Collaboration vendors discover search – or have they?
There have been some interesting recent developments in the collaboration vendor business. At the beginning of last week Jive highlighted the importance of search, following up on a survey of search issues in the enterprise that the company released in March. The announcement said that “Jive’s new collaboration services, including universal search and integrated contextual conversations, will power collaboration at any scale, in any system, for any team working across an ever-changing digital landscape.” Then Slack, in a full page advertisement in my Sunday paper, promoted the way that “work flowing through Slack builds into a deep archive where the collective knowledge of your company is stored and can be retrieved with a simple search”. The “collective knowledge of your company” is quite a claim. I note in passing that the Slack website does not have search functionality. The week also brought one of the best summaries of the role of search in an organisation I have read. Christian Buckley’s post of 3 March is quite superb. In essence, if you can’t find it you can’t share it.
I’d be the first to agree that collaboration applications should have good search functionality, but if this functionality only indexes documents that have been shared on the application then it may not represent all the relevant information within the organisation. In a pressured collaboration situation this fact may be overlooked. This is why I query the use of ‘universal search’ and collective knowledge’. There is no reason in principle that the search application inside a collaboration application cannot also index and present information in many other repositories, but then you are getting into the enterprise search business. Another aspect of searching across collaboration applications is whether the employee searching the application has the security permissions to search everything in (say) Slack. Index freshness needs to be managed carefully. Users may assume that the moment they have pressed the Save button the document is indexed. As with every aspect of search, everything is possible if you can afford it and can cope with not just the technical complexity but also with developing algorithms that support both known object/precision and exploratory/recall ranking.
There is one aspect of collaboration and search that none of the vendors seem to be addressing, and this is collaborative information seeking. Search remains a solitary “one person – one terminal – one session event”. Over the last few years there has been a substantial amount of research into the benefits of shared search spaces to support collaboration where two or more members of the team can apply their collective expertise in working through the collective knowledge of the organisation. One sector that sees significant benefits in collaborative information seeking is the health-care sector as it seeks to offer patients cross-disciplinary treatments.
One of the most active researchers in this area is Professor Chirag Shah at Rutgers, as his list of publications demonstrates. Professor Shah has also edited a very comprehensive book on the subject which in the process takes some interesting approaches to the definition and categorisation of collaboration. For an introduction there is a Wikipedia entry on collaborative information seeking (which goes beyond search) but the Wikipedia editorial team have some concerns about it. .
My response to these recent announcements is that these are in the right direction. However if vendors really want to add value to their applications and not just make the search environment of an organisation even more fragmented, offering collaborative information seeking functionality could be of significant benefit to their customers and perhaps a considerable competitive advantage.