The Frustrating Search for the Perfect Search

By: Paul Bradley on March 21, 2018

The Frustrating Search for the Perfect Search

I talk to learning professionals across a variety of industries on a daily basis. Often, I find myself having the same conversation. “We’ve got great content,” I hear, “but no one can ever find anything!” Learning libraries, file sharing systems, shared drives and repositories – there are different solutions in place, but the lament is always the same: no matter what learning teams do, the field struggles to locate the appropriate content, knowledge resources and courseware. “Nothing we do seems to work!”

Usually, the exasperated manager goes on to explain the amount of effort that’s gone into arranging the content, trying to make navigation as intuitive as possible, experimenting with metadata and tags – it goes on and on. And still the end-user struggles. Why?

Lately, I’ve been offering a new perspective. When someone asks me how they can make search better, my answer is “avoid it at all costs!” People look at me funny, but I’m convinced that no matter how many capabilities you layer in, advanced search may never be the best approach for learners, for three basic reasons.

First, learners don’t know what they don’t know. It’s hard to ask a learner to locate content on a topic they haven’t yet mastered, because she may not understand the concepts, jargon, terminology and organizing principles necessary to do so. What seams intuitive to an instructor may be totally foreign to a new student.

Second, it’s easy for learners to wind up finding too much content. Finding material is great, but only if it’s the right material, and that requires a lot of discipline on the part of content publishers. If I know that I need to learn something very specific about beer, but my search on “beer” brings back 500 results, I haven’t really made much progress. This problem is compounded when content is out of date, or when multiple versions of a module come back.

Third, search takes effort. It puts the burden of locating material squarely on the learner who, unfortunately, also has a day job. And if the learner isn’t that motivated for the training to begin with, the commitment to digging through a content repository is going to be limited. And in a mobile form factor? Forget about it. Complex search on a phone or tablet can be a deeply frustrating experience.

So what do we do? Using metadata tagging for search terms is a common solution, and it can help…sometimes. But again, it takes a lot of discipline and a very structured approach. If tags start to proliferate or be used carelessly, you can quickly wind up back at square one, with excessive or confusing results. And at the end of the day, a new learner still needs to guess correctly. If learners couldn’t figure out your folder structure, are you sure that your tagging structure will be more intuitive?

Here's the good news: search isn’t the only game in town anymore. Instead of trying to find ways for learners to wade through content, what if you pushed content in a smart, structured way, so that learners only encountered current, appropriate material in the first place? With a modern learning solution this is all possible, and it rests on three capabilities.

  • Organized publishing: Chances are, you already know what content needs to go where within your organization. The trick is getting material to the right places, which requires the ability to publish content proactively by region, role, management level, training track, and whatever other attributes make sense for your organization. You’ll need a flexible structure to accomplish this, but once you’ve got that structure in place, you can take the guesswork out of getting material in front of the right audience.
  • Push the good stuff: Instead of requiring learners to come into a repository and pull out the content they think they need, push it to them instead, making sure that the material they need – and only that material – is already in their hands at the start of every shift. This is where a mobile learning strategy can make a huge difference, as content localization to the user’s device becomes possible.
  • Pull the bad stuff: To reduce error, don’t let old, outdated content languish where learners can be confused by it. It’s important to be able to wipe outdated content from end-user devices and archive it elsewhere.

With these capabilities in place, learners may still need to search, but the transformative difference is that now they’re searching a short list of relevant material, rather than a long list of potentially irrelevant, out of date, or inappropriate learning content that they don’t really understand. And the best part is that the tools and support you need to make it happen are already out there. Asking your frontline employees to do a treasure-hunt when they need learning resources is risky and error-prone, but with modern learning solutions, you can finally take control.

Are you ready to end the search?

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