Who should own enterprise search software projects? Not an easy call

Who should take the lead on enterprise search software deployments -- IT or business departments? Get advice on that topic and read about other enterprise search best practices.

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In any technology deployment, there are competing ideas as to who should take ownership of the project: IT or line-of-business departments? Enterprise search is no different.

But instead of fighting for control, IT and the business might be more likely to play hot potato with initiatives involving enterprise search software.

“Search is one of those almost universally reviled features,” said Shawn Shell, a consultant with Chicago-based Consejo Inc. “Everybody in the enterprise thinks their search stinks internally.”

With constituents like that, taking the lead of an enterprise search project is fraught with danger. But somebody has to do it, and more often than not that means IT. And in some cases, IT is in fact the best choice, according to some experts.

IT’s proper place in enterprise search software deployments
Especially on deployments in which enterprise search tools will be used throughout multiple departments in a large and dispersed organization, IT is in the best position to manage the software, integrate it with multiple content stores and maintain it with the appropriate hardware, according to Whit Andrews, an analyst at Stamford, Conn.-based Gartner Inc.

In more targeted deployments, the line-of-business department that will use the software is in a better position to take the lead, Andrews said. That is especially true for the small but growing market for on-demand or Software as a Service (SaaS) enterprise search platforms, he said. With SaaS, there is no hardware to manage anyway.

Others, however, disagree about whether IT is suited for the lead role on large enterprise search initiatives. For some organizations, there may be another choice.

“If there's a library or information services department, that's where [enterprise search] belongs,” said Lynda Moulton, a senior enterprise search analyst at Gilbane Group in Cambridge, Mass. “It does not belong with IT.”

IT staff often aren’t trained in text indexing and content management, critical skills needed to tune enterprise search software to best meet user demands, Moulton said. “People with a library and information science master’s degree are the people who know this stuff.”

All together now: Enterprise search projects call for collaboration
Of course, not every organization has a library or information services department. In those cases, the skills needed to do the job well often reside in both IT and line-of-business departments, making collaboration a key on enterprise search project teams.

“The team should include business analysts, departmental managers, IT people and communications-type people, and they all have to be at the table together,” Moulton said.

Once in place, the team should evaluate potential enterprise search technology and search-based applications with the specific business goals of end users in mind, said Sharon Flank, a consultant with Data Strategy LLC, a consultancy and research firm based in Grand Rapids, Mich.

“What do you want it to do for you? Don't ever lose sight of that,” Flank said. “You can be seduced by all sorts of bells and whistles, but think about what problems it’s supposed to solve, what functions it’s supposed to make better, and how easy it is to use not just week one but after you've used it for awhile.”

Understanding that whoever oversees the deployment is also responsible for the project going forward is an important and often overlooked point, added Consejo's Shell.

“In my experience, quite often companies do reasonably well starting up the project and drawing up the business case,” he said. “Where things tend to go wrong nowadays [is that] once the search engine is launched, nobody is responsible for it anymore.”

Performance improvement plan needed for enterprise search software
Whoever is leading the enterprise search initiative must keep track of user adoption and usage trends, and then respond to the needs of users to tune the chosen enterprise search engine to return better and better results, he said. That goes for an enterprise search appliance, too. Even though appliances are touted as plug-and-play products, “one size does not fit all,” Moulton said.

Project leaders should also develop governance rules for the creation and storage of content, Shell said.

Ideally, organizations should even go back to existing content and update its metadata to meet streamlined data governance standards. Doing so can improve the relevancy of search results. Realistically, however, most organizations simply don't have the manpower or time to spare to take on what can be an overwhelming job.

“I could say that it’s absolutely critical that each document be looked at and metadata be vetted, but people won't do that,” Gartner's Andrews said.

Instead, he said organizations should work on ways to let end users make their preferences known to the enterprise search application itself so that it can tailor results better. For example, if an end user usually searches for emails, not documents or PowerPoint presentations, the enterprise search software can recognize that and give a higher relevance to email search results for that user.

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