Search as a Collaborative Tool

In my post last week on Colludo, I spoke about the need to put “collaboration” in context. The writings in this series seek to do just that.

To recap, I’m referring to office collaboration around documents. Of course, there are many other types of collaborative activities that occur in offices (e.g. meetings, building BBQs, records management around donor databases etc.), but in this series I’m focusing strictly on documents.

This post picks up where the last one left off and begins to explore some ideas around injecting more technology into our office collaboration activities. Here, I will explore the concept of search. Afterall, we can’t collaborate around a document if we can’t find it.

Where did my apple wine recipe go?

How much time do you spend looking for information? As information workers, the chances are it’s a lot of time. Is the time well spent? Maybe. If you find what you are looking for, the endeavour was worth it, right? But what if it took you a very very long time to find what you were looking for? Several minutes, hours, days, or even weeks. The answer to all of these questions is most certainly: “it depends”.

Unfortunately, the answer “it depends” crops up all too often in the knowledge worker sphere (I’m going to use the terms “information worker” and “knowledge worker” interchangeably – don’t crucify me, Sheena!). And, “it depends” is exactly why we want to put this discussion in context. However, if I take one small example and work it to death in this series (no BBQs), you may be left without a sense of how the discussion applies to other examples in your everyday office life. So, I’m asking you to pick up the slack and come up with your own practical examples. Or, just sit back and soak up the discussion introduced here. Please do shoot me your questions and concerns in the comments section below.

Now that “it depends” is out of the way, I want you to think more deeply about search. It’s an undertaking we all do every day (in both the information and the physical worlds – these are the same worlds though aren’t they?). What do you look for? How do you search? Which tools do you find effective? Why can’t you find what you are looking for at all sometimes?

If you’re reading this online (not sure how you couldn’t be – oh wait, yeah, I figured it out), you are familiar with Google. It’s the mega search engine out there in internet space. The sheer size of the thing is astounding and it helps us connect with information all of the time. Perhaps you use a different search engine and that’s ok too, the point here is that we use search engines to search.

These search engines crawl massive online document repositories, they index (or tag) these documents, and given our keywords as input, they spit back a listing of possible resources or “answers” to our search queries.

What are the necessary ingredients in a successful search?

  1. A powerful search engine. We have Google, so we’re good. Wrong. Google is probably not indexing our personal documents or our shared internal documents. It’s not indexing our email (unless we’re talking about Gmail, oops). It doesn’t have all of the information that we need. Instead, we need an internal search engine to answer our queries about office documents.
  2. Good content. If our documents are not all accessible to the search engine, we will not find what we are looking for. Further, if our documents are incomplete (or worse, left unwritten in our heads), no matter how great our search engine is, our queries will not be satisfied.
  3. The best keywords. If we give the search engine meaningful keywords that control the scope of the search just right, our searches for documents will be successful (“60% of the time, it works everytime”).

Search is a critical part of collaboration. Without great search tools it may take far too long to find the documents that we need or worse, we may never find them at all. In this way, providing an excellent search experience is step one to improving your document collaboration enterprise.

Next time, I will talk at you about why it’s more efficient to search for documents with an engine rather than sorting your documents. The latter makes *you* the engine and I don’t know about you, but my engine needs a break 60% of the time.