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Building a Business Case for Enterprise Search – the Role of the CIO” By Martin White – Intranet Focus Ltd

Posted by Charlotte Foglia

business case for enterprise search

Information is a business-critical asset

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Over the last two decades I’ve walked through the doors of a very wide range of organisations to start work on enhancing the performance of an enterprise search application. Although that might be the working title of the project the reality is somewhat different. In almost every case the enterprise search team knew what actions to take but lacked the resources (people and technology) to do so. In effect my role is to persuade the CIO of the importance of enterprise search.

Almost without exception the question I am asked is what the return on investment will be if the search team is expanded (it is always too small!) or the decision is made to upgrade or replace the existing application. I can understand why the question about RoI is being asked but have to explain to the CIO that RoI is not a sensible approach to assessing the business case for search investment.

This is especially the case at the present time. The Covid-19 pandemic will have a significant impact on business strategy and operations for the foreseeable future. Organisations have to be able to respond quickly and authoritatively to new challenges and to new opportunities, doing so with employees working primarily from home and facing severe restrictions on meeting together and travelling between office locations.

Although they can be networked together with video and social technologies they also need to be networked to the information assets of the organisation. These information assets are not just internal documents but also specialized external information services providing intelligence on changes in markets and the activities of customers and competitors.

Delivering information across the enterprise

In the enterprise employees write documents primarily for their colleagues and immediate managers. They rarely have a wider enough picture of the operations and interests of the enterprise to be able to alert others to what they have written. It is not just documents that contain information of value but also a wide range of enterprise applications.

The primary challenge for all employees is being able to find the information they need as a matter of urgency without knowing in which repository or application it is stored.

This is where enterprise search becomes business-critical. The low adoption of enterprise search is largely because the CIO finds it difficult to make a business case.

In the past there was a tendency to focus on ‘productivity’ as the business case but that is very difficult to measure. At the present time the best way to justify an investment in a scalable and extensible enterprise search application is to show the Board the way in which effective access to internal and external information can make a measurable reduction in business risk.

Define who should own Enterprise Search

To make this case the CIO needs to work closely with line-of-business managers across the enterprise. All of them face a common problem in making effective use of information assets but do not have a common management platform to bring these to the attention of each other and the CIO, and then up to the Board for approval. Invariably they cannot define with certainty what the employees they are responsible for need in terms of information, so there is an urgent requirement to listen to and collate these requirements.

In organisations which have highly mature enterprise search applications there will always be a search support team that is constantly assessing these needs and working with the CIO, business managers, experienced search users and the search application vendor to make the best possible use of the Technology. In making the business case the CIO also needs to take on full responsibility for information quality.

Balancing opportunity and risk

In this report I have set out the core characteristics of enterprise search applications and the way in which a business case can be made. Across many different types of organisations and business sectors I have found that using a risk-based business case can be very effective as it immediately aligns the enterprise search strategy with the business strategy. In my experience a significant improvement in the levels of search application satisfaction can be achieved in just three months of coordinated action across the organisation led by the CIO.

Not only will this programme of action make a significant short term impact it will also provide the evidence needed to invest in enterprise search technology to ensure that the organisation is positioned to take advantage of the opportunities that are now emerging whilst minimizing the business risk of taking decisions without having effective access to information.

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About the Author


Martin White has gained an international reputation over the last twenty years for his understanding of how to manage the information assets of organisations, ranging from the United Nations and the World Bank to some of the world’s leading pharmaceutical companies. Many of his clients have been multinational organisations with complex information management and information discovery challenges.

Since founding Intranet Focus Ltd in 1999, he has worked on over 100 search-related projects. He is the author of eight books on information management, including Making Search Work in 2008 and the second edition of Enterprise Search in 2015. A book on Managing the Enterprise Search Experience is scheduled for publication in 2021.

Martin has been a Visiting Professor at the Information School, University of Sheffield, since 2002, specialising in information management and information retrieval. He has been a member of the Editorial Board of the International Journal of Information Management since 1997 and serves on the Committee of the Information Retrieval Specialist Group of the British Computer Society. Martin is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, a Fellow of the British Computer Society and a Member of the Association for Computing Machinery (USA).