The death of serendipity ?

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Summary : Serendipity is  finding things without knowing they exist and without looking for them. On the web this phenomenon is embodies by the multiple links that makes us browse from an idea to another until we find something we would never have look for. However, the recent evolution of search engines and social networking sites can be seen as a real threat : by proposing results filtered according to people’s social profile, they segment the web and may threaten idea spreading and discovery. By relying on proximity and popularity, these tools are bringing us away from relevance. The problem will even be more critical in an enterprise context. To limit the amount of information on a relevance bases without building invisible social filters and barriers, efforts have to be made on context and correlation.

Serendipity is the ability to find something while ignoring its existence, without looking for it. We all experienced it at least once on the web : searching for something, finding a resultt and then, from one link to another, finding something which existence was unexpected until then. Serendipity relies on both the human factor and trust.

Human factor because these links that make us discover new things are made by people. Trust because depending on what we know of a person we’ll give more or less credit to what he/she says and the sources being suggested. Of course, it’s a long term mechanisms because reputation needs time to form, so does trust. This as also some things in common with curation.

Today,, the way we’re looking for information on the web is evolving. To be more precise, that’s the way information is proposed to us that’s changing. With the masses of information that search engines or social networking platforms like Facebook have about us, our contacts,habits, the results that are pushed to us are filtered to correspond to what we are. Among the masses or information that will match my search, those that come from people that are similar to me, those that will please me will be prioritized. If you wonder why, for the same search, Google gives different results to you and your friends, now you know why. The same logic applies to what appears on your Facebook homepage and what does not.

The more this logic is becoming mainstream, the less one will have any chance to discover things that come from people who don’t think the same way or think of different things. What raises two problems to me

• First one if about being locked up into a trend, ignoring what’s being said elsewhere

• The second is to be unable to access to a wide part of the information available on a given topic.

Google (and the other of its kind), desiring to please me despite of me, are ignoring the difference between what would please me and what I would need to know;

This issue is not neutral at all for internal business purposes too.e.

Businesses need serendipity to work because it’s what’s needed to make innovation and agility (no one can be agile without being able to detect unexpected opportunities) effective.

I already mentioned the need for filtering information according and relevance and context to make employees’ work  easier. I got a very relevant comment from one of my readers on the risk of too much filtering making people miss relevant information.

That also seem to be against cross collaboration, identifying people and information beyond silos. How to find people that are in other units, departments nd have other concerns but that, in a given situation, are those I need ?

Conflicting goals ? Seems so but that may not be true.

First, we can have a very simplistic approach and offer two search options. The first taking one’s social profile into account, the other doesn’t.

It’s also possible to improve search criteria. What is often called relevance today is often nothing but a mixture of proximity (the sender) and popularity (the message). Strictly speaking, this is not what I call relevance. Relevance relies on context and correlation between data rather than their popularity. And that changes everything. Let’s also mention priority : in a business context it’s sometimes impossible to process everything so people should need to focus on what matters first.

I think the discussion on the importance of search and social business intelligence for collective efficiency will last a long time.