Actionable Search – From What to Why?

Day 1 at the Enterprise Search Summit in NYC is wrapping up and I’ve just listened to Lisa Denissen from Shearman & Sterling talk about Actionable Search. Actionable search is a key tenet of Microsoft’s enterprise search strategy, so it was good to see promotion of the concept.

For many organizations, just adding basic, no-frills search to an intranet can have a big impact on employee productivity, but to really create an optimal search experience it helps to understand the processes that drive users to search in the first place. Too often search is treated as an end unto itself, without consideration for the larger processes that it ultimately serves. Users care about finding relevant information, sure, but they care even more about using that information to complete tasks and achieve outcomes. These tasks and desired outcomes are what ultimately define success for an enterprise search application and, it may be argued, for any type of search app.

Understanding what motivates people to search means going beyond capturing requirements like “I need to be able to search all of Product Marketing’s PowerPoints” to addressing more precise needs like  “I need to quickly assemble targeted presentations for sales prospects based on existing marketing material”. This second statement doesn’t sound like a search problem, but it speaks clearly to a desired outcome (“targeted presentations”) and the word “quickly” suggests that search may offer some help here. Importantly, the statement also focuses on the question of why the user is searching, not just what they hope to find.

The phrase “actionable search” refers to the idea that items in search results can be directly acted on in a way that moves the searcher toward completion of a specific task – an outcome. While general Web search engines have us accustomed to results sets that contain only links to relevant Web pages, the richness of applications and content types in the enterprise and on targeted Internet sites promise a bit more than just a blue link. eCommerce sites have supported actionable search for years by allowing users to directly add items from a search result to a shopping cart. Facebook provides contextual actions directly from its general search results that let you Join Groups, Add Friends, Join Events, or Send Messages. To take the earlier example, once a relevant PowerPoint presentation is found, an actionable search experience would be to offer the user help with the next steps of finding the right individual slide and then quickly incorporating that slide into their work-in-progress presentation.

One argument for enterprise search starts with the question “What good is an enterprise content management and collaboration if you can’t easily find the information you create, manage, and share? We might switch the question around and ask, “What good is enterprise search if you can’t easily act on the information you find?”  Actionable search promises to close this gap between information access and outcomes.


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