Last week I was at the Enterprise 2.0 conference in Boston for a panel on Enterprise Search (if you missed it, there were some prolific bloggers there. In particular , Michael Sampson, who may have typed every word he heard, and my former colleague John Eckman. There were also video cameras at many of the sessions and I imagine that they will be posted here). For our session, we planned a fairly interactive agenda with a bunch of screencasts and then a dialog among the panelists and the audience. About 30 minutes into the 60 minute session, we realized that we could have had a whole track dedicated to this topic.
Like it or not, search is turning into the interface of web 2.0. Search is the glue that ties together all those fun to use collaboration tools like wikis and blogs. The simple search box brilliantly hides all the PhD-class, post-doctorate algorithms and complexity that makes sense of a chaotic Web 2.0 world.
But search is also a crutch and an enabler for not taking the time to organize and manage content. People who use GMail or Google Desktop don't use folders anymore. They keep their content in one large vat of informational soup. Usually searching turns up things that they forgot they had or wouldn't have thought to organize in that way. People find it much better than the deeply nested folder structures that are forgotten soon after creation. If you drink the search Kool Aid, "unmanaged" content starts to look less like a smothering and chaotic avalanche of virtual paper, and more like this protoplasm of information that nourishes business processes throughout the organization.
Back in reality, many companies are finding less success with their enterprise search engines. Business users wonder why Intranet search can't be as good as Google on the web. The standard response is that Intranet search is harder than Internet search. I say both are really hard but in different ways. While Internet search is dealing with unimaginable volumes of data and traffic and continuous attempts to manipulate the results for personal gain, Intranet search suffers from stagnation and lame content. That and the fact that an Intranet search engine has to negotiate more complex access control rules than an Internet search engine does. Still, I think that if the Intranet had better content, Intranet search would be better.
What do I mean by better content? We can start by more linking. Internet search engines benefit from blogs and social bookmarking which create a meritocracy of content. Click through rates also help a search engine learn what is good. Writing good descriptions of content can help drive click through rates and prevent users from having to backtrack after being misled (the search engine learns from that behavior as well). That raises another (and maybe the most important) question: why would employees want to create good content on the Intranet? I know why people like myself out there in the blogosphere try to write good content. In addition to all the millions I am making on Google AdSense (totally not by the way. Would it kill you to click on a link?), I get a lot of professional benefit from blogging. I can put out ideas and have very knowledgeable people respond and help me refine them. I connect with people who can use my expertise or have similar interests and challenges. My blog is also a great archive to help me remember things that I have seen and what I thought about them.
Writing on an internal corporate blog was far less rewarding. Hardly anyone read my internal blog even after continuous attempts to promote it (as in when people sent company-all emails asking a question I would point them to a post that I wrote on the topic). And this was at a company that was supposed to be ahead of the curve. Using blogs and wikis as the communication tool on project teams was more effective (because I was managing the team and I wrote the performance reviews). I wrote a post about how we used Trac. It was very effective but what was missing from the equation was some way for people to categorize and promote really good content so they turned up in search results. We could have installed a social bookmarking software like Scuttle but, if you are like me, you would want to use something like del.icio.us or digg for external links and the internal system for internal links. That way, when you leave, you get to keep your bookmarks to pages that you still have access to. Here is an interesting thought... now that we have reached a point where people think of their computers (or PDAs) as an extension of their brain, is it reasonable to make them leave this data behind to be formatted when they leave?
I heard several times at the conference that knowledge management is 90% people and 10% technology but what I didn't see was how to get people to step up and deliver their 90%. Most of the ideas that I heard were around making it easier. I think that the secret to Enterprise 2.0 is how to make collaboration and knowledge sharing more personally rewarding. That is where I think we can learn the most from Web 2.0 (more so than with the mechanics of blogs, wikis, and tagging). People out on the web want to publish and put in extra effort to get their contributions noticed. Maybe companies should create their own internal information economies that reward employees for creating content that other people want to read. Maybe reward for hits or positive votes or links toward. Maybe companies should come up with ways to reduce the risk of an employee sharing his private knowledge base? If the company has a social bookmarking system, why not let users export their links into a format that can be imported into del.icio.us when they leave? Doing so would encourage people to share external links as well.
If your employees are motivated, they will overcome obstacles like poor usability. They will find a way to address issues like ownership. They will stop looking for excuses not to participate. They will tap into their entrepreneurial creativity to improve the flow of information in your organization.