My Participation in the Search Panel at Unity Connect Online

I was honored to recently be invited to participate in an IT Unity search panel along with Dan Holme (who organized all of Unity Connect Online), Agnes Molnar of Search Explained, and Cem Aykan (the Microsoft program manager behind Delve).

We were in 4 different time zones spread across 11 hours (Maui, Seattle, Boston, and Budapest), with the live audience participating from at least 15 different time zones including Sydney, Bangalore, Moscow, London, St.Louis, etc.  Who wants to sleep when you can talk about enterprise search instead?

Our discussion was quite lively, with great and wide-ranging questions from the audience.  The topics with the most discussion included:

  • What challenge are we trying to solve?
  • How is search technology evolving?  How is the industry evolving?
  • How can these technologies and experiences transform the way we work?
  • What are the big, easy wins and the longer-term plays?
  • What cultural and technical challenges do customers need to consider?

The panel was recorded, so you can watch it at your leisure by visiting https://www.unityconnect.com/online/.  I was struck by a few areas in particular:

Putting a name to the pain

While everyone has a strong sense of what search is trying to solve, it’s interesting that there’s not really a single name to it.

  • There’s a distinction between search  (looking for and finding things you know or think exists) and discovery (exploring and finding information and patterns you didn’t know existed).  For example, Cem outlined how Delve is focused on discovery.  Some folks view ‘traditional’ SharePoint search as focused on ‘just search’, others view it as both search and discovery.
  • Findability is another common term, as Agnes outlined.  People can’t find what they are looking for, whether in search, discovery, or navigation.  Information architecture and metadata tagging are essential tools in the solution.
  • I outlined the Speed to Information challenge.  Our work – collaboration, problem solving, innovation, is all based on knowledge.  Information overload is just as big an issue as findability; the technology and practices are getting better but the explosion of content continually raises the bar and makes the problem harder.

Search technology is evolving quickly, and so is the industry

Our discussion of the evolution of search technology was pretty lively.  On the one hand, the rise of machine learning, adaptive algorithms, and cognitive computing is showing up in some really interesting search applications.  The Office Graph is just at the beginning of a whole new phase.  On the other hand, companies’ success with findability is less and less about the search engine technology itself – it’s about the elements that fit around search to make successful applications, and the practices and ‘gardening’ that maintain the whole system (including the content producers, the users, and the technology).   It was clear from the comments that people need help on both sides – with taking advantage of the new technological advances, and with applying good practices.

The search industry is also evolving quickly.  The commoditization of search engines, including Microsoft’s bundling of the FAST technology, dropping its price dramatically, and bringing it to the mass market.   The bombshell news from the day before the panel was that Google is discontinuing the Google Search Appliance.  This had lots of the attendees thankful that they’d bet on the Microsoft search technology.   Note: BA Insight announced a GSA direct replacement program to help people that want to migrate from the GSA, using our GSA for SharePoint product.

There are some easy wins along the long journey

The panel talked about big, easy wins and the successes we’ve seen.   The top ones:

  • Use managed metadata, and automate the tagging for findability
  • Field a unified view that includes important content outside of SharePoint
  • Turn on Delve and start using it
  • Use search to make hybrid SharePoint effective

I’ve certainly seen plenty of great successes in all four of these with our customers, and we’ve developed products at BA insight to help with all of them.

It is also clear that this is a long journey for all organizations, and the best adoption is resulting from continuous improvement and an expectation of ongoing management of findability.  I call this “gardening” because most of it is about managing what is a very organic process: planting, pulling weeds, pruning, watering all have direct analogies to how you manage out-of-control growth in irrelevant content and other classic search management problems.

Awareness of the importance of search is growing

My friends on the panel and I all admitted privately that we are prone to complaining about the lack of attention to enterprise search.  There is certainly a big lack of awareness of how effective search can be, how much of a positive impact it can make in an organization, and how complex it really is under the covers.  But people too often expect it to work magically, to plug it in and walk away, and then they are inevitably disappointed when it fails.  Just a little bit of attention, a little bit of investment, could make findability much better at most organizations – yet too often people just don’t do it.

But actually the situation is getting better.  There is much more awareness.  There are more search talks, and a whole curriculum coming out about managing search.  There are affordable add-ons that make search more effective and automate the tasks that otherwise take huge effort or go undone.

Unity Connect’s survey results are still being compiled, but the hot-off-the-presses initial results include a rating of “How important are SharePoint & Office 365 to your organization for each of the following use cases?”  that puts Findability right up there with content management, portals, and file sharing, way ahead of the likes of BI and workflow.

Search continues to gain in the ‘is this important’ score (versus other surveys) and the Cloud SSA is already high on people’s radar:

Which Microsoft services are important to your organization, on premises or in the cloud, currently and in the near future?

SharePoint Search (on-prem OR online) 54%
Hybrid Search (Cloud SSA) 13%

Overall, IT Unity Connect was a great event.  The search panel was really well attended, lively, and fun.  I can’t wait for the next one.

What’s your perspective?  Do you have burning questions you wish you’d posed to the search experts panel?   Share them with us.

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