Martin Courtney, Computing, Wednesday 7 April 2010 at 09:45:00
International law firm centralises enterprise searches to speed up data access and aid knowledge management
Providing thousands of employees located in multiple offices around the world with instant access to the data they need is a huge task for any organisation, not least when that information has to be gleaned from multiple different repositories and file formats, both structured and unstructured. Law firms are particularly prone to the problem, with casework, legal documents, guidance material and transaction histories often specific to individual regions, time zones or lawyers, stored in applications, databases and file attachments which can often only be searched on using proprietary search engines.
International law firm Clifford Chance employs 6,000 legal advisors and administrative staff based at 29 offices in 20 countries, including the UK. It recently tackled its own knowledge management issues by centralising its multiple data repositories and installing Recommind’s MindServer Search engine as the default enterprise search engine for all staff.
Clifford Chance is just the latest in a long line of legal firms faced with similar problems, many of which are competing with each other to improve productivity in a bid to handle more cases and improve their own margins.
UK company Mills & Reeve, which employs over 800 people, also installed Recommind MindServer in 2009, for example, while research firm Gartner has predicted that companies in all sectors will spend over $1bn (£657m) per year globally on enterprise search tools by the end of 2010.
The sheer volume and diversity of the information they store and regularly search upon means legal firms may be moving faster, but companies in other sectors can learn from what they are doing. The rollout at Clifford Chance was not intended to aid E-discovery for compliance or data protection regulations – the system does not even cover email – but only to replace existing search tools which were rapidly becoming unfit for purpose to help employees find the information they are looking for more quickly.
Prior to the Recommind implementation, information was located and retrieved using a federated approach that involved individual offices using different search engines to find data within local systems. But the integrated search facilities in individual database applications like Documentum 5.0 were simply not up to the job and put workers off even attempting to find what they were looking for, says Clifford Chance knowledge management project manager, Jon Trim.
“A lot of the search engines we were using previously were so primitive that we resorted to searching by date,” said Trim. “They were so awkward to use that people ended up being reluctant to try and find anything.”
The company stores a variety of structured and unstructured data in a wide range of information repositories. These include Documentum 5.0; a client publishing database which is hosted externally and accessed by an RSS feed; library systems based on structured databases; and a company Intranet which is divided between both pages and attachments that can include anything from Word and TXT to PDF and Excel files.
Clifford Chance installed MindServer in tandem with a wider data migration project that saw Clifford Chance consolidate all of its data into a single central repository, with the software becoming the â€˜front doorâ€™ for all of the companyâ€™s applications. All staff now search and view different data repositories from a single interface, or â€˜search boxâ€™.
“Putting any one office onto the search is easy, the challenge is making sure all the data is covered and that is why the rollout took some time,” said Trim.
The two projects were started in September 2009, and are expected to be completed in May this year, with 23 offices upgraded so far, including those in London, Paris and Amsterdam. Trim says searches are now much faster, and the software has not put any strain onto existing network, server or storage infrastructure.
“If anything, it has reduced the network overhead and user load on the repositories because users can now search and preview the data before having to touch the underlying databases at all,” he said.
Though he would not reveal how much Clifford Chance spent on the Recommind installation Trim says that as with all KM projects, return on investment is hard to quantify.
“We’ve tried some creative business models on it, but at the end of the day it comes down to employee efficiency and productivity,” he said. “One of the things we wanted to do was reduce employee training time, for example – our clients do not like paying for junior staff time and some try to negotiate a discount for learning on the job – and we are starting to see anecdotal evidence suggesting that work efficiency is being improved.”
Clifford Chance’s next KM project is to add more repositories to the search index, including client and business development data which would allow the company’s employees to search on previous pitches and web transactions.
“We can also now get good data on what people are looking for and what they are accessing,” said Trim. “So a follow-on project around collective data cleansing and knowledge harvesting where we identify hot topics, gaps in that knowledge and stuff that has not been accessed for a very long time.”
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