The problem of finding relevant information?a problem that we all know too well from the Internet?is now reoccurring on corporate intranets. Security concerns prevent public search engines from indexing sources behind corporate firewalls, so companies have had to implement their own search solutions. That has created a new market, not just for public search services, but also for intranet search products. But while search engines have existed for years, they haven’t improved much. A few new features, more efficient spiders and improved ranking algorithms exist perhaps, but on a conceptual level today’s search technology offers nearly the same functionality as did the work of the first pioneers.
Worse, the search engine industry and the research community alike often fail to acknowledge that intranets are not just downscaled versions of the Internet, but are instead a whole different environment in terms of both content and culture. We use the same technology to build both, but the contexts in which they operate are entirely different. Ideas not feasible on the Internet?because of size, incentive or integrity considerations?might make perfect sense on an intranet.
Searching, it seems, is tacitly assumed to be carried out by an anonymous and unidentified individual in isolation. That may be the case on the Internet but not necessarily so on a corporate intranet. Instead, that assumption is at odds with my observations at Volvo in which work is increasingly carried out not by isolated individuals but by (virtual) teams of coworkers. Even if the tool I’m using does not find any relevant information, there might still be other users with similar experiences that I could talk to?but most search tools wouldn’t tell me about them.
In a business environment, for example, where users are colleagues striving toward a common goal, sharing your queries and results with your coworkers is probably less of an issue than it would be on the open Internet. The search tool is often the only natural focal point in a large intranet, and by leveraging the search activities employees already engage in, companies can benefit greatly without violating the privacy of the individuals or requiring them to do additional work.
Another example is the corporate users’ need to continuously monitor a particular topic or field. When the search engine crawls the intranet to detect updates and additions, instead of merely adding those to the index it should also compare the documents to previously saved search profiles. Users with “interest profiles” matching the documents could then be notified of the new material. My research at Volvo shows that such a feature would off-load the employees and save time. I have also found that such user profiles can successfully be used to make employees aware of each other, visualize communities of interests, and indicate new and emerging areas of competence within the company.
Those are all capabilities not traditionally expected from a search engine, yet they are tightly related to searching and finding. Intranet owners must start to ask for search products specifically designed for intranet use and, more important, that fit the work environment at their company. If the differences between Internet and intranet were better understood and more deeply exploited, we could start to see more profound changes to search engines?changes that would not just extrapolate the current solutions but break away beyond the information retrieval paradigm in new and creative ways.
Much of the technology needed for the necessary enhancements is already available but not utilized in today’s search tools. We, in dialogue with our vendors, need to continue integrating search with our other business applications. It is time to move beyond rudimentary search implementations and leverage the full potential of powerful search tools?even if that requires out-of-the-box thinking.