issues about intranets had been identified and solved, as by that time there were probably 6 or more good books available on intranet management. Luckily he was wrong. Good practice (there is no such thing as ‘best practice’!) is constantly changing as novel business requirements emerge and new technical solutions become available.

The second pleasure is being able to talk to people across the organisation. For the project with Sam that meant interviewing over twenty stakeholders across the organisation. I always start off a stakeholder interview project reading through Steve Portigals invaluable book on interviewing.  This gets me back into the groove as I write myself a list of do’s and dont’s, both of which are easy to overlook in the pleasure of listening to people talking with passion about how important information and knowledge are to achieving business and personal objectives.

The third pleasure is being able to provide solutions to current challenges which can be implemented at little cost and effort. In our joint project Sam and I made some recommendations in an interim report which will probably have been implemented by the time the final report is signed off. There is also a related pleasure in helping an intranet team realise that what seems to be reasonably easy (migration to SP2013) may in fact be more challenging than IT are anticipating as it would be an invaluable opportunity to improve content quality and in particular metadata consistency.

The fourth pleasure is in being reminded that great organisations have great employees who have an understanding of the business and a commitment to success that we have to match as consultants. What ever the technical solutions for an intranet there are always two groups of users – content publishers and content users. It is so easy to overlook the demands on content publishers. “We are a part of a global organisation, so people often have to work late to talk to colleagues in the USA and Canada. As they leave at 8.30pm there is no way I can ask them if they have been able to update our department profile.”

So this is my first blog post since the second project started, but I have no intention of reading through several thousand Tweets that have passed by unnoticed, un-forwarded and un-commented. Normal service will now be resumed… least for the next few weeks.

Martin White

Enterprise Search Europe 2015 in London on 20-21 October

A couple of recent search conferences have caused me to think carefully about what makes a successful event for search managers. At both the Findwise Findability Day in Copenhagen and at the Smarta Sök event in Stockholm it was very clear that the delegates were especially interested in gaining experience from case studies. Although there are many technical innovations in search, for most organisations the objective is to find out how to provide employees with a better search experience with the minimum about of near term investment. When I sat down with the Information Today conference team a few weeks ago to talk about the 2015 Enterprise Search Europe conference we decided to fill it to the brim with case studies. The outline programme gives us space for at least 15 case studies over two days, together with three short round-table sessions that will run in parallel with the presentations. The theme is ‘Delivering Search Excellence’ both from the content of the papers and the conference event overall.

This year the conference has been moved from the Spring to the Autumn and is co-located with Internet Librarian International at the conference centre in Olympia in West London so there will be quite a buzz around the venue. There will be a social event on the evening of Tuesday 20 October.

The call for papers is now open, and I’d encourage anyone with a case study to consider presenting it as a paper. It doesn’t matter at all if the case study is work in progress. Search implementation and enhancement should never be a project but a continuous process, and there will be lessons to be learned even from the initial stages of an implementation. Remember that you will be speaking to an audience of very understanding delegates who will be able to benefit from whatever experience you have to offer. We would like the case studies to be about real organisations, rather than ‘a global manufacturing company’. The company context is very important in understanding the value of search and also the implementation and management challenges.

The papers will be short – just 25 minutes with a 5 minute Q&A and we will be arranging the venue so that you will be able to continue to talk to the speakers at the end of each session. I should also add that the term ‘enterprise search’ also applies to corporate web site search, and there are often lessons to be gained from how search has been managed in a public-facing site. We would also be interest in papers from organisations that are using the search features of intranet software packages.

You may recall the words of David Bowman in the book of the film 2001 – a Space Odyssey to the effect that the monolith was full of stars. We want delegates to ESE2015 to remark that it is full of case studies!

Martin White

Chair, ESE 2015


Elasticsearch – the definitive guide. A new book from O’Reilly Media

As I’m in the final stages of writing the 2nd edition of Enterprise Search I was delighted to see that O’Reilly Media had published Elasticsearch – the definitive guide, written by Clinton Gormley and Zachary Tong, both with Elasticsearch. I downloaded the pdf version and could not believe my eyes when the file page total reached 719. It makes the projected length of my own book of around 300 pages seem like a short story! The book is divided into seven sections, covering (with chapter numbers)

  • Getting started (11)
  • Search in depth (6)
  • Dealing with human language (7)
  • Aggregations (11)
  • Geolocation (4)
  • Modelling for data (4)
  • Administration, modelling and deployment (3)

There is, as you might expect, a great deal of code but it is surrounded by text of the highest quality of clarity and accuracy. I am not a developer and the code means nothing to me but the descriptions of the principles of information retrieval and search, and how these can be utilised in Elasticsearch, are faultless. For the same reason I’m not going to try to assess the book from a developer perspective. However there are some more general comments that I’d like to share with you.

First the scale of the book shows the functional power of open source search. I could not spot any functionality that was ‘missing’ and most organisations will only make use of a small percentage of the code. Both Solr and Elasticsearch have developed substantially over the last few years to meet emerging requirements from users captured by the community and in the case of Elasticsearch by What makes search difficult to manage are the challenges of language analysis and to see seven chapters on this topic is a good indication of the quality of the book and the software.

Second the scale of the book illustrates why open source search may be easy to download for free but from there on in you really need to know what you are doing, and for that you need a sound background in information retrieval concepts and practice. There is no point in giving this book to a developer who is not booked out to a project at present! Although there are many worked examples in the book you need to be able to extend these laterally to your own organisation to understand how best to use Elasticsearch, and that requires a knowledge of the repositories to be searched and the types of query that will be used. Open source search has to be developed as a partnership between the development team and the business team. Even writing the functional specification is going to take a substantial amount of experience and formal knowledge.

Third it is worth paying particular attention to the icons which indicate tips, suggestions and warnings. Elasticsearch is still quite young and there are various catches for the unwary. If you want to change the parent value of a child document, it is not sufficient to just re-index or update the child document—the new parent document may be on a different shard. Instead, you must first delete the old child, and then index the new child. A small point but with potentially big impacts. As with any search software understanding where a change requires a re-index is very important.

Finally this book is all about software development and not about search management. There is no reference to search logs and analytics and the management section is mainly about technical performance management. Not unsurprisingly search interface design is not covered at all. The index is superb but there is no entry for ‘user’ or for ‘interface’, nor (more surprisingly) for federated search.

I don’t have the expertise to judge this book as a reference handbook on Elasticsearch though I suspect that there will not be many other books on the topic now that this one has been released by authors who are both with Elasticsearch. As a manual on the way in which information retrieval software works it is very good indeed and any student on a computer science or information science course will find the technical explanations a great deal easier to understand than most of the reference texts on the subject. Business and IT managers should also speed read this book to get an idea of how carefully they will need to specify the functionality of the application.

Martin White

IntraTeam Event 2015 – intranet maturity at last?

It was a case of standing room only at the opening of the IntraTeam Event 2015 on 25 February, with a distinct buzz in the room about the conference that was about to start. The workshops on the previous day were a major contributor to this buzz as it was clear that both the mix and quality were excellent. I attended Ed Dale’s search workshop and made a great many notes trying to capture Ed’s experience of search management at EY and the contributions from the participants. Luckily there is still time for me to add and revise the final text of the 2nd edition of Enterprise Search!

The opening paper was given by James Robinson, resplendent in the new StepTwo corporate identity. His subject was the value of design thinking in intranet development, very well illustrated with examples drawn from the 2014 Intranet Innovation Awards. James has already uploaded his presentation to the StepTwo website. The conference then split into three tracks, and as always I wanted to be in at least two tracks at the same time. At one point during the conference I was sitting listening to an excellent presentation but on looking at the tweets from the adjacent room wished I was there in person. Both Sam Marshall and Sam Driessen blogged many of the papers and  you will find many more tweets and blog posts via the #IEC15 tag so I’m not even going to try to emulate them but take an overall look at IEC15.

The balance of the topics covered was first rate. New to IEC this year was knowledge management, with some thoughtful papers on from David Gurteen and Dave Snowden. To get a sense of Dave Snowden’s approach to KM do watch his short video on options for managing children’s birthday parties. The picture that emerged from the presentations and the discussions was a confidence in the value of intranets to an organisation, a pride in the business impact of what had already been delivered and a clear vision of what still needed to be accomplished. In general I sensed that organisations were being a little more forthcoming with resources for intranet development but still in the dark ages with regard to search. There were very good papers on search this year from Ed Dale, Helen Lippell, Charlie Hull and Andreas Hallgren. As always the conference organisation was excellent. I especially liked the small high tables in the coffee/exhibitors room around which participants could gather to exchange ideas but also easily move on to another group. These tables were also used for a themed breakout session, though I felt very lonely at the search table! SharePoint concerns were often close to the surface, with far too much IT push and very limited understanding of the challenges of migration.

This year, for the first time, the presentations were videoed and will be up on the IntraTeam site in due course. However you only really get the benefit of the event from being there so book out 1-3 March 2016 for IEC16. I, like I suspect all the delegates, emerged into the blue skies of Copenhagen with a renewed sense of commitment to increase the impact of intranets on business operations with an awareness of some of the wider issues of social media adoption, collaboration, digital workplaces and knowledge management.

Martin White



Team management – a choral perspective

It’s a Friday evening and I’ve just come back from my regular workout. Some people run, some play golf and others swim. I conduct a choir, and today was just the most recent of perhaps several thousand choral workouts I’ve undertaken. The parameters are easy to define. I have an hour to ensure that the hymns and anthem for the Sunday service are as good as we can sing them. Although St. Andrew’s, Nuthurst is a small village church in Sussex it has a superb 15 voice choir so the anthems are often quite challenging. As I go through the practice I have to ensure that we cover all the music in a balanced way, so that voices, ears and brains can be rested from time to time and then used at maximum performance. I have to be prepared for the unexpected; perhaps a few bars of an anthem need particular attention even though a few months previously the anthem caused no problems at all. I’m also playing the organ at the same time, not only judging the balance of the organ against the voices but also anticipating how the balance will change on Sunday when the church is full and the acoustic changes significantly.

Over the years I’ve learned many lessons the hard way. The first is to know the music by heart and to have worked out a rough schedule for the practice. I have to know not only the organ music but the individual lines of each of the four voices, and be aware of difficult entries and note sequences (even in hymns) that might need individual practice. The second lesson is to listen all the time. As we sing through an anthem I have to remember all the places where there might be a need for attention so that I can go back to them at the end. I can’t stop every time to make corrections. But in addition I have to sense when a missed entry is perhaps accidental and does not need attention. The third lesson is never to criticise but to work with either the individual or a section or the entire choir on difficult passages. “We were fine up to bar 14 – can we get the same feeling into bars 15-18?”.  Notice the ‘we’. I may be the leader but I too can make mistakes and it’s easier for someone in the choir to highlight the need for me to change the way I play bars 15-18 if the ethos is ‘we’ at all times.

Sunday brings different challenges. We are not there to give a performance. Ideally the choir should be heard and not seen. They stand in the chancel but must never intrude on the eye looking at the altar. We are there as a team to lead another team, the congregation. The way we say the words is just as important as the way we sing. We even practice standing up together, not because we are an army on parade but because we are a team and standing together (not easy I can tell you) is a visible sign of teamwork.

Enough of the metaphors. The point I would like to make is that we all need to practice team work. Every member of the team needs to come prepared, be prepared to learn and to share their experience in working towards a common objective. I’m sure we have all sat in team meetings where the lack of preparation is all too obvious. Many observers of knowledge management have used the role of the orchestral conductor as a metaphor for leadership. This leadership starts with the rehearsal. This is where great orchestras and choirs are created. No one does it better than Sir Simon Rattle. Watch him in rehearsal and see what he accomplishes with an orchestra of school children in just 20 minutes. Note in particular his use of language, and I’m not just referring to him using German. In my opinion in  this video he exhibits every aspect of what it takes to create a team. Listen to the performance at the end. What a transformation!

Martin White

Lloyds Bank intranet – a cautionary story for HR Directors

It is so rare that an intranet gets a mention in the press that a story about the Lloyds Bank intranet in the Business section of the Sunday Times on 15 February immediately caught my attention. It seems that Rupert McNeil, Human Resources Director, invited employees to leave comments on an intranet article that praised the bank. According to the Sunday Times the article praised “a fantastic team” and an “agile workforce” that made staff “more representative of our customers”.  Employee complaints in response (according to Sharecast and the Sunday Times) covered the closure of the final salary pension scheme, morale at a 25-year low, inadequate pay, bureaucratic processes, a lack of support from the top managers and a skewed promotion process! The post in question was published in January. Rupert McNeil joined Lloyds Bank in 2012. According to the Sunday Times he has now left Lloyds Bank but apparently his departure had nothing to do with the intranet article.

Much is made of the benefits of intranets, “social”l or otherwise, in shaping employee culture. My experience is that an intranet is also a very good magnifying glass, highlighting issues with the employee culture. For example where are these issues there are often few, if any, blogs and discussion groups and very little employee-authored content on corporate news channels. Now that Pandora’s Box has been opened at the bank it is going to take some time for the incoming HR Director to sort out the mess. Indeed it may take a while to find a new HR Director under these circumstances. Moreover other potential recruits to the bank are going to think twice about coming on board and you can be certain that recruitment agencies will be picking up on the story today.

You would have thought by now that every HR and Internal Communications manager, not matter what the size of the business, would be aware of the power of social media to empower people who otherwise did not have a channel of communication. I have seen so many intranets where ‘communications’ is a one-way publishing channel with no immediate option for employees to respond to personnel initiatives. I am very grateful to Lloyds Bank for providing a very useful case study.

Martin White

The Digital Renaissance of Work

If you are interested in digital workplaces you might go to Amazon to see what books have been published. Out of 40 titles listed most have nothing to do with digital workplaces as this community sees them. There are two exceptions and both have been written by Paul Miller, the CEO of the Digital Workplace Group (DWG).  I’ve just finished reading The Digital Renaissance of Work, co-authored by Paul and Elizabeth Marsh, Director of Research at DWP. It is really two books joined together as Paul has written the nine chapters in Part I with a strong focus on the philosophy and strategy of digital workplaces. His enthusiasm for the benefits of digital workplace implementation come across very strongly, and the section is full of interesting references to case studies, with over 150 references to blog posts, press releases and reports.

In Part 2 the baton is passed to Elizabeth, who explores in some detail how an organisation can transform itself into a digital workplace. The five substantial chapters cover the digital workplace journey, making the business case, designing for a flexible workforce, setting up the digital workplace programme and finally measuring progress and performance. The chapters are based on the DWG Digital Workplace maturity model and again each chapter has a long list of references and a nice Key Takeaways section that acts as a summary and checklist. There are also some in-elegantly formatted (by Gower Publishing!) call-outs of quotes and comments from DWG staff members. The writing styles of Part 1 and Part 2 are inevitably quite different and that does give a sense of two books joined together rather than co-authored.

There is a great deal to commend about this 216 page book. It is well structured and well written. Paul Miller’s enthusiasm is infectious. The case studies are of interest (though mostly from large organisations) and Part 2 provides frameworks and advice based on the work that DWG has undertaken for its clients. I would like to have seen more on the impact of organisational culture on digital workplace adoption.  The issues of working digitally with suppliers and customers to create integrated digital supply chains are hardly discussed at all.

However this is very much a “DWG book” and there is no reference at all (not even in the list of references at the end of each chapter!) to work from other consultants, notably Jane McConnell. Over 600 organisations have contributed to her Digital Workplace Trends report. It was Bernard of Chartres in the 12th century (and not Isaac Newton) who first remarked about the need to stand on the shoulders of others. We are at a point in digital workplace development where seeing, understanding and critiquing a range of digital workplace frameworks is an essential step in finding robust scalable and extensible approaches to substantial technical, governance and adoption challenges.

Martin White