More four pillars: looking harder at search

There is much that is technical about search; how you measure relevance and improve it, how you do the indexing, how you process the queries, how you remove duplicates from the found, how you deal with spelling errors, how you put together the found and present it.

This post isn’t about any of these things. There are a lot of places where those dialogues are taking place already.

I am more interested in what people search for, why it differs from past paradigms of requesting information, what that means and why we can obtain immense value as a result.

My way or the highway 

First and foremost, people are now getting used to asking for things the way they want to ask for things. Not the way the “system” expects, but the way consumers expect.

And guess what? No error codes or warnings when you do the asking. No “Invalid code entered” or garbage like that. It’s not validation but parsing and transformation.

I know it when I see it

Many years ago I read a book on quality by David Guaspari. A decade and a half later, I still enjoy the fable. Customers know what they want when they see it. This process, of discovering requirement by delivery, is to me nothing more than a variant of fast iteration. Al-Noor Ramji, who hired and mentored me in my early years, used to say “Don’t ask them what they want, they don’t necessarily know. Show them a Ford Escort and ask them what’s wrong with it. And keep improving it. Quickly”. Or words to that effect.

The shift from deterministic returning of “founds” to probabilistic and relevance-ranked is not trivial. And it will take time for our generation to move off the accuracy high horse, the digital yes-no approach. But tomorrow’s generation are used to relevance and ranking as a way of life.

Size doesn’t matter

We search for many things. Sometimes it is a precise answer, sometimes we’re browsing within a general area, sometimes it’s a number, sometimes it’s a book or article. But unlike the way we pull information down from today’s systems, the answer sizes vary enormously. And we have to cater for that, people want little things and big things, a small amount and a lot.

Speed does

I remember many years ago when working with dumb terminals at Burroughs, I was amazed to see how much perception ruled customer satisfaction. Given a choice between painting the screen with one big chunk of information or doing it in little bits at a time, the technical guy would always opt for buffering it up and doing the one big chunk. Why, because it was faster overall. But the customer preferred to see some action early, even if the transaction took longer. Why, because it felt faster. Fast is as important as relevant.

There are so many other things to consider. How to learn from the Firefly and Amazon and StumbleUpon experiences in collaborative-filtering-meets-deep-preferences. How to use the clickstreams and patterns to aid new hires, provide people with a readymade “this is how she does it”.

How to savour the richness of diversity between two people apparently doing the same job, but doing it very differently. Celebrating that diversity and learning from it rather than grinding everyone into lowest-common-denominator submission. Learning how to use tags and feedback loops to transcend language and cultural barriers.

More later.

Old media and new

This from the FT site today. A Q&A session between a panel consisting of Tom Glocer of Reuters, Trevor Butterworth, a contributor to the FT Magazine and Roger Parry of ClearChannel, answering questions from the public. Maybe it’s me, but I felt schizophrenic when I read it, as they moved from things I fully agreed with, to things I violently disagreed with. An unusual experience, but still worth a read to see what others think.

More on four pillars

Where was I rambling last night? Let me try a different tack. Consumerisation has taken hold of us; enterprise software design and architecture will now be driven more and more by consumer expectations. The consumers of tomorrow are the youth of today.

Unlike any previous generation, they come trained to use the tools of tomorrow. They live and breathe those tools.

And if we’re smart, we will leverage that learning and training. Somewhat like the inversion that Doc refers to in Intention Markets, we will no longer train people to use our tools, but change our tools to use their training.

Hence the four pillars.

There’s an interesting corollary, if we really buy this argument. Enterprise architecture is set by the market of tomorrow (today’s youth) and a level of convergence will therefore take place between market participants. So what differentiates the firms of tomorrow?

More later.

Thinking further about the four pillars: syndication

Imagine we live in a war-for-talent environment, because human beings don’t scale enough, and have yet to achieve Moore-Metcalfe-Gilder-influenced price-performance network-effect virtually-free-bandwidth existences.

Imagine that every “firm”, whatever such things will look like in five or ten years’ time, suddenly realises that grandma was right, that First Hire Good People, Then Do the Right Thing actually made sense.

Then imagine showing the graduates we’re trying to hire what we are used to, the core ERP and SCM applications we’ve replaced our clerks with, and the spaghetti of spreadsheets we’ve brought in as glue.

Have you ever seen a kid using a spreadsheet? or a presentation tool? Really using one? Maybe today’s college generation are just about willing to put up with analogous tools. But not tomorrow’s.

They don’t want separate logins and structured list menus that can only be accessed in specific ways, even if the firm concerned has managed to discover digital certificates and virtualisation and platform/device independence. They don’t want end-of-day reports. They don’t want it so much that they’ll find somewhere else to work, something else to do. And they’ll go where they like the “user experience”. It’s only old fogeys like me who will continue to use terms like user experience, for them it will be normal and expected.

They are an incredible resource in comparison to my generation. They already know how to use the technology of tomorrow. No training needed. Provided the applications work like the world they know, not the world we know.

Which means there is no longer any difference between SAP and BBC News and Wall St Journal and iTunes podcasts. Just published content that they can subscribe to and receive in a time of their choosing, on a device of their choosing, and in the way they want.

Does this mean we are going to replace all our core systems overnight? We couldn’t if we tried. But what we can do is make sure that the content we create and publish gets to them the way they expect to receive it.

Doc Searls has been posting about Intention Markets. And Sean at The Park Paradigm has taken the ball and run with it into financial markets in general.

Is it time to think about an Intention Market for information? Is that what syndication and alerts become? I declare my intention to acquire some form of information by subscribing to feeds and enriching the flow with profiling information and feedback loops; I discover them through some form of aggregator service, and then choose to transact with the information that best meets my interest.

The applications of tomorrow actually compete to give me the information I want the way I want it. They overlap in terms of content, but so what? We have applications today overlap, and we hire an army of people to keep it that way. It’s called reconciliation. They overlap in terms of functionality, but so what? They do that today, but we call it silo and regional thinking. And end-of-day reports is like telling tomorrow’s staff that the news can be seen at nine o’clock and at no other time.

The applications of tomorrow will have to deliver the content to a myriad of devices using a myriad of connection styles and types. 802.11 alphabet soup. And guess what, the devices won’t be locked down on to the desktop at the office either. These devices will probably be personalised and “skinned” and stickered and whatever else. Do you really want to look at the applications of today through mobile device form factors? Okay, I confess, I have seen people read spreadsheets on blackberry. But there’s a different answer to that. It’s called counselling.

Can you imagine rolling back the years and being a graduate wet-behind-the-ears and starting your first job, and being told you can only use company-issue pens? That’s what we will sound like when we tell tomorrow’s staff they must use our devices and our devices only.

And the price they will pay is their time and their attention.

There’s a lot to think about, and a lot to do. Comments and flames welcome. If this post doesn’t get flamed then my site must be down.

Open versus closed information

I am privileged to work with many talented people, people who like thinking about what they are doing and why. As we began our circuitous route on to an internal blogosphere, two questions kept coming up.

One, should we start with an open approach to information and then close those bits and pieces that need closing….or should it be the other way around?

Two, should we enforce declaration of identity or should we allow anonymity?

I think that both these questions are critical in the context of a number of debates about information, particularly those that touch on digital rights, identity, security, privacy, confidentiality and the like.

I’d love to know what you think about these two questions, and am looking forward to comments that I can learn from.

In the meantime…. my gut feel is that DRM implementations that start with a “closed” approach to information are doomed to failure. I have always believed that knowledge management and information security are kindred spirits. You impute value to an information asset. You declare who can see it. You declare who can’t. You must start with a view that information is an asset that increases in value with reproduction and enrichment and evolution and adaptation. Start with free for all. Only restrict access when there is good and clear reason. And there will be good and clear reasons: confidentiality, privacy, regulation, commercial value, whatever. But it is easier and simpler to close bits when really necessary, in comparison with trying to open bits that default to closed.

I’d be interested in knowing other views on this, whether mad or wise.

I approach the second question almost as if it is the first question. Open is better than closed. There may be reasons for stimulating or encouraging anonymous behaviour, but I don’t find them easy to understand. [I am reminded of a 20s-30s book by Julius Henry Marx entitled “Beds”. Chapter One was headed Essay on the Advantages of Sleeping Alone. The page was blank. And in a footnote the Editor stated “The Author refrained from making any contribution to this chapter”. Or words to that effect…forgive me, it’s thirty years since I last read that book.

Looking forward to the wisdom and madness.

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