I was at FastForward last week, invited to be a participant in a panel of bloggers on the last day, tasked to react to three days of executive, partner and customer presentations to the FAST search user community. Four of us had more ideas than we could share in a 30 minute panel session. The other three fellows on the panel are regular bloggers on FastForward. Along with them, I had the pleasure of listening to and speaking with numerous other industry analysts and commentators over the three-day period in the “blogger/analyst lounge” where we gathered between sessions.

Before making some observations of my own, I will introduce you to a few of the folks who have had and will continue to have a continuing presence in the content and search arena, particularly as it relates to social tools and knowledge management, two tightly connected areas of interest.

Each of us was interviewed for a kind of video blog session during the meeting. Although you can’t view the panel from the final keynote session, I can share these links that will give you an idea of what my cohorts were thinking about the meeting and the state of FastForward in 2009. They are:

  • Jon Husband, social computing thought leader and architect. He has coined the term “wirearchy,” which aptly describes a flow of connectedness over the wires (and wireless) air waves. I really liked his observations about how social technologies encourage self-organizing around issues and make group action so much easier. His interview is a good listen and his blog is fun, too.
  • Jevon MacDonald, founder of Firestoker and FASTforward blog contributor, had some helpful comments in his interview about the usefulness of social media in aiding companies to be more responsive to their customers.
  • Euan Semple, independent advisor on social computing, elevated the discussion in favor of social tools improving the flow of knowledge, which is really the point of all this content and search related technology, as far as I am concerned. You’ll enjoy the interview with Euan in which he also comments on the ratio of men to women and the IT-centric audience at the meeting, something I observed, as well.
  • I was also interviewed by Josh-Michéle Ross and my thoughts dovetailed with the others in keeping with the social them of “engage your user,” the conference tag line. My mantra throughout the conference and after is that there was just not enough emphasis on how teams work together to build highly functional and easy-flowing search experiences for users. The process of creating a social platform in which search is present in subtle ways that assist connectedness among experts and their content requires human design; this is an art that can’t be left to “out-of-the-box” installed technologies. It is a task for those with an aptitude for what users really want, need and will use without being force-fed or artificially manipulated. Here are my comments in the interview.

Other interviews of interest can be found at the FastForward Bloggers page where a lot of thought leaders including Rob Paterson, Bill Ives, Clay Shirky, Charlene Li and Jim McGee among many others put forth some thoughtful comments about the state of technology.

Our panel moderator was, Perry Solomon, VP Business Development and General Manager, Worldwide Media Solutions – FAST. While on the big stage we did not get to speak on all the ideas he asked about in our preparatory session, I can bring them to light in the following. Solomon asked these questions followed by my thoughts after a few days to digest the meeting:

Q: How was the meeting balance in terms of search technology versus use?
LWM: The use cases were compelling and well presented. They were highly evocative of the best applications we can achieve with technology using all the social tools and content management options now available. This is appropriate in keynote/big theatre presentations but what I did not find in the few breakout sessions was more about the “nuts and bolts” of the human design and understanding needed to integrate components.

Among the attendees that I met during meals (system integrator partners from small firms and IT people who were struggling to build applications their internal customers wanted), there was a sense that not enough substantive information was being shared. They had hoped for more “how to” and concrete case studies that described the process of getting from purchasing licenses to deploying solutions. When I suggested to some of these Microsoft customers that it might be helpful to have more of their content managers and search administrators in the audience, they all agreed. None carried an attitude that they were going to design and implement these highly sophisticated content/search solutions with just members of the IT department. Business users were also notably absent from the meeting.

Q: What was the impact of the announcement about product news, FastSearch for Internet Business and FastSearch for SharePoint?
LWM: My own reaction was that it was a logical way to begin to roll out the FAST product with existing and evolving Microsoft products. It was not surprising, revolutionary or exciting. MS is clearly committed to making something of its huge investment in FAST; to align it with the rapidly evolving and highly popular SharePoint is smart business. The sentiment of others I spoke with was pretty much the same, sprinkled with a fair amount of skepticism about schedules for delivery and how well the products will be supported with services and documentation. Cost of ownership is always a big worry; what it will take to get the sizzle and super search results from this technology without a huge amount of human investment and skill on the part of customers or third-party integrators stimulates a deep “wait-and-see” attitude among most.

Q: What was missing or not addressed in the sessions?
LWM: The lack of presentations and involvement of non-IT people. While MS is highly responsive to the IT person’s desire for standardizing on a full-function platform and set of tools from a single supplier, this is not the reality in the marketplace. Content is created, manipulated and re-purposed with hundreds of applications that are used by business owners and content managers who bring a deep understanding of what needs to be applied to get the “social” workflow operational and productive in any given culture. My own bias is that the subtleties of organizational culture are often lost on many in IT but are more understood by those deeply immersed in engagement with both experts and their content. A “user-group” meeting must include these “others” and have sessions that support their professional interests so they come away learning substantive stuff from those others in similar situations.

Although “search” was the nominal reason for the meeting, there was no discussion about what it takes to get to the ultimate “user-engagement.” Search remains, “smoke and mirrors.” Search behind the firewall was still pretty thin as a concept and the emphasis was on e-commerce and monetization. There was a lot of talk about business & customer experiences engaging with search but not much substance as to how to actually create rich search experiences.

Q: What are we going to be talking about a year from now?
LWM: I hope the engagement will provide less visionary “hype,” which is not real high-value for the audience in heavy doses. If the meeting becomes more about getting customers to a successful outcome through the engagement of teams with IT, developers, content and business owners coming to a problem using a thoughtful design approach, attendees will leave with a higher commitment to embrace the technology.

Finally, I believe that, as FastSearch solutions are implemented and tested, customers will come to these meetings with higher expectations for helpful case studies that talk about “how the sausage is made,” the role of connectors and the actual tuning for higher relevancy. Much reference to search federation will give way to what federation really is and its many tiers of sophistication. Presentation of search results in ways that are compelling and trustworthy for users will need to be explained in more substantive sessions. I hope that we will be talking about social team interaction for implementing compelling search technology experiences for users.