Is enterprise search useful at all? Outcomes of a case study

I’m in the final stages of writing the 2nd Edition of my book Enterprise Search for publication in April 2015. I have spent an enjoyable day making sure that I am aware of any research literature on the subjects covered in my book. At the recent JBoye Aarhus conference I was a member of a plenary expert panel and used my slot to highlight the fact that very few practitioners look at the research literature. The reaction from my fellow panellists was that there was little of value in the research literature that was relevant to practitioners and that seemed to be the sense of the audience. Perhaps because of my background as a chemist I find the research literature fascinating and full of valuable insights.

As I was working through the ACM Digital Library my eye was caught by a paper entitled Is Enterprise Search Useful At All? Lessons Learned From Studying User Behaviour by Alexander Stocker and five co-authors from the Virtual Vehicle Research Centre, Graz University of Technology and Know-Centre Austria. There are in fact very few papers published on enterprise search, let alone on a case study. This paper reports on a group of ten engineers and how they apply enterprise search to their projects, how satisfied they are with the search application and what they perceive to be the overall value of enterprise search. The initial section of the paper is a quite extensive literature review (though it omits my book) of 41 references, a good indication of how little research has been published on enterprise search in practice. The engineers used SharePoint 2013 Foundation in an out-of-the-box configuration.

Among the issues that emerged (not surprisingly) were the difficulty of query formulation, inconsistent documentation and use of metadata, the heterogeneity of document content and structure and the misleading built-in relevance model of the search application. What also emerged was the need for help in developing the optimum search strategy. The project was very small scale, and the outcomes are mainly some interesting comments made by the engineers as they undertook searches. For those of us who are familiar with the vagaries and challenges of enterprise search there is nothing especially surprising about the outcomes but the paper is useful in putting enterprise search into context and providing a basis for further research projects along the same lines. The bibliography alerted me to some papers that I was not aware of, though only 6 of the 41 references date from 2011 onwards. Getting funding for research projects is much easier when there is an established methodology that can then be extended to other disciplines and circumstances. The paper was presented at the i-KNOW conference, held in Graz in September this year.

The downside of much of the research literature is that it sits behind a subscription firewall, and this paper is no exception. As you will see from the paper link above the conference proceedings are published by the Association for Computing Machinery and at present there does not seem to be a parallel publication from any of the three participating organisations.

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



Certifying virtual teams – a key skill in digital workplace implementation

A few weeks ago I was giving a presentation on the vision and reality of digital workplaces at the JBoye 2014 Aarhus conference. I never understand why the right to ask questions is only applicable to delegates so I started of with one of my favourite questions. “How many of you regularly work in virtual teams?”  Virtually everyone in the room, around 50 delegates, raised their hand. I then asked “How many of you have a training programme for virtual team membership and leadership?” Only two people raised their hands. In most job positions in an organisation there will be a an engineer comes to service a piece of equipment, be it a photocopier or a CAT scan machine, you would rightly expect that they have been trained and certified for the skills needed to effect both diagnosis and repair.

I’ve been involved in managing virtual teams since 1974 (that is not a misprint!) and I am constantly learning about better ways to gain the benefit from working virtually. At the Legal KIM Breakfast I am running with Paul Corney in London next month I will be taking about the benefits of tying a balloon on a telephone. To learn more come to the Breakfast. I also use the Mr Men concept to prepare people for the significant challenges of working with people in virtual teams, especially when you have not met them in person. In a discussion later in the conference I asked a small group if they were able to meet other members of virtual teams to get an impression of their building layout and facilities. All said that they were, but on further questioning this only applied to people working in their organisation even though all of them took part in virtual teams on a frequent basis where people from outside of the organisation were involved.

This is especially important in digital workplaces where there will be a constant requirement to work with suppliers and customers. In my experience virtual teams differ in almost every respect from table teams – a term I have coined to describe teams gathered around the same table. This is not just with regard to meeting management but in the leadership skills required for virtual teams. Simple things can make a big difference. Talking to one delegate they mentioned a challenge about getting their East Coast and West Coast US teams working better together in virtual team meetings. I asked if the West Coast team ever had a chance to fix the meeting time even if it was towards the end of the day in San Francisco and therefore in the evening in Boston. All too often meeting times are chosen to suit corporate HQ, not participants in other countries.

I would recommend that developing a structured training programme for virtual team participation and management should be a priority for 2015. You can download a briefing to virtual teams from the Resources section of this site or take a look at what I regard as ten critical success factors in virtual team management. If you would like me to run my virtual team training course in house or develop a certification programme for your organisation please let me know.

Martin White

JBoye 2014 Conference, Aarhus. The best yet!

In my line of business attending conferences is an occupational hazard. Typically I end up at about a dozen a year, often sitting at the back or on a speaker chair muttering about variable quality papers and even more variable quality organisation. The JBoye Aarhus 2014 conference, which took place on 4-6 November, has set an almost unattainable benchmark for both content and organisation.

Although I attended most of the early Aarhus conferences, and one in Philadelphia, a conflict of dates with the Enterprise Search Summit Fall in Washington DC over the last few years meant that this was my first Aarhus conference for a while. But as it was the tenth anniversary event I engraved the date in my diary right at the start of the year. In this account of the conference I’m going to try to give you a sense of ‘feel’ of the event rather than summarise the sessions I attended

The opening plenary session on Tuesday evening took place in the main hall of the Aarhus City Hall and was followed by a very good supper sponsored by IntranetNote. The conference was located in the new Comwell Hotel in the centre of the city. The hotel was under construction when Janus and his team took the decision to use it as the venue. It turned out to be a very good choice. The main room and the breakout rooms all had a substantial amount of natural light, a mix of tables and chairs, good AV and plenty of power sockets. Although there were five parallel themes the rooms for each theme changed between every paper. This meant that delegates were encouraged to re-think their choice and would find themselves sitting alongside a fresh group of people at each rotation. The layout of the rooms around a large coffee breakout area made this much easier to accomplish that it may seem from this description and encouraged high-speed networking at each break in the timetable. The food was excellent at breakfast, breaks and lunch and the queues were minimal.

One of the benefits of not having a subtitle theme to the conference is that the papers, round tables and discussions ranged across the entire spectrum of digital delivery. In the course of my two days at the event among the sessions I attended were on the development of digital services in the UK Parliament (Tracy Green), making Agile development work (James Cannings), the content strategy (Simon Kaplan), a pragmatic approach to big data (Bebo White), implementing a social business application at Schneider Electric (Todd Moran) and web accessibility (Daniel Gartman and Helene Noorgard). I also enjoyed participating in the Expert Panel session with Bebo White (no relation as far as he and I know!) and Ina Rosen. The conference dinner, in the old Turbine Hall of the Aarhus power company, was generously sponsored by Magnolia.

I have already Tweeted that this was the best conference I have attended in the last decade in Europe and the USA. The only other conference I can recall that matched it was the Step Two Designs Intranets conference in Sydney a few years ago. The event provided a wide range of speakers, a very open ethos of sharing knowledge, immaculate conference organisation and a commitment to delegate satisfaction throughout the event. It’s not until you have run a conference that you gain any idea of the amount of work and attention to detail that is required to deliver an event of this standard. The Aarhus event also benefits from JBoye being able to bring the best of the Philadelphia conference speakers across, and vice versa, and that also adds to the wealth of knowledge in the sessions and at the networking events. The 2015 Aarhus conference will take place on 2-5 November 2015. Put it in your budget now. Each year JBoye has consistently improved the events. Based on Aarhus 2014 the 2015 events should be stunning!

PS If you are wondering about the ‘decade’ limitation it is because the early intranet conferences in San Francisco and then San Jose between 1999 and 2002 were outstanding in terms of a community of several hundred practitioners coming together to share a vision and good practice in intranet development.

Martin White


Digital Workplace Gold Dust R1.0 – a report from InfoCentric

It has been a while since I last blogged, primarily because of two major digital workplace strategy projects. So it is timely that InfoCentric recently published a report on the experience the company has gained from recent digital workplace projects. As a result the perspective is very different from the survey-based analysis provided by Jane McConnell in the Digital Workplace Trends report.  The report authors are Philipp Rosenthal (formerly at Tieto),  David Franklin and Kevin Hansen. The report is presented in a quasi-PowerPoint two-column landscape format. There are three main sections in the 46 page report, Reality Check, The Way Forward (with sub-sections on Models and Strategy Corner Stones) and DWP Mechanics and Principles. The two objectives of the report are set out as sharing the experience that InfoCentric has gained from the projects and to attract consultants to join the consultancy. The latter is a somewhat unusual objective!

The Reality Check section covers a lot of ground, offering three scenarios, six challenges and six issues related to organisational change in just ten pages. The pace continues in the second section with a five-category typology of organisations, a four stage model of the evolution of a digital workplace, a four element framework for the way in which employees need to be connected and then eight digital workplace strategy ‘corner stones’. The discussion around the corner stone of Concrete Value introduces (very briefly) the 8C Model of Enterprise Information Management. A six-category framework for digital workplace stakeholders labels one of the categories as Cockroach, which is without doubt the first time I have seen this word in a report written for senior management. The report concludes with the section on DWP Mechanics and Principles, listing out five areas which may turn out to be game changers in the evolution of digital workplaces.

There is much of value in this report if you are already actively involved in digital workplace development. All the various frameworks, models, lists and categories are clearly based on a lot of practical experience. However despite the claim that the report is based on projects that InfoCentric has undertaken there are no ‘stories’ about how organisations are approaching digital workplace implementation, which are a valuable element of the Digital Workplace Trends report. There is also no discussion about differences of adoption in vertical sectors. From my own experience over the last couple of months, major law firms and pharmaceutical companies are very different in their approach to digital workplaces. This is certainly not a report you could give to a senior manager. I think that their eyes would glaze over after the first few pages from a combination of the pace of the presentation, the often awkward use of a double column layout and with sentence compression to the extent that it is almost impossible to see spaces between words. Pale green and pale blue highlighting also do not assist the reader, especially if they are reading on-screen and have not printed it out. I would also have liked to see some references for further reading.

Full mark to InfoCentric and the authors for the investment involved in the considerable amount of research and analysis that is presented in the report. I know I will make good use of this very comprehensive analysis of the issues around digital workplaces but I am not sure it is a report that I could recommend to a senior executive trying to make a business case for investing in the scoping and implementation of a digital workplace.

Martin White


A Breakfast Breakout for law firm knowledge managers. London 9 December

Since the beginning of the year I’ve been working on digital workplace strategy for major global law firm and it certainly ranks among the most interesting projects I have been involved with. Law firms are facing a significant change in business model as clients are beginning to engage firms on something close to a fixed price basis, rather than on what can be a rather open-ended time-and-materials basis. Clients also want to work more closely with their legal advisors and have greater transparency on the progress of the matter under consideration. Legal Project Management is one of the new areas of interest for law firms of all sizes. All this comes at a time when there is little real growth in the corporate legal services market. A few months ago my long-time business associate Paul Corney and I met up for our regular state-of-the-market lunch. Paul and I have worked on projects in Cyprus and Barbados as well as the UK. Paul shared with me some of the work he had been doing recently in the law sector. As we compared notes we became aware that some of the knowledge management, information management and project management approaches that we had been using for many years might be unfamiliar to law firms. We decided to validate our conclusions by talking to some of our contacts in law firms and among the comments we noted were

“We are great at capturing, not so great at sharing, especially when it comes to knowledge about clients”

“Too many people think that writing a project plan is all that is needed to make a success of Legal Project Management”

We have decided  to set up a meeting at which we could share some of our experience with senior knowledge and information managers working in law firms. Our Breakfast Breakout will take place in the Benjamin Franklin room at the Royal Society of Arts on 9 December. Starting at 9.00am (but with breakfast at 8.30am) we will be covering (amongst other topics)

  • Knowledge Loss & Knowledge Gain,
  • Legal Project Management,
  • Getting the best from firm/client virtual teams
  • Stakeholder Engagement and Management

We will be talking about Knowledge Chameleons, the “Balloon on a Phone” and WTGTGQ – When They Go They Go Quickly. There will also be a chance to benchmark your own situation, though the Chatham House Rule will apply throughout the meeting. With just ten working days to Christmas we’ll provide a relaxed setting, no PowerPoint presentations, a good breakfast and an opportunity to support the PlanZheros charity instead of paying for a ticket. You will be able to be back at your desks by 11.00. The room will be set out cabaret-style and we’ll be moving everyone around after the mid-way break to foster networking.

If you are interested in attending keep a track through either @intranetfocus or @PaulJCorney for further information on the event.

Martin White

Findability Survey 2014 – findability meets information management

September was a good month for search. AIIM published its first ever survey of search adoption and implementation with a particular focus on the role of enterprise content management applications. Although a global survey the majority of respondents were from North America. Findwise released its third Enterprise Search and Findability Survey at the Findwise Findability Day. The sample size was a little smaller than AIIM but 80% of the responses were from Europe. The top line outcomes of the two surveys are similar. Organisations know that information is a business-critical asset but pay little attention to ensuring that the information that has been expensively created by an employee is then discoverable by anyone else in the organisation that has a need for it. The problem is more acute in organisations with more than 5000 employees where nearly 60% were dissatisfied with the existing search application.

The report is structured around a five-dimension model of findability, covering the alignment of search with business objectives, meeting the requirements of users, having an organisation/governance framework, ensuring that information is of adequate quality and implementing a technology platform which provides an appropriate level of functionality. What comes across very strongly in the report is the positive impact of adopting an information management strategy which sets out the scope of a search strategy. For example, 33% of respondents in organisations with a search strategy said that information was easy, or very easy, to find. Where there was no strategy the figure was only 14%. Again, where there were Key Performance Indicators for search only 25% of users were dissatisfied with search performance compared to 47% in organisations without KPIs. The most dramatic difference was in regard to search analytics. Where analytics were analysed and acted upon only 22% of respondents stated that it was difficult or very difficult to find information, compared with almost 60% where no analytics were available.

The message is very clear. Search satisfaction is significantly better in organisations with an information management strategy for content quality, taxonomies and metadata, allied to a search strategy that supports positive action from analytics reviews and the provision of search-as-a-service architecture.

The survey team at Findwise were led by Mattias Ellison. The quality of the analysis in the 2014 report is excellent. The team reduced the complexity of the survey compared to previous years and this decision has undoubtedly led to the much higher response rate. One-off surveys are useful but regular surveys are even more useful as trends can be identified. I do hope that both Findwise and AIIM run their surveys again next year. Overall I have a sense that there is a gradual increase in the organisational awareness of the importance of search. Although the Findwise report does suggest that search satisfaction has been getting worse since 2012 I feel that the somewhat heterogeneous respondent range in previous years may have skewed the data. I hope I am proved right in 2015.

I’m in the process of integrating the outcome of both these surveys and data from other sources to build a reasonably comprehensive view of the search landscape and this will be published in mid-October.

Martin White

Take account of dyslexia in search result page design

Taking account of accessibility issues in the design of search results pages is a significant challenge. Google notes that it has “taken some deliberate steps to further improve the accessibility and tools that are commonly used by people with disabilities such as blindness, visual impairment, color deficiency, deafness, hearing loss, and limited dexterity.”  The missing disability is dyslexia, which is a condition in which there is a wide spectrum of challenges to the user.  Search results displays often make life very difficult for people with dyslexia, a point well made to me last year when I was working on a search strategy for a UK university. Many famous people have achieved a great deal despite having the condition. In most cases they make no mention of their condition because they have been taught, or have discovered, ways of coping with understanding text. Many of those with the condition are able to recognise words by their shape. The indications are that 10% of the UK population and perhaps 15% of the US population have some degree of dyslexia. That means in an organisation with 1000 employees 100 will need support.

Some of the design considerations should be taken into account are

  • Do not underline text
  • Do not use capital letters
  • Use high contrast colour palettes but not black on white
  • Use a line space or 1.5 or ideally 2
  • Minimize the amount of information presented on a single page
  • Keep line lengths short
  • Write in good ‘standard’ English

A quick look at some websites indicates that little thought seems to have been given to dyslexic users. Warwick University underlines the titles of search results, as does Southampton University. Moreover the summarisation application on the Southampton website does not result in well-structured English sentences. The Office of Communications has pink titles on a greyish background and there are instances of all capital letter summaries and the URLs are dark grey on a light grey background. The Financial Times squeezes a dense array of filters and facets and picture thumbnails onto the search page. That’s a very small selection of sites which seem not to have taken dyslexia into account.

The challenge is this. In your organisation the chances are that 1 in 10 of the workforce have some degree of dyslexia, a much greater percentage than any other accessibility challenge with the possible exception of red-green colour blindness. The condition is invisible to anyone other than people who are having to cope with it, and they are probably the last to raise it as an issue. Although your intranet pages may not present too many challenges, based on a limited sample of websites and thinking about my clients over the last few years I suspect that most search results pages make life and work rather difficult for 10% of your workforce, and the same percentage of visitors to your corporate website.

Martin White


Intranet Focus Ltd – the first fifteen years

Intranet Focus Ltd opened for business on 22 September 1999. My interest in intranets started in 1997 and in 1998 three colleagues at TFPL Ltd joined me in writing Intranet Management – a Guide to Best Practice, based on some consulting projects and a significant amount of research. The report stimulated considerable interest but not a great deal of work. By late 1998 I was corresponding with Howard McQueen, who was creating what turned out to be the first major intranet conference, scheduled for San Francisco in February 1999. Since 1999 was also our 25th Wedding Anniversary Cynthia and I decided to spend it in San Francisco and take in the conference at the same time. By the end of the conference I was hooked on intranets. TFPL were not keen to move into a more technical consulting area from their work in knowledge management (at the time the right decision) and so I left the company and started up on my own. The first challenge was to find a company name that also had .com and web addresses available. It was Simon, one of our sons, who came up with Intranet Focus.

I’d have to say that the first couple of years were scary. I worked on some projects but none of any size. Then in 2001 I won a contract to redevelop the intranet at the International Monetary Fund in Washington, starting work the day before 9/11.  It turned out to be a challenging project in many ways but the team I built up for the project delivered on time and to budget despite the after-effects of 9/11. That was the turning point for the business as the IMF was the definitive ‘reference client’. Just as important I learned a huge amount about intranets and the management of intranet projects.

Over the last 15 years I’ve worked on projects on a dozen countries and enjoyed myself enormously. Working inside an organisation is a fascinating experience, be it a major pharmaceutical company, a Gulf State conglomerate, a convent or a global law firm. I’ve worked with some very talented and generous colleagues, including (amongst many others) Jane McConnell, James Robertson, Howard McQueen, Paul Corney, David Gilroy, Gerry McGovern, Michael Sampson and Jed Cawthorne. Janus Boye, Kurt Kragh Sorensen, Kristian Norling and the Information Today teams in the USA and in the UK have all been very supportive and given me many opportunities to run workshops and speak at conferences. I would also like to acknowledge three clients who were an especial pleasure to work with – Christiane Wolff at Boehringer Ingelheim, Kristin Dom at Atlas Copco and Stavri Nikolov at the European Commission. Helen Carley at Facet Publishing and Simon St. Laurent at O’Reilly Media guided my work on four books, each of which has been an invaluable calling card. However none of what I hope I have achieved would have been possible without the support of Cynthia and our sons Nick and Simon.

Most of the ‘best practice’ guidance in the TFPL 1998 report is still applicable. This is not because my colleagues and I were especially insightful in 1998 but because we all had a background in information and knowledge management consultancy, and in publishing. We brought best practice from those disciplines into an intranet framework that has stood the test of time. Rarely do I now come across an intranet manager who is unaware of best practice. However intranet managers (and search managers) remain lonely people with very limited resources, recognition and career opportunities. My role is not to teach them but to work with them in gaining the support of the senior managers of their organisations, very few of whom seem to understand the value of information in achieving business objectives, the role of an intranet in managing information and the need for effective search.

Shortly before I announced my departure from TFPL an experienced senior business manager I knew advised me not to move into intranet consulting as people would quickly work out how to make use of the technology. Fortunately for me, and for the only time in his distinguished career, he was wrong. One of my favourite quotes comes from US President Lyndon Johnson. He remarked that the fire of progress is lit by inspiration, fuelled by information and sustained by hope and hard work. All I can do is provide the information. The inspiration, hope and hard work is down to my clients.

Martin White

The 20 minute presentation – they are not as easy as they seem

All the presentations at the Findwise Findability Day and many at Intranet Now were just 20 minutes in length. There seems to be a trend towards shorter presentations so that more speakers can be squeezed into a day rather than have delegates take two days away from their office desk. In theory that’s a good approach but my experience at a number of recent conferences is that many presenters fail to understand the implicit rules of the game and end up either saying nothing of value or so much that the value becomes invisible. In writing this blog post I checked out how many presentations I have given over the last six years (the rest are archived off line) and was surprised to find that it was over 300, though quite a number of these have been internal presentations to clients. Over the course of a career behind the podium I have developed an internal clock that enables me to time a 40 minute presentation without looking at my watch, and that is mainly because I’ve worked out how much information I can deliver in a single PowerPoint slide.

In the preface to the 1852 edition of Christmas Stories Charles Dickens observed that he found it much more difficult to write a short story than a novel, and that he had to go about writing a short story in a very different way. I know how he feels. I’m sure I’m not the only person who has a very large collection of presentations from which slides can be extricated and reassembled. In the case of my Findability Day presentation I started from scratch and every slide was created from a blank format. With a 40 minute presentation I can usually end with perhaps two or three ‘messages’ and I have the option to speed through or slow down at points where I feel the audience needs less or more information. A 20 minute presentation has to be very carefully timed and needs to work towards a single theme. Listening to 20 minute pitches over a number of events this year it is clear to me, and I suspect the audience, that the presentation has been redacted from a much longer one with the result that there is no coherent structure. There is a very helpful post on how to develop a 20 minute presentation by Carmine Gallo on the Forbes website.

However the responsibility is not just on the side of the presenter. The conference organiser knows (or should know!) what the audience is expecting. It is essential that the organiser actively works with each presenter to review their content in line with the overall objectives of the event. That takes time but the audience deserves this level of attention. Of course that also means that the presenter cannot leave it to the last minute to compile their slide deck. To my mind two of the presenters at the Findability event had failed to take a user-centric view and you could sense the immediate increase in heads-down on handsets, not to Tweet but to catch up with emails. The problem nowadays is that as a presenter you do not know what use is being made of mobile devices until later on the day when you see no tweets with your name and the event hash-tag.

One final thought. There will be fewer questions after a good 20 minute presentation because a) it will be mono-thematic and b) there is a sense that a question will throw the entire agenda into confusion. So I would suggest to organisers that there are gaps for a general Q&A with perhaps a group of speakers so that themes that have emerged can be discussed in more detail in an open session. I’d also suggest having a speaker’s corner where after each session a group of speakers could meet up with delegates who might want to have a one-on-one discussion rather than ask a question in an open session.

Martin White