We are all looking
for something, and internet search engines cannot always provide the answers.
With swaths of unstructured data lying in corporate servers, whether in the
form of e-mails, PowerPoint presentations or TV images, companies are increasingly seeking the means to sift through the in-house information mountain.
Enterprise search is a technology that has emerged to help them. As well as making it possible to search radically different forms of data, it allows companies to resolve a surprising range of problems: call centres that need to answer queries quickly; engineering groups facing loss of valuable knowhow when employees depart; companies needing to set access restrictions on sensitive internal documents.
Providers looking to serve this growing demand include Google, the search engine giant. But the market is led by smaller specialists such as Autonomy in the UK and Fast Search & Transfer, the Norwegian group.
Large call centre operations spend much time and money training staff to answer customers’ queries correctly and succinctly. With high staff turnover, this is a Sisyphean task.
One of Autonomy’s products attempts to ease the problem by scanning telephone conversations in real time, analysing them and responding with suggestions on-screen – improving customer service and cutting costs. “It makes conversations 30 per cent shorter,” says Mike Lynch, chief executive of Autonomy.
Shorter conversations are also a priority for Jeff Watts, search manager at National Instruments, a US computer hardware manufacturer.
Customers for his specialist products demand expert attention, which means NI’s call centre workers are typically highly trained and highly paid.
“When you call with a problem, you’re talking directly to an engineer,” says Mr Watts. “That’s a pretty expensive thing to provide.”
NI has bought software from Fast that speeds up calls by offering engineers information from a wide variety of sources. If an issue arose in an e-mail or was resolved on a PDF document, for instance, it can be retrieved as simply as if it were on the internet or in a structured database.
“We have to have any piece of data that might help with an inquiry as quickly as we can,” says Mr Watts. “Most of it is unstructured. You have tonnes and tonnes of information that is probably useful in some way but we were not able to tap into it.” The engineer saves time; his employer saves money.
Another area in which enterprise search can help is in retaining specialist skills when experienced people leave or retire.
“One of the problems we’ve got in knowledge management is brain drain and people walking out of the door,” says Tony Sheehan, head of knowledge management at Ove Arup, the engineering group.
According to Mr Lynch, a solution lies in video. Ove Arup pensioners now record briefings on their specialist topics to video. Using Autonomy software, later generations of workers searching for information will be able to pull up relevant segments of the videos as well as text.
“The alternative, as many American companies have tried to do, is to give them
a blank sheet of paper and get them to write [down their knowledge],” says Mr Sheehan. But he argues that this exercise is time-consuming and individuals often find it easier to talk than to write.
Simple tasks such as researching tenders illustrate the opportunity for savings, says Mr Sheehan.
“A lot of it is business requirements rather than techie stuff. Going back five years, the challenge we had as a business was that, if you searched for ‘bridge problems’ a year after the wobbly [Millennium] bridge in London, you would find nothing because the search engine wasn’t capable.”
A week after installing his search software, Mr Sheehan says, colleagues found that the time spent researching a pitch for a construction project was slashed from four days to less than a day. He believes the technology has translated into a real competitive advantage. “For construction it’s not mainstream,” he says.
Rapid searching can save money but there are dangers. While Google’s stated mission is to organise the world’s information, enterprise search has to have limits. You may want to see how much the chief executive earns or search your colleagues’ e-mails but it is probably not in the company’s interest.
Mr Lynch believes most employees should have access to only one in
10,000 files held on corporate servers. “A lot of the excuse to implement these systems is actually around regulation,” he says.
If anyone has reason to welcome the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, which ushered in tighter corporate regulation, it is the search software industry.
The regulatory motivation is not merely about organising information to meet abstract targets.
One feature of Autonomy’s software prevents employees from sending out harmful or confidential material via
e-mail or can be set up to produce a warning when they are about to send out undesirable e-mail and direct them to the relevant company guidelines.
If regulatory steps do not work and a company is suffering an image problem, the latest tools can help gauge the damage. While traditional keyword searches will reveal what the newspapers are saying, video searching – once the preserve of the security services and broadcasters – is beginning to enter the mainstream.
Autonomy’s customers can monitor television broadcasts for mention of their names; if the soundtrack is poor, users can search images to find similar broadcasts.
Even if the platforms are configured to prevent universal access to information, that still leaves an ever greater resource of information that can be tapped by enterprise search tools.
Mr Sheehan of NI says: “In a world where silos are breaking down . . . it brings order from chaos.”