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American Style Management and Search

April 22, 2010

At lunch today (April 13, 2010), there was a brief discussion about the article “Will France Outlaw American-Style Macho-Management?” The main idea is that a French executive implemented some “American style” management tactics. The result was employee dissatisfaction and alleged suicides as a result of work pressure. The Europeans with whom I spoke were uniformly critical of American MBAs and their management styles. I have worked with managers from different countries. Some of these individuals were American trained executives and others were graduates of the school of hard knocks.

After lunch, I did some thinking about the search companies’ management styles. In general, I find that the most hard charging professionals are in the sales and marketing departments. The staff at these companies is usually lean with much of the work outsourced. My exchanges with senior managers has been pretty much in line with my dealings with senior executives in government agencies in the US and elsewhere and in  non profit and charity organizations. Most of these professionals have a deep concern for the customer and staff. Knowledge of products and their underlying technologies may be a bit of a challenge for some senior managers, particularly those who must chase funds and sales. Keeping the lights on takes precedence over the nitty gritty details. When I hear the phrase “lost in the weeds”, my radar registers an intruder.

Most of the potholes that I identify as weaknesses in search come not from top management but from the methods of implementing certain technical functions. I also find that outsourcing causes a fair share of disruption as well. Toss in the excitement needed to make sales, squirt marketing juice into the gears, and upselling services, and I find a volatile mix. There is also quite a bit of confusion generated by consultants who describe many different vendors in glowing terms because these happy words sell reports and consulting work but not necessarily search or content processing systems.


Search management survival. Source: http://www.hhmi.org/images/bulletin/feb2009/survival_image.jpg

Several observations:

  1. The pressure to generate revenue leads to some of the issues that I encounter. One small company did not get its funding and the pressure on the executives is palpable. There are quite a few vendors competing for search contracts, and I think that the advantage will remain with the companies that have a high profile and benefits that make sense to the client. I don’t think it is possible to advertise, Twitter, and blog oneself into the big time in search. Clients don’t have the time to verify that a newcomer’s system works. Most deals go to companies that have a track record. Companies that don’t need to generate revenue from a search license may have an advantage because “price” drops out of the procurement equation in some cases.
  2. The PR firms handling search have a great pitch, but most of these outfits crash and burn in their approach to the subject of search. Examples range from copy that literally sounds like other vendors’ promotional material to muddling Intranet search, Web site search, and Web search. I receive email begging me to view a demo and to interview a CEO. I am not a journalist. If I took time to participate in each of these demos, I would have no time to write my Google monographs and support my handful of clients. I think I have made two PR people cry and earned the wrath of dozens of others because I tell them no, leave me alone, or do your homework. Sadly the appeals to me are increasing.
  3. The potential licensees of a search system are increasingly confused. When I wrote the first edition of the Enterprise Search Report in 2003, I had a tough time explaining the differences between a couple of dozen vendors. If I were to tackle that type of project in 2010, I am not sure I could do the job as effectively as I did six or seven years ago. The reason is that some of the major vendors are increasingly alike. This gravitation to a common set of functions is partly the result of some leading firms buying other companies and partly because traditional search is becoming a commodity. The specialized systems steer clear of enterprise search and sell directly to the executive who needs this function. Examples range from a customer support system to a warranty analysis system to an eDiscovery system. In each case, a specific unit of an organization has a content problem to solve. Search is part of a broader solution.
  4. The new frontier in my opinion merges finding information, using it in a business process, and making specialized functions available to users. Examples include business intelligence, report generation, email alerts and notifications, and other features that may not look like search at first glance.

What’s this have to do with management style?

It seems to me that more managers of search companies are either deep in PR or immersed in keeping the lights on.The engineer manager may resort to logical approaches, which work in some situations and go astray in others. Look no farther than Google’s Pandora box of woes for examples of the engineering school of management. The MBA manager goes for the high pressure, bottom-line approach. Look no farther than Baan or Enron (which was an online energy trading outfit in my opinion) to see what happens with the MBA style leaders take over. Despite the large number of search vendors, no one has done a thorough look at the management styles and methods that lead to success.

Perhaps search is sufficiently different that no one style emerges as the way to make a search and content processing company a success? I personally don’t know of any search managers causing staff to behave like the employees of the company referenced in “Will France Outlaw American-Style Macho-Management?

Search doesn’t have a Peter Drucker or even a formal course of study in business or engineering school. Maybe it is too specialized? Maybe it is too small a business sector?

Stephen E Arnold, April 22, 2010


4 Responses to “American Style Management and Search”

  1. Kacey Jone on April 22nd, 2010 2:29 am

    I aswell acquisition that outsourcing causes a fair allotment of disruption as well. Toss in the action bare to accomplish sales, eject business abstract into the gears, and upselling services, and I acquisition a airy mix.

  2. sperky undernet on April 22nd, 2010 3:06 am

    I saw recently somewhere that IT by itself comprises a 10% chunk of the US economy and it is essential to the other 90%. I am also aware that “search” is
    “taught” – lets say 98% (although I am unsure of the remaining 2%; perhaps a reader can help?) – as an adjunct of some to many information and library departments and has been taught in some to many vocational retraining programs but I cannot vouch as to the “success” of such programs. Having instructed in one such program more than a decade ago, I will say that I was not and am still not confident that search can be academized or guilded in spite of the fact that associations exist. But what do I have to contribute? I am an information cowboy. I would define such a specialization as a gateway to the growing knowledge delta. You ask: Maybe it is too specialized? Maybe it is too important.

  3. Jamorama on April 22nd, 2010 5:17 am

    Easy option to get useful information as well as share good stuff with good ideas and concepts.

  4. Marc Arenstein on April 24th, 2010 12:46 pm

    Magnus Gulbrandsen wrote a chapter called “Accord or Discord – Tensions and Creativity in Research” in a book called “Creative knowledge environments: the influences on creativity in research and innovation” By Sven Hemlin, Carl Martin Allwood, Ben R. Martin published in 2004. The complete chapter is accessible via Google Books. http://bit.ly/dzR23z

    He also wrote an excellent short article called “the Role of Basic Research in Innovation”, the punch line being an explanation of the “chain-linked model” Figure 2 on p.3 – as distinct from the “linear model” http://www.cas.uio.no/Publications/Seminar/Confluence_Gulbrandsen.pdf
    this was linked from ” Translational Science and the Hidden Research System http://smartech.gatech.edu/handle/1853/32279 which I saw on p. 19 here: http://atlantaconference.org/downloads/Final_2009_Atl_Conference9_28.pdf
    (Creating the Future through Science and Innovation)

    My take is: search company execs would benefit from the above if they could inspire their colleagues and workers to think/react as creative innovative types instead of expecting a linear predictable yesman style. And adapt and innovate search to the needs of their clients. Could it happen?