What Happens to Enterprise Search When a Company Is Acquired?




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Mr. White

The flood of corporate acquisition announcements feels never-ending these days. Some of these are companies looking to expand their product range and/or geographic positioning. Others are investment firms looking to buy under-valued corporate assets. Whatever the mechanism, issues will inevitably arise around adapting enterprise IT platforms to support these newly formed companies. The move to cloud platforms has mitigated some of these challenges, making it possible for incumbent systems such as HR and ERP to continue as is following the acquisition. But when it comes to supporting cross-organizational enterprise search, the need and the challenges are immediate.

The ability to find and share information across the new business entity is a clear priority, yet the topic never comes up in acquisition discussions. The need is still pressing even in cases when it is just an investment deal, because business priorities will likely change rapidly to convince both investors and shareholders that it will be a successful turnaround.

Between Content and Technology, Content Is the Bigger Challenge

Many of my engagements over the last decade have involved sorting out the implications of mergers and acquisitions. The first discovery is that neither party has an enterprise search strategy or an enterprise information strategy. The technology can be fixed (sort of) but the content issues are more challenging, especially when only part of a business has been acquired. I recall a law firm formed out of a UK firm and a U.S. firm where the subtle differences in legal practice caused significant issues with metadata.

In law, recall is arguably more important than precision, but it is impossible to know with any certainty if all relevant documents have been identified. Judging relevance also becomes more complicated because the clues employees relied on in the past, such as the expertise of individual lawyers, teams or offices, no longer exist.

The law firm also required a complete review of security permissions, as the combined firm was now representing clients that were competitors. It was not just a case of adding new security tags, but of working back through literally millions of documents to ensure no inadvertent breach of confidentiality could happen.

The mélange of content, clients and use cases meant AI solutions had questionable value here. What data sets could you use in this case to drive machine learning routines?

Related Article: (I Can’t Get No) Search Satisfaction

Whose Search Platform Gets Used?

One of the first decisions to make following an acquisition is whether to expand the search application of the acquiring company into the newly-acquired business or to try a technical fudge, that tries to federate the results from an “across-two-applications” platform.

Without exception, enterprise search vendors promote their capabilities in connecting to every conceivable repository. Making the connection is the easy bit. Delivering results onto a user interface with credible filters, facets, effective entity extraction and auto-suggestions is something that never comes up in the marketing pitch. If it really is as easy as the vendors proclaim, where are the case studies?  

A couple of projects belatedly realized the search application of the acquired company was more powerful (or maybe just more flexible). By the time this was understood, it was too late to undertake a second migration and the satisfaction scores on the search application tanked. So too did the confidence of customers in the ability of the company to support their requirements.

Related Article: Diagnosing Enterprise Search Failures

Expertise Search: Easier Said Than Done

Finding documents is difficult enough, but creating a corporate-wide expertise/knowledge bank is often presented as a major benefit of an acquisition. Unfortunately the industry oversells the benefits of enterprise search for experts and expertise, much like it does with connectors. If identifying experts and expertise is so easy, why is “The Cambridge Handbook of Expertise and Expert Performance” 984 pages long? If your company is proud of its expert search, try finding yourself by all the different types of expertise you know you have.

Black Swan Scenarios

No company can say it will not acquire a business (or two!) or that it is immune from takeover. If you find yourself in either position, I would recommend taking the following actions.

  1. Have the current information management and enterprise search strategies on hand.
  2. Make sure the senior managers involved in any acquisition discussions are aware of the implications for enterprise search.
  3. Provide them with a checklist of issues to clarify in the initial discussions.
  4. Every six months run a half-day session with your team about the potential implications of maintaining “business as usual.” At the same time, work on an integrated solution for the new business entity.

In the final analysis the speed with which enterprise search is ready to deliver dependable results across the new organizational structure could be a core element of the successful acquisition. Be a hero! 

Martin White is Managing Director of Intranet Focus, Ltd. and is based in Horsham, UK. An information scientist by profession, he has been involved in information retrieval and search for nearly four decades as a consultant, author and columnist.



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