Organizations that exist to provide people with information understand that the content they offer must be easily discovered, retrieved and distributed. One of the surest ways to do that is having a unified information access strategy with enterprise search software at its center, according to consultants, software vendors and end users.
Enterprise search, which gives organizations the ability to make discoveries across various types of content, becomes critical when that search process is undertaken by customers visiting a mission-critical website. Making it hard for people to find what they need in this age of instant gratification is an easy way to start losing customers.
SCOLA, a nonprofit educational organization based in McClelland, Iowa, has always considered its collected content the prize for website visitors and partners. But in recent years, it has seen its clients struggle to find what they need using its existing search capabilities.
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Since SCOLA started collecting foreign language television programs and distributing them via cable to college campuses in the 1980s, it has expanded its collection to all types of content divided among 12 different educational services. Those services have become discrete silos, each with its own cache of content types, essentially providing a dozen different repositories in which to search for information. Currently, that means if you strike out when looking for a video about Uzbekistan in Russian, you have to navigate to a different part of the site before you can launch a new search for Russian texts on the Uzbek culture, for example.
"We wanted [to] give our users a quicker and more intuitive way to find that they need," said Jennifer Hawks, special projects manager for SCOLA. Currently, she said, each of SCOLA's 12 services has its own search tool on the organization's website.
SCOLA decided that it needed to find an easier way to point its user base -- which consists of students and educators at universities, colleges, K-12 schools, government language schools; and employees of various news and cable companies -- to the right information. SCOLA executives decided that a unified information access strategy could help.
"We needed a way for our users to search the entire site without knowing specifically what to ask," Hawks said, explaining that when she started at SCOLA three years ago, one of her assignments was to find an enterprise search product to tie all 12 silos together.
Terabytes of data and information
In addition to amassing loads of information and programming from various countries, SCOLA has also grown its collection of resources, which provides both children and adults with several ways to research current news, study languages and learn about different cultures.
"I can't even tell you how many terabytes of data we have; we've just amassed an amazing wealth of resources over the years, which is wonderful," Hawks said, "but you have to have a way to access it."
Hawks said SCOLA has resources in more than 175 different languages, calling it "a ton of material" divided into services such as World TV Online, a cache of video-streamed broadcasts from more than 100 countries, and Insta-Class, a collection of ready-made multimedia classroom presentations complete with video lessons, transcripts, translations, quizzes and vocabulary lists. The services also include everything from a digital asset archive of thousands of hours of SCOLA broadcasts to a service called People and Places, which features pictures of events, people and cultures from around the world. Newspapers, magazines, children's books, radio broadcasts, language training materials, an online marketplace for purchasing native crafts from all over the world, and more content of various types round out the SCOLA offerings.
In the past few years, SCOLA quickly outgrew its original approach to enterprise search and decided to launch its own quest for an "all-over search function" to get ahead of the unified information access curve.
A search for search
SCOLA, which provides content with the help of about 60 employees working at its main campus and a number scattered around the world, turned to Baldwin Hackett & Meeks Inc. (BHMI) of Omaha, Neb. to help it find the right technology for search. SCOLA has worked with several Web developers to maintain its site, but BHMI, which provides software engineering and consulting services, got the nod last fall.
The key to the software selection process from SCOLA's point of view was finding a product that could be integrated with its Web portal and could search all its disparate, multilanguage resources. It was clear from the start that the existing search technology had to go. After hammering out a list of wants and needs, BHMI approached a number of enterprise search vendors and compared products.
"We have a fairly technical staff and also act in an integrator role with our customers," said Lynne Baldwin, a co-founder and president of BHMI. She explained that her company surveyed the marketplace, interviewed vendors, received demonstrations from many and asked about pricing. It then presented SCOLA with its research, laying out a list of features and an "assessment of how easy it was to work with them."
In March, SCOLA and BHMI conferred on the choices and narrowed the finalists to two. After demonstrations of each product, SCOLA picked Attivio's Active Intelligence Engine (AIE) as its new search application because the company responded well to SCOLA requests, accommodated more languages than the competition, and the Newton, Mass.-based Attivio was "just very easy to work with," Hawks said.
Integration with other systems key
Currently, BHMI and Attivio technicians are working on integrating the search engine with other business systems at SCOLA. The idea is to improve the unified search experience to the point where it returns relevant results for users regardless of source or format.
"Our goal is to have it go live this fall, hopefully early fall," Baldwin said.
The AIE technology enables technicians to create a customized unified access index that can be applied to all assets over various siloed sites or subsites. AIE includes a real-time "JOIN" capability that combines with a SQL Server back end that "enables us to ingest everything into AIE, including text analytics and key phrase recognition," said Attivio general manager for e-business Alex Withers. He pointed out that all assets are being connected relationally.
Ultimately, SCOLA is hoping AIE's search capabilities will integrate with the organization's Web content management system. The hope is to reveal insights that lead to discoveries, regardless of the access method that best suits each user's technical skills and priorities.
The most important part of AIE, said Hawks, will be its ability to enable website visitors to perform a "global search of all resources by typing in a keyword, language or phrase that will help them to navigate seamlessly."