Prompted by the news item about IBM‘s bid for SPSS and similar acquisitions by Oracle, SAP and Microsoft made me think about the predictions of more business intelligence (BI) capabilities being conjoined with enterprise search. But why now and what is new about pairing search and BI? They have always been complementary, not only for numeric applications but also for text analysis. Another article by John Harney in KMWorld referred to the “relatively new technology of text analytics” for analyzing unstructured text. The article is a good summary of some newer tools but the technology itself has had a long shelf life, too long for reasons which I’ll explore later.

Like other topics in this blog this one requires a readjustment in thinking by technology users. One of the great things about digitizing text was the promise of ways in which it could be parsed, sorted and analyzed. With heavy adoption of databases that specialized in textual, as well as numeric and date data fields for business applications in the 1960s and 70s, it became much easier for non-technical workers to look at all kinds of data in new ways. Early database applications leveraged their data stores using command languages; the better ones featured statistical analysis and publication quality report builders. Three that I was familiar with were DRS from ADM, Inc., BASIS from Battelle Columbus Labs and INQUIRE from IBM.

Tools that accompanied database back-ends had the ability to extract, slice and dice the database content, including very large text fields to report: word counts, phrase counts (breaking on any delimiter), transaction counts, relationships among data elements across associated record types, ability to create relationships on the fly, report expert activity and working documents, and describe distribution of resources. These are just a few examples of how new content assets could be created for export in minutes. In particular, a sort command with DRS had histogram controls that were invaluable to my clients managing corporate document and records collections, news clippings files, photographs, patents, etc. They could evaluate their collections by topic, date ranges, distribution, source, and so on, at any time.

So, there existed years ago the ability to connect data structures and use a command language to formulate new data models that informed and elucidated how information was being used in the organization, or to illustrate where there were holes in topics related to business initiatives. What were the barriers to wide-spread adoption? Upon reflection, I came to realize that extracting meaningful content from database in new and innovative formats requires a level of abstract thinking for which most employees are not well-trained. Putting descriptive data into a database via a screen form, then performing a transaction on the object of that data on another form, and then adding more data about another similar but different object are isolated in the database user’s experience and memory. The typical user is not trained to think about how the pieces of data might be connected in the database and therefore is not likely to form new ideas of how it can all be extracted in a report with new information about the content. There is a level of abstraction that eludes most workers whose jobs consist of a lot of compartmentalized tasks.

It was exciting to encounter prospects that really grasped the power of these tools and were excited to push the limits of the command language and reporting applications, but they were scarce. It turned out that our greatest use came in applying text analytics to the extraction of valuable information from our customer support database. A rigorously disciplined staff populated it after every support call with not only demographic information about the nature of the call, linked to a customer record that had been created back at the first contact during the sales process (with appropriate updates along the way in the procurement process) but also a textual description of the entire transaction. Over time this database was linked to a “wish list” database and another “fixes” database and the entire networked structure provided extremely valuable reports that guided both development work and documentation production. We also issued weekly summary reports to the entire staff so everyone was kept informed about product conditions and customer relationships. The reporting tools provided transparency to all staff about company activity and enabled an early version of “social search collaboration.”

Current text analytics products have significantly more algorithmic horsepower than the old command languages. But making the most of their potential and transforming them into utilities that any knowledge worker can leverage will remain a challenge for vendors in the face of poor abstract reasoning among much of the work force. The tools have improved but maybe not in all the ways they need to for widespread adoption. Workers should not have to be dependent on IT folks to create that unique analysis report that reveals a pattern or uncovers product flaws described by multiple customers. We expect workers to multitask, have many aptitudes and skills, and be self-servicing in so many aspects of their work, but for them to flourish the tools fall short too often. I’m putting in a big plug for text analytics for the masses, soon, so that enterprise search begins to deliver more than personalized lists of results for one person at a time. Give more reporting power to the user.