Information Foraging at FASTForward '07

February 14, 2007 · · Posted by Greg Lloyd

I enjoyed FASTForward '07 last week in San Diego - an excellent conference and 60 degrees warmer than Providence Rhode Island! It featured great keynotes (particularly Andrew McAfee on Enterprise 2.0 the Next Disruptor), sessions, networking and entertainment.

I did a short breakout session on "Search Meets Blogs and Wiki's" with a different slant on search: It's now easy to do an excellent job with enterprise search when you want to find topically relevant content - say anything about "penguins".

But within an enterprise you often want actionable information in context, where "in context" is hard to characterize using standard search techniques. However, context is relatively easy to characterize if you have blog/wiki spaces that contain or link to the work product, dialog, and intelligence centered on contextually relevant business purposes, e.g. developing a product; managing a client contract; pursuing a legal case; reporting on an competitive intelligence topic.

For example, in early January 2007 Accenture published a report Managers Say the Majority of Information Obtained for Their Work Is Useless, Accenture Survey Finds. It starts off with the finding: "Managers spend up to two hours a day searching for information, and more than 50 percent of the information they obtain has no value to them." And goes downhill from there ...

A few days later Euan Semple replied with a FASTForward Blog post Survey proves 90% of managers are clueless. Euan said:

... what people really wanted was to find someone who knew what they were talking about. Even if that “knew what they were talking about” meant knowing which document to read, why and where it was to be found. So what we did was start building online social spaces like forums, blogs and wikis in which highly contextual, subjective, complex patterns and information could start to surface about anything and everything in the business that was interesting and worth writing about.

The result was that when someone said on our forums “I need to find the official documentation on x because I am about to do y” they were usually rewarded, and very quickly, with multiple answers along the lines of “Well I found this document answered my questions because ….. ” pointing them at the documentation. Indeed increasingly the source they were directed to was a blog or a wiki containing up to date, contextualized information.

Having context in the question, context in the answer and the collective memory of your corporate meatspace, empowered by the mighty hyper-link, in between is hard to beat. Add to this the trust of your sources built up over a period of online socializing and you might have less managers whining that they can never find anything!

Finding someone who knows what they're talking about to get you a contextually relevant answer has always been a great strategy if you're the boss: "Bumstead - What's wrong with the Smithers contract!"

But if you're one of thousands of middle managers in a large corporation without the luxury of shouting your demands down the hall and expecting instant response, doing your own search for "Smithers contract" is likely to find copies of the formal contract and draft's circulated in email, but not a lot of help in finding what's wrong with the Smithers contract, or who might know about it. As Euan suggests, you might ask a polite question - but you still need to ask it in place that might elicit a timely and helpful response. The content of blog and wiki spaces can help.

Blog and wiki spaces become what Information Foraging researchers like Peter Pirolli and Stuart Card call enriched "information patches". These patches (and the resources they link to) are likely to become rich sources of highly contextualized information because they represent the work product of people engaged in a business process that provides a natural context for guided search.

I showed a few slides introducing Information Foraging theory, then a few screenshot examples using FAST's guided search to navigate Traction content by space (project), label, and automatically recognized keyword or entity (person name, company name, location).

You have a much better chance finding a contextually relevant "Smithers contract" in a client project blog/wiki space where you can easily explore content hits with an "Urgent" label and a pileup of recent comments on your own. Or at least find a space where you can post your own question and expect a highly relevant response.

To download my slides click Search Meets Blogs and Wikis (4.7MB .ppt)
Greg Lloyd, FASTForward '07, Feb 8, 2007 San Diego.

See the new book: Information Foraging Theory, Peter Pirolli, Oxford Books Jan 2007
Nice review, synopsis and interview with the author here

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