Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Enterprise Search Plummet


I take no satisfaction to in repeating back what one CEO from an Israeli startup told me but I had to agree: "complete meltdown."

He was referring to the lack of imagination, attendees, and reasons for showing up at Information Today's Enterprise Search Summit. Much of the dour story is told through realities that no event planner can possibly correct. I saw the low numbers at the Boston Gilbane show last December and that was sobering. Still given the strong concentration of media/finance/law/consulting communities in and around NYC I thought enough of a core group existed to attract the vendors and analysts -- maybe even some splashy announcements.

Nothin' doin'. No luminaries -- The Steve Arnolds, Sue Feldmans, Oz Benjamins -- all no shows. Even the vendor speakers seemed in a hurry to finish their sessions so that we'd have more time to mix. Precious little was said or speculated on concerning FAST and its place in the Microsoft search arsenal. Even less was offered in terms of SharePoint customizations, 3rd party tools, and what's worth planning for in the new release.

As an Information Today subscriber, contributor and speaker I have no incentive to trash their earnest efforts to stage an influential and instructive conference. It's equally true that I did get value from going. Even in a lean year I benefitted much from exposure to Lou Rosenfeld who I had interviewed but never seen shine in a conference setting. One of the keynoters, a guy named Jared Spool gave a spot-on repudiation to the vendors; that the search bar is not the common ally of the uninformed masses but actually a tool of last resort. The guy I was teamed with on the interface track, John Ferrara, laid out an astute and telling case for the suggest function.

That said perhaps it's time to rethink why we used to come each year. Maybe its time to consider how those reasons might be wearing thin while others that go begging could be answered in future forums?

For starters there's very little give-and-take between attendees in terms of first-hand feedback on their specific deployments. Why not an open mic night version for info-geeks? We could kick the vendors out (or they could forget booth-sitting and pay the sponsor for eavesdropping privileges.

Another improvement would be to attempt some prototyping among breakout groups that try to advocate on behalf of their mock project. Another team could shoot it down on numerous grounds and both teams could learn a thing or two about implementation politics that are not so obvious when sequestered behind your own firewall. Dave Snowden does a far better job of describing and staging this exercise in the Art of Ritual Dissent.

Finally if I put on my dust-laden vendor cap I can imagine how these gatherings could be used to test drive my MRD requirements: what user pains are consensus-forming and which ones only apply to fringe customers? Where should I aim my priorities for upcoming releases? A face-to-face test lab might do the trick.

3 comments:

Daniel Tunkelang said...

You don't consider Jared Spool a luminary? He's a pretty big name in user experience. Anyway, this is my first time attending ESS, so I can't compare to previous years. I found most of the value in the informal discussions, which I suspect were far more substantive than the presentations.

http://thenoisychannel.com/2009/05/13/reprising-the-enterprise-search-summit/

Martin said...

It's not easy running an enterprise search conference. If it was there would be more than the two that Information Today run every year. The Search Engine Meeting has different objectives and audiences. The major problem is that it is very difficult to illustrate enterprise search in action. At best you get some screen shots and even Jared Spool had to use public web sites as illustrations. It's just the same with intranets, and it has taken almost a decade for companies to be willing to open up their intranets to at least semi-public view within the Intranet Bechmark Forum.

There certainly was a lot of discussion about SharePoint, and the SharePoint roadmap, in the all-day enterprise search workshop that Valentin Richter and I gave on Monday. However even this discussion had to cope with the fact that no-one quite knows what Microsoft will do with FAST - if you know for certain perhaps you could blog it. Moving FAST from Linux to Windows and still maintain the scalability is going to be a neat trick - assuming that is what Microsoft is going to do.

Enterprise search is still a small business. When Stephen Arnold and I were writing Successful Enterprise Search Management last year we came up with a figure of around 100,000 enterprise-level deployments world wide. That's another reason why it is difficult to run an enterprise search event, even in the USA, especially with travel bans and cutbacks in sponsorship.

I'm sure your comments on topics for the conference will be taken on board by Michelle and her team. Perhaps next year you will demonstrate live on screen how your organisation uses search?

Martin White
Managing Director
Intranet Focus Ltd
http://www.intranetfocus.com

Marc Solomon said...

Martin -- thanks for both the mountain and ground level views (the planning and staging) of ESS respectively. Yes to your question. I'd be happy to step up to our first open mic slice of intranet life for learning and critiquing by '10 attendees.

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