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Picture This: Search Results That Aren't Just Text Lists

Sentara Healthcare has 14,000 employees spread across 70 locations, so knowing how to reach a person can be as important as knowing the skills he or she possesses. That's why the company uses a visualization tool from Inxight Software Inc. that creates a weblike view of information located in Sentara's intranet portal, which is linked to the company's PeopleSoft human-resources system, patient database, E-mail server, and several clinical applications.

"All of the places where your search gets a hit become thumbtacks on a map," says Sam Owens, director of systems integration and new technology development.

For instance, if a caregiver initiates a search for someone at Sentara who speaks a certain language, he or she will get a hierarchical display of colleagues who speak the language and their areas of expertise. Clicking on a person provides an E-mail or instant-messaging account or a directory listing with contact information.

Sentara's system costs less than $100,000, plus annual maintenance. The benefit is better communication between business units and improved knowledge sharing.

Visualization is just one piece of the evolving search quilt. But it shows how companies are fine-tuning their search tools to make them more comprehensible for employees at the same time they make them more thorough.

A similar technology from Plumb Design Inc. is proving crucial to onCourse, a nonprofit organization that later this year will start delivering public television content directly to school classrooms. CEO Lou Pugliese says he and his IT staff chose to deploy Plumb's Thinkmap visualization tool rather than a conventional search engine to ensure that the company's nontechnical audience of educators is able to quickly find content for their classrooms without having to hit on the right keywords.

"What impedes the Internet as a bona fide learning tool is not being able to find information," he says. "We wanted a more-creative approach."

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