Even technology-savvy analyst firms have their own IT infrastructure challenges.
A few years ago, internal users complained that it was hard to find information and reports on the Web site of Boston-based AMR Research Inc., according to Michael Melanson, vice president of technology. That was a problem for the firm, which provides information for clients about supply chains, enterprise applications and next-generation infrastructures. If its own analysts couldn't find research they knew existed, Melanson knew that clients -- who didn't always know exactly what they were looking for -- were probably getting similarly incomplete search results.
AMR set out to upgrade and replace the enterprise search function on its Web site. Not only did Melanson find a new tool that significantly improved searches and decreased costs, but less than six months later, he extended its use to business intelligence (BI) and customer relationship management (CRM) analysis as well. It was an unusual evolution, he acknowledged.
Fixing the Web search problem
AMR's old system had been good for searching unstructured information, but it didn't handle structured data well, Melanson said. AMR uses a homegrown content management system and tags or adds metadata to all of its content. The old search technology wasn't effectively using those tags. When the team began looking for alternatives, it evaluated six products and talked to AMR analysts for input. AMR settled on Cambridge, Mass.-based Endeca Technologies Inc.'s Information Access Platform, which had a compelling "guided navigation" feature. AMR implemented it over the summer of 2005, Melanson said.
Guided navigation groups help users view and browse results differently than Internet search engines. In addition to returning a list of relevant articles, the Endeca tool displays content grouped by tagged dimensions like author, subject or vendors mentioned in the report. On AMR's Web site, these additional dimensions appear in the left navigation column, so a user could search on a topic, find a report, then find the author's name in the left column and click it to view all of his or her research. This encourages browsing, Melanson said.
AMR also appreciated having the ability to tune the Endeca search tool's relevancy rankings, Melanson said. While some search algorithms are unchangeable "black box equations," AMR can tweak how the tool returns search results, he said. After consulting with internal users, AMR made it so that the most recent research appears first, even if the search term appears more times in a five-year-old document, because recent research is often more relevant to clients. AMR can also tune results so that a specific piece of research is highlighted when users search on a certain term. The improved searching has brought kudos from users, noticeable Web traffic changes and operational cost-savings, Melanson said.
"We saw a lot of 'one outs' with the old [search tool]. People would do one search, click around briefly and then leave. Now, we're seeing people stay within the search and do more refinements," he said. "We believe that it's also cut down on our internal calls. Before, if users couldn't find a piece of research online, they'd pick up the phone and call an AMR client research contact."
Extending the platform
Less than six months later, Melanson learned about Endeca's analytics capabilities at a user conference. He extended the platform he already had to AMR's CRM system, which had poor reporting capabilities (Melanson declined to name the system). Using Endeca, the team built dashboards that enable people to use the guided navigation concept to explore CRM data. Now, someone can search on a term and see results grouped by different dimensions, like salesperson, region or stage in the pipeline.
The Endeca platform also has built-in charting capabilities, just like a BI tool, so an executive can search for prospects in the eastern region and see a pie chart showing the results grouped by dimensions, such as salesperson or status. This lets people "slice and dice" search results and do ad hoc data analysis and discovery, rather than relying on static reports or limited searches, Melanson said.
"We have greater insight into all of our CRM data then we've ever had in the past. High-level people can get reports and they can drill down into the data. We've produced reports that we could never dream of before," Melanson said.
For example, registrars at an AMR conference last year used the CRM system to record which clients attended the event. While sitting at the registration table, Melanson ran a search on which customers or prospects were currently at the conference, then grouped results by pipeline status. This enabled AMR to zero in on hot prospects while they were present at the event.
"We've never been able to do that. I'm sure there are other applications you can do that in, but we were able to reuse the search functionality we have on our Web site to build this BI tool," he said.
Next on AMR's radar is upgrading to Endeca's latest 5.0 platform, slated for release in November 2006. It incorporates text analytics that can review unstructured data, such as in free-text documents, email or Web pages, to find and group related concepts. The release includes more back-end integration adapters for enterprise system, because rather than searching a single application, as AMR does, companies can deploy the search technology to search multiple data sources at once. If the upgrade is straightforward, Melanson plans to do it almost immediately.