Challenging functional fixedness: The key to realizing your digital ojectives

True innovation starts by re-imagining tools and concepts and repurposing them in ways they weren't intended or thought out for.

Missed part 1 of this blog series? Read about why we think businesses need to start addressing business problems in different ways.

To say that Google has dominated the internet search space across the last decade is an understatement, with its prolific reach illustrated through the cliche of "Google" as a common verb. 

While this has benefits to us all in the accessibility of new information, the consequence of a homogenised search experience is an expectation that a black box approach to search technology is sufficient. Enter some words in a search box and watch the magic unfold as relevant results are displayed.

This simplicity is key in a user's rapid adoption of the tool. As a technology leader in your organization however, making the most of your investment in an enterprise search engine is vital to long-term success. One way to do this is to approach new business problems using the tools you already pay  for. Of course, you’ll never get your coffee machine to email you calendar alerts, but with some lateral thinking your search could transform to become just the tool you're looking for.

Do you Suffer from Functional Fixedness with your Technology?

Functional fixedness is a cognitive bias that limits a person to using an object only in the way it is traditionally used.

In the recent paper published by The Harvard Business Review ‘Find innovation where you least expect it’, Tony McCaffrey and Jim Pearson explore the idea of what might have happened to the ill fated passengers and crew aboard the Titanic if they had been able  to overcome their functional fixedness and see the actual iceberg as a floatation device, or perhaps the inner tubes from the car’s tires stored below as life savers.

In order to overcome such cognitive biases (what McCaffrey & Pearson call ‘the enemy of innovation’), an approach described as the ‘generic parts technique’ can be used, where a tool or object is broken down into its composite parts then exploited and applied to different  contexts. This was explored in 1978 by Alan R. Fusfeld, who cited the example of the vaporiser within a carburettor, which the paint industry can then exploit as an automatic sprayer.

Much like the carburettor, the components of a search engine can be broken down to take advantage of built-in capabilities and multiply its use within the organization beyond that of traditional document retrieval.

Lets begin by assuming that an enterprise search engine can be broken down into these three components:

  • A crawler - Gathers documents and data  
  • An index - A data structure for efficient retrieval  
  • A query processor - Translates a user’s input into document retrieval instructions.  

And while many commonly associate a crawler with the GoogleBot that follows links on a web page, and the query processor as the single text box with the search button, each of these can be repurposed for a variety of applications. Here are just some of the examples we’ve encountered.

Search as an Extract Transform & Load tool

ETL finds its roots in the data warehouse movement of the last two decades with exponential increases of digital data coupled with the decreasing cost of storage. The need to store data from heterogeneous sources within a common structure for future analysis, query and mining formed the foundation in  the development of such tools. Today, ETL as a process goes far beyond the context of databases and data warehouses, providing – as an example, additional applications in the augmentation of digital content into mobile friendly formats to cater for the multitude of screen dimensions seen on the  market today.

Search as a platform is well suited for this task. Through well-defined workflows and frameworks that allow script-based modifiers to determine the state of a document, its structure and display at multiple points within an automated, controlled environment are integral to such applications.

Coupled with the generic collection types, along with integration to Apache’s Manifold Connector Framework, ETL for a wide range of sources and formats becomes a breeze with some added technical ingenuity.

Search as a Content Auditor

The invasive reach of the Internet, rapid digitisation of industries and the ever-increasing number of people proficient in digital content creation has seen the explosion of accessible content globally. Market research firm IDC predicts that the amount of digital data created and replicated will continue  to grow at an exponential rate, reaching up to 35 Zettabytes by 2020. As an organization with limited resources, this scale growth – even if limited to processing/analysing content relevant to one’s business context, can seem daunting when faced with manual methods and tools.

Funnelback’s multi-faceted connectors and flexible workflow framework can provide automated pathways to analyze content in a variety of ways. While our Content, Accessibility and SEO Auditors are examples of such applications, the same components can also be repurposed to analyze a variety of  content sources – comments on social media or product reviews for example.

Search as an Intelligent Aggregator for Personalization

Specialised microsites developed for use within targeted marketing campaigns continue to be a common feature across the digital marketing landscape. With the myriad of sites and information available, relevant content and design that appeals to the user and contributes to a positive experience is vital  in retaining their attention.

While not designed to automate the production of targeted web pages, the idea of quick relevant content retrieval through a refined index structure, a powerful query processor and flexible templating may spark interest in considering using your search platform for personalization.

When coupled with a robust profiler to discover a user’s nuances and a CMS that provides for real-time in-page population of content, your website is likely to differentiate itself from the rest of the pack through the delivery of an unparalleled site experience. Include geospatial features with  a user’s location information and you start to have the underpinnings of a website with truly personalized content, delivering fluid, relevant and targeted information specific to a user’s profile.

An ongoing (but exciting) challenge.

In order to prove the continuing value of your search platform, as technology providers we need to continually be asking ourselves, what problems do our customers face? Can we overcome functional fixedness and find the solution with the tools we already have on hand?

Exciting challenges can be met when one takes a tool and proceeds to re-imagine how that tool can better serve the needs of its user. But true innovation can also be realized when we figure out how to use the same underpinnings of its design to solve a completely different business problem.

Read on about whether the future of search is proactive in part 3 of our blog series or head to part 4 to see what we think about intelligent question answering.

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