I met a very bright man who had developed a bit of software that does some really interesting things. The software he developed is a full-text search engine that does multilingual searching and entity recognition. His company is keen to market the product but I'm not really sure they're ready for that.
Search engines are all over the place. If you knew what you were doing you could develop an application on various open source search software available. I am not saying they're a dime a dozen but there certainly are a lot of options. There are many to choose from including Lucene, Sphinx, Minion, Indri/Lemur, and Terrier as well as many others. You can find a good list of these search engines at Jeff's Search Engine Caffè.
The problem was that he could show me a lot of things his software could do but he couldn't demonstrate where he was solving an issue for a particular market or customer. Great functions - I got excited about that and I thought the technology worked well. However, his company needs to find a market with a particular issue where his search engine can be applied. People just can’t visualize what a search engine really does but they can touch and feel applications that use search engines.
Lots of products use search engines – but would you know what search engine powers what product? Is it off the shelf? Is it Open Source? Is it home Grown? You have, however, heard of
Finding, categorizing, extracting, and searching data is a real exciting growth industry. The Natural Language Processing (NLP) market alone is projected to grow at a CAGR of over 21% through 2013-2018. Natural Language Processing (NLP) Market - Worldwide Market Forecast & Analysis (2013–2018) Furthermore, Gartner analysts predict that data will grow 800% over the next five years and that 80% of that new data will be unstructured. There is a market for search engines and there will be unique and interesting problems to be solved. NLP will be part of that. The issue will be applying the right technology to solve the right problems at the right time.
But hasn't that always been that way? What is your unique value proposition?
I sometimes struggle to describe what I do for a living. Do you?
That's not good. In order to explain the value of my business, I have to explain the benefit my customers get from what I do - NOT how I do it. I've found that it's not as easy as it sounds.
Why is that hard?
When you are really familiar with how to organize content and the tools that are at your disposal are really cool, it's really difficult not to talk about them. Often times I would launch into how to create algorithms, filter content, build taxonomies, and other such technical aspects of the work. See … I saw your eyes glazing over with that horrible look of despair… What the heck is he talking about?
The tools are really, really, interesting to me. I don’t suppose they are so interesting to you though. So what can you do to explain the benefit those tools will bring. What I really want to do is describe the benefit my customer will get from having me use those cool tools. That means I need to tell you that I help my customers make more money, save more money, and get more business because I can organize and display the content they have in a way that is pleasing, very easy to understand and a breeze to sell.
That's what my customers have told me anyway. It's like putting the pieces of a fabulous mosaic together and you want to share how you did it with everyone. However, you don't want to start with how to make the pieces, draw the pattern, and the type of glue and grout you use. You want to lead with "This is a fabulous mosaic! I'll bet you love it! Not only that I'm sure you won't be able to live without it."
So, the pieces and the glue and the pattern really do matter to the me and the outcome, but what's important to talk about is not what's important to me. What's important is what's important to my customers. Only the people who do the work are interested in the work itself. Most people just want a great looking piece of art.
Of course, I love talking about the glue and the pattern as well…
Last week, at the AIIP Annual Conference in Baltimore, I found there was significant energy surrounding how the independent information professionals attending were positioning their businesses. They were noticing their prospects drying up in one direction and they were finding new applications of their considerable knowledge and experience in another direction. There were some very interesting and thought provoking transitions defined.
Redefining or Repositioning Your Business
In the process of doing some competitive research today, I was testing keyword trends on Indeed.com. Indeed.com has a handy tool to find how terms are trending in job postings. You can see which terms trend downward in job postings and which trend upward. This, I believe, is an indicator of what skills businesses are looking for. I found some interesting results when I turned the search toward the skills and services information professionals provide.
There are some skills, buzzwords, or keywords that are very popular today. You can see that demand continues to rise in these areas.
In stark contrast, the following traditional information professional skill sets do not seem to fair as well in the job postings.
There are a couple of things that might be happening here.
I am relatively confident the skills information professionals provide are not waning. The skills information professionals can bring to the task are remain extremely valuable. We probably need to learn to repackage those skills a bit to keep up with the times.
What can we do to keep up with the times? We need to market ourselves as professionals that understand content in its many forms and more importantly that we understand our customers and their business. We must convey our knowledge and expertise in a way our potential clients will understand. Look for what your clients are looking for. It is not up to them to understand what we do - it is up to us to help them understand how we can address their pain points.
Look at how businesses look for information professional oriented skill sets.
Here are three key information professional skills are showing some growth in demand.
In conclusion, as information professionals, we must be constantly surveying the landscape to understand how our customers describe the needs they face. We must always meet our customers at the point of their need. Our intimate familiarity with the problems they experience will help us understand their pain. Then we can build trust and increase our relevance.
I invite your comments, input, and experience so that we can all better informed.
As I contemplate this subject I'm struck by how fundamental these steps are to good research in general. It's clear to me that the steps addressed here are, or should be, evident to any researcher. I am also certain that practicing the fundamentals is just as important for a researcher as it is for a doctor, lawyer, baseball player, guitarist, artist, or golfer. I bring these tidbits of knowledge to the table to enable us to stay on the right path and hopefully get better all the time.
1. Clearly Define The Scope
Research projects usually begin with an email or a phone call. Often, the person commissioning the research often has only a sketchy idea of what they need. It is best to pin down and document exactly what they expect the outcome of the research to be. You need to know exactly what the deliverable is and how it will be delivered. This will save you time and potentially cost far fewer lives. As a bonus, if you get clarity around the research project there will be no surprises when the project is delivered. Understand, Document and Deliver.
2. PPPPPP - Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance
There are more Ps than there are words. Hmmm...Use your imagination. Doesn't it seem so obvious? We are often anxious to get things done quickly. We want to meet deadlines and impress our customer so they will come back often. Sometimes, without thinking we just skip this step. You might get lucky and be able to zip right to the right answer in no time at all. Right?
Wrong. This is not, I repeat, NOT an habit you want to get into. Document your approach and make an effort to plan your steps. Many people plan trips to the grocery store better than they plan their research projects. I am positive it will come back to bite you in the backside.
Documenting your approach and thoroughly thinking it through will give you confidence in the process, it will uncover approaches you may not have considered, and it will help you make laser like progress toward your research goal. If you it seems sometimes like you are not making progress, trust the process. This will help you avoid the next pitfall.
3. Don't Step Through The Looking Glass
If you DON'T get a clear idea of what the outcome will look like, up front, you expose yourself to two things.
First, there is an enormous potential for the customer to not be satisfied with the result. You could hit all the wrong bases and create an impressive report that will not hit the mark. End result - customer not happy.
Second, and just as important - if you're like me - lots of stuff is just really, really interesting. That's part of the reason I like research - I'm always learning new things. Sometimes you might end up following a trail that just don't lead anywhere productive. That kind of meandering through information is just plain fun and very distracting. Though I love to learn, that kind of foray into unrestricted research is not what why you're getting paid. If you do it you will remain poor and you'll be frustrated because of your meager income. Stay focused.
4. Know Your Sources
There are so many sources available to researchers that it can be a bit daunting to know which sources are best for which projects. If you don't know, it is probably a good idea to make your first step to understand the sources that you might need.
If you are looking for financial information on a large public company you might choose a different source or methodology than you would if you were researching a smaller private company that doesn't publicly report their financial information. You should know that Dun & Bradstreet catalogs and reports information differently that Experian. If you are looking for financials on a public company you should know if you want "as reported data" or data that is "normalized" across companies. There are many variables and knowing where to go to get what is essential.
You'll come across conflicting data or at least data that points in different directions. That happens way more often than you expect. When it does happen, you need to make sure you have your ducks in a row. Do not ignore inconsistencies. They'll certainly catch you out in the long run. Always be good to yourself and and your client and make sure you can sleep at night. If you cannot resolve the inconsistencies, at least, make sure to annotate what you have found.
6. Catalog The Process
As you go through the process of actually conducting the research it is important to document the process you followed and the results you get. If you keep track of all of the steps you take in doing your research, you will be less likely to repeat things you've already done and possibly notice holes in your research. Research is a methodical process that you can repeat over and over again. If you document what you've done and not done you can learn and get better all the time.
7. Always Add Value
Finally, always add value to the results you get. If you are tasked with getting a contact list. Provide an opinion, validate the number, do something unexpected that raises your product to a level that cannot easily be replicated. There are efficient ways to add value and you can put your own flair on your research. Don't just gather information and paste it in a document and try to pass it off as research. Format the results in a logical order or organize the results in a pleasing manner. Create an analysis of the results. Add value or your customer might as well have hired a High School student to search the internet and feed them documents.
If you follow these seven steps on the stairway to better research, you are bound to get better and better at your craft over time. It is a practice just as law or medicine Make it your practice to do things the best way you can and you will become known for your meticulousness and professionalism. That will generate more business and give you a leg up on your next project.
I am an artist, an analyst, a researcher, and an online development specialist serving the online information industry.