Enterprise Search as Learning Technology

With the current training industry interest in elearning trends like informal learning, social and collaborative Web 2.0 learning technologies, it’s easy to overlook the importance of the humble search box as a learning tool.

More important now than ever

As companies seek to increase productivity with fewer people and resources, one way to improve efficiency is to create better connections between people and the information they need to do their jobs. It’s not hard to make big improvements in the search situation companies’ internal networks: the barriers that exist between knowledge workers and and information resources within company intranets are profound and economically significant. They fall into several categories:

  1. Information is hidden away in personal folders in documents that cannot be accessed through the web, and are not searched by a search engine.
  2. Web-based information that could have wider access is locked down to a small group of people.
  3. Information is available, but not located where people think to look for it.
  4. Information is available and can be searched but there are problems with the search engine’s judgement or display which prevent the user from finding it.

When searching does not yield results, employees have few options to find the information they need: they can try to click through hundreds of irrelevant and outdated results, they can do multiple searches, attempting to find a search term that yields better results, they can ask a more experienced coworker for a pointer to the information, or they may try to consult a confusing and outdated list of links or bookmarks. They often end up going to outside sources to find information that is relevant, if not entirely in accord with company policy.

Walls around information

Corporations spend millions to create online training. Typically, much of that training is locked away in content packages sequestered in Learning Management Systems. How much of it can be directly searched? How much can be accessed "just-in-time"? Learning Management Systems usually only allow searches based on metadata, not content. Metadata is a notoriously poor way to know what is inside. Does this mean there are adequate reference guides or tutorials available available on-demand outside the formal context of the course? Sometimes, but not always. And even if they are there, they need to be discoverable! If the information in these courses is actually worth something, it should be as accessible as possible to employees that have the right to see it. Within a company there is always a tension between protecting confidential information and the need for efficient access to that information – the lines drawn may need to be evaluated and re-evaluated as times change.

Just-in-time and on-demand training

Employees may be trained weeks or months before putting their new skills into practice. At the point of use, they will likely need a refresher on detail or on the entire topic, but faster than reviewing an entire course. Ideally this information should be available just-in-time, accurately and rapidly. People will search for it based on the task they want to accomplish, not on the solution. If they have taken a course on it, they may search for it by the title of the course, but may not necessarily go to the LMS for that search. Adult learners are very goal-oriented. Wherever the information is, no matter what system it is buried in, it should be discoverable, if not actually visible to users with no permission to see it.

According to Jay Cross in a recent interview on Informal Learning:

    When learners need to figure out how to apply classroom concepts on the job, in their lives and in the world at large, they need a completely different kind of learning intervention.
    informal learning refers to the wide variety of spontaneous, unofficial, impromptu ways people learn to actually do their jobs. It offers a path to improved organizational capability, agility, and profits. It also respects and challenges them to be all they can be. The self-evident benefit of linking informal learning with the anytime, anywhere sensibilities of next-generation eLearning is that organizations combine informal alternatives such as social media, serious games, connections, and collaboration with online courses and on-demand tutorials.

Searching for information hidden in people

One of the benefits of social networks is the ability to discover people with ideas and skills. As a friend of mine once said about the business case for using Twitter: "…because the smartest people don’t work at your company!" I would offer a corollary: "Because the smartest people don’t work in your department!" would be my case for using Intranet social networking. People are fuzzy objects, constantly changing and difficult to define by skills. Putting their names in a talent management system, with a list of skills or courses they have taken or "goals" they have accomplished may not be the best way to find the skills you need within the organization. Things change too fast to be boxed in by job description or learning plan. Ideally some of this social networking data could be included in a corporate search portal, in some useful way.

Discovery of related topics

Ideally, a good search engine will be semantically sophisticated, can guess what searcher really means, and may suggest alternate searches or related topics. This is where informal learning is at its best. Looking for information on one topic could lead the searcher to a more helpful category.

Efficient access to information requires more than one technological solution, but since people tend to try the path of least resistance first – the main intranet search – using that search box should get them at least part of the way there.

Search is a two way street

When a user searches for information or help on a topic, they use what they know at the time, which is not necessarily the same as the keywords used in the solution. Modern search engines learn based on a variety of inputs, including result links that get clicked in each query, related queries, bounce rate, etc. So while the search engine is providing information to the users, they are providing information back to the search engine.

Enterprise Search: making the business case for improvement

Companies spend millions on training but not much on that last mile: fast, accurate access to the policies and up-to-date information that are needed in the unpredictable and changing workplace. For example, in healthcare, if a nurse spends 10 minutes extra searching for information needed right now, that has a real cost. If she comes up with an out-of-date policy or instructions, that can have an even greater cost. The same is true in other industries: access to the right information and the right just-in-time training is crucial.

Further, (anonymized) search trends can be used to help determine what training resources need to be added, or what topics need to be modified to reflect the way people contextualize their information: does what is out there really answer the questions people are asking? I frequently use search results from a department wiki in deciding what articles and tutorials to work on. I may think I’ve filled a need by creating a tutorial on a specific task, only to discover through watching searches that what is really needed is a set of tutorials or checklists on one or more end-to-end processes that incorporate that task.

According to a recent study of Global Intranet Practices & Trends, over half the organizations surveyed responded that their employees were not satisfied with their intranet search. The reasons why enterprise search is in such a poor state include the cost of upgrading it, as well as the perception that the intranet is neither a priority nor essential for daily work. This is a perception that needs to change to help align learning and learners with strategic goals.