There is a pattern in how many small to mid-sized enterprises go about researching technology applications, one that does not serve them well. As I interact with colleagues, business affiliates and professional peers, I play into this behavior unwittingly. For example, how many times have you been on the asking or answering side of this question: “My organization is planning to procure a search system this year, what systems should we be looking at?” Too often, I make a quick judgment based on what little I know about the asker and toss out a few potential candidate vendor names.

This scenario plays out frequently and now I am uncomfortable because, as a consultant and search analyst, I know that there is a lot more I need to know before offering off-handed advice to that question. Here are some ideas for questions that you should be asking first so that, when someone like me wants more context, you have ready answers.

Your first step is to survey your internal landscape and clearly document the following:

  • What are the business outcomes you expect to derive from the search product, who will be using it, under what circumstances and for what purpose?
  • What is the scope of the content that will be indexed for retrieval? Create a content map that explicitly illustrates: What, Where, Who, When. This means capturing what the content is in terms of document types and formats, numbers and size, and topic, and where it is being created, stored and managed. You need to know who created it, owns it, and will have access to it. Finally, it helps to document when it was created and information about retention.
  • Who will be involved in product selection and evaluation, who needs to sign off at every stage of selection and procurement, who will be involved in installation and deployment, and who will maintain the system on an ongoing basis?
  • What is your IT infrastructure and who controls it? If a schematic is not in place that depicts at least the portion of the computing infrastructure that will be integral to your search support, it is time to make sure one is prepared. You cannot make an informed decision about appropriate and workable search solutions without this information.

You will also be wasting the time of vendors when you seek product and licensing information if you do not have all of these issues sorted out. Much of the packaging of search products is dependent on numbers of documents or size of the corpus to be indexed, how the software will be installed, and who and how many will be accessing it. Pricing information will be vague until you have concrete content “demographics” to share with prospective vendors. You can’t even establish a budget without answering the questions above, and you need a ballpark budget figure to help narrow your choices.

So, I am resolving to be more thoughtful in my responses when queried by friends and colleagues. Before answering I will be asking you for some meaningful data in advance of reeling off a list of products. It is time for you to do some preliminary research in-house before establishing the lineup of suitors. More on the next steps, next time up.