To stay out front as one of the world’s leading food companies, General Mills strives to get new product ideas out of development and onto supermarket shelves as quickly as possible. To help researchers take full advantage of information and expertise throughout the company, General Mills created a research-focused search application by using Microsoft SharePoint Server 2010 and Microsoft FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint. Researchers enjoy faster and more accurate searches, which yields more time for innovation. Because researchers can perform more comprehensive and accurate searches, they minimize time spent duplicating efforts and benefit from the work of others. General Mills was able to meet 85 percent of its search needs with the out-of-the-box functionality available in the two Microsoft programs, and it is considering extending the solution companywide.
One of the world’s leading food companies, General Mills operates in more than 100 countries and markets more than 100 consumer brands, including Cheerios, Häagen-Dazs, Nature Valley, Betty Crocker, Pillsbury, and Green Giant. Headquartered in Minneapolis, Minnesota, General Mills employs 30,000 people worldwide and posted 2009 sales of U.S.$15.9 billion.
The global food industry is very competitive, and to remain a leader in the industry, it is critical to develop new ideas quickly and to be the first to market with innovative offerings. Before developing new products, scientists and researchers in the General Mills Innovation, Technology, and Quality (ITQ) group review the research that General Mills has already done for similar products. “We have accumulated vast amounts of knowledge across the company over decades spent developing many great products, and we want to make sure that we’re not wasting valuable development time reinventing the wheel,” says Michelle Check, Research and Development Systems Leader in the Global Knowledge Services at General Mills.
||By using FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint, our researchers can refine their searches and find exactly what they are looking for. They spend more time innovating than looking for information.
Research and Development Systems Leader, Global Knowledge Services, General Mills
However, the sheer volume of information that the researchers needed to reference made it difficult to navigate search results and reach meaningful conclusions. Researchers stored much of their content on Microsoft Office SharePoint Server 2007 team Web sites but also consulted other applications within General Mills, such as an Electronic Lab Notebook application, where scientists record research data; the company labeling system, which contains product packaging copy; and a global product database. Each of these applications had its own built-in search capability, so researchers had to perform the same search multiple times, usually by using different syntax rules. Besides consuming time, redundant search efforts produced a wide range of results and huge volumes of poorly qualified results.
Researchers also had difficulty searching for information that they did not know existed, for example, “What is the trend with whole grain?” or “Is there high consumer interest in Vitamin D and calcium?” “We had so many items indexed that researchers would get a flood of results back, and they didn’t know where to begin exploring to find what they needed,” Check says. “We needed better search refinement.”
General Mills also wanted to better connect its researchers with one another. The ITQ group includes people located all over the world, and the company knew that researchers in developing international locations could benefit from the expertise of their peers. Conversely, scientists in Minneapolis wanted to be able to learn about successful ideas developed for non-U.S. markets. However, none of the company’s search tools returned “people” results, which limited the researcher’s ability to find subject matter experts.
“We conservatively estimated that a better search capability could save our employees a minimum of a couple of hours a month, which quickly adds up to thousands of hours a year,” Check says. “That’s a lot of extra time that our people could focus on innovation rather than on non-value-added work.”
Through 2009, the General Mills Enterprise Collaboration Platform Team researched search technologies to help the ITQ group—and ultimately the rest of the company—reduce the time spent searching for information and people and improve search results. “We did a lot of benchmarking against other companies,” says Jenny Hon, Project Manager in the Enterprise Collaboration Platform Team at General Mills. “We were really impressed with what we saw of Microsoft FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint.”
Rapid Setup of Search-Driven Application
The General Mills Enterprise Collaboration Platform Team worked with Global Knowledge Services (Check’s group) to create a pilot of a search-driven application for ITQ. A search-driven application is one that helps a well-defined set of people—in this case, scientists and researchers—accomplish specific business tasks more efficiently by using a search engine customized to their content, roles, and needs.
“Setting up FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint was not that difficult, because it sits behind SharePoint Server 2010 and thus uses an architecture that we already know,” says Jeremiah Werner, Development Consultant in the Enterprise Collaboration Platform Team at General Mills. “We had FAST Search up and running within a couple weeks, and it took a few more weeks to implement the whole solution.”
||We conservatively estimated that a better search capability could save our employees a minimum of a couple of hours a month, which quickly adds up to thousands of hours a year.
Research and Development Systems Leader, Global Knowledge Services, General Mills
By using the out-of-the-box data connectors in FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint, General Mills was able to quickly and easily connect all the diverse information sources that researchers had been searching separately. “We linked in our existing SharePoint sites, internal Web sites, labeling system, and even federated external sources, such as an external new-products database, and Bing, which is included with FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint out of the box,” Werner says.
Comprehensive, Tunable Search
With its new research and development (R&D) search application, ITQ researchers can easily search multiple content sources by using a single search box. Icons for each content type, called visual cues, tell the researcher what kind of document an item is—a Microsoft Office PowerPoint presentation, a Microsoft Office Word document, an Adobe Acrobat file, an e-mail message, and so forth—as well as which business application it comes from—such as the labeling system or the new-products database. The visual cues and source information help researchers find the information they are looking for faster.
Researchers can index content from a number of different sources and use what Microsoft calls deep refiners to quickly and easily filter results. For example, General Mills created a custom product refiner that enables researchers to narrow search results by particular products. If a researcher performs a search for “high fiber cereals,” he or she can further run specific product refiners for Total, Cheerios, and Chex cereals. All the content that contains those keywords generates in a separate area of the screen. By using refiners, General Mills can incorporate the language of its business in the search experience to yield more accurate, useful results.
Because FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint aggregates information from multiple applications, General Mills also added a visual refiner, which is a bar chart that shows researchers how many of the search results come from each content source. For example, at a quick glance, a researcher can see that five of the results came from the labeling system and 150 results came from the Electronic Lab Notebook application. “Seeing that results appeared from the labeling system might encourage the researcher to check out labels from existing high fiber cereals,” Check says. “Because the information is just a click away, researchers are more likely to look at it than if the information was buried in thousands of search results.”
General Mills has also used FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint to implement people search. When a researcher performs a search on the cereal “Cheerios,” a list of other ITQ researchers affiliated with that product come up in a separate area of the screen. This enables researchers to quickly find subject matter experts and reach out to them.
General Mills has also added a document-type refiner, so researchers can search only for PowerPoint presentations, for example. “Sometimes you know that what you are looking for is in a PowerPoint presentation or in an e-mail message. With a document-type refiner, we can search for a topic appearing only in those content types,” Check says. “With FAST Search, we can also preview the entire PowerPoint presentation, which saves a lot of time spent opening and closing documents.”
With a possible future expansion of SharePoint Server 2010
and FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint beyond the ITQ group, the Enterprise Collaboration Platform Team will be able to tune the relevance of the search process to different areas of the business. Marketing people are looking for certain types of information when they perform a search on “Cheerios,” and R&D staffers look for something entirely different when they search on the same word. By taking advantage of the user profiles in FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint, the company can tune search results for particular user contexts. “Users in human resources, manufacturing, marketing, and other areas will get results that make sense to them,” Hon says. “We’re excited that we can now do this so easily on the SharePoint 2010 platform.”
Ease of Use
General Mills also took advantage of several ease-of-use features in FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint to speed information search. A feature called entity extraction alleviates the need for researchers to tag all their documents as they add them to SharePoint Server. Instead, FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint tags the documents with the appropriate properties and metadata at the time the documents are indexed. The General Mills team also used the out-of-the-box Web parts to customize the user interface for FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint, adding photos and graphics to make search results more intuitive and engaging.
The content processing pipeline in FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint adds structure to unstructured information by enriching the information that flows through it. By using the content processing pipeline, the ITQ search application can identify people, companies, locations, e-mail addresses, and date/time information in a document and extract custom metadata based on term lists.
General Mills employees can use the spelling and synonyms features of FAST Search Server to find information without coming up with every possible spelling or variation. For example, General Mills refers to Cheerios internally as YBC, so both terms come up in a search for “Cheerios.” A search for “yogurt” will return international spellings, such as “yoghurt” and also “Yoplait,” a General Mills yogurt brand. “These are additional examples of how FAST Search enables us to search in the language of our business,” Check says.
Because the search engine collapses duplicate results, it reduces the number of search results that researchers have to read through. Researchers can also use advanced-search options such as “exact phrase,” “don’t include,” “who modified last,” date-range searches, and other delimiters that help narrow search results. “I’ve been surprised to see how eagerly our pilot users jumped into these advanced searches,” Check says. “All these features are very user-friendly and easy to figure out.”
General Mills has 150 researchers piloting the ITQ search application during April and May 2010. General Mills is considering rolling out FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint enterprisewide to provide the same tunable search capabilities and also to consolidate the myriad search technologies currently used across the company.
From its pilot use of SharePoint Server 2010 and FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint, the General Mills ITQ group has seen faster and more accurate searches, which yields more time for innovation and less time wading through search results. Because researchers can do more comprehensive and accurate searches, they minimize time spent repeating work done by others. They are also more apt to perform deeper research when they know that their search efforts will be paid off with accurate, meaningful results.
From a development and maintenance perspective, General Mills was able to meet 85 percent of its search needs with the out-of-the-box functionality of FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint and SharePoint Server 2010 by using its existing Microsoft licenses.
More Time for Innovation
By using FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint, General Mills scientists and researchers can find information faster, which helps them make faster, better-informed decisions during new-product development. “Researchers can go to one place instead of half a dozen to do their research, confidently knowing that they’re combing through all the relevant information,” Check says. “It’s critical that we not waste time reinventing the wheel and take advantage of every bit of knowledge that we have already created. This ultimately helps General Mills develop products faster and continue to be first to market with new food product ideas.”
||Setting up FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint was not that difficult, because it sits behind SharePoint Server 2010 and thus uses an architecture that we already know.
Development Consultant, Enterprise Collaboration Platform Team, General Mills
General Mills anticipates that its new search application will yield significant time savings as the solution is adopted by a growing set of employees. Says Check, “By using FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint, our researchers can refine their searches and find exactly what they are looking for. They spend more time innovating than looking for information.”
Greater Opportunity to Expand on Existing Research
The easier it is to find information, the less time General Mills employees spend redoing work that someone else has already done. When a researcher is creating a new soup, for example, and trying to understand other General Mills soups that have contained oregano and pasta, he or she can consult relevant documents and experts by using the search application.
“The ability to find others who have worked on certain topics is greatly enhanced by the people-search results in FAST Search Server 2010,” Check says. “Effective search is critical in taking full advantage of what we have done in the past and building on that in the future. It helps us continue to make consistent forward progress with our R&D strategies.”
This is especially important as General Mills continues to expand globally. “Our newer international locations want to take advantage of the tremendous amount of knowledge and experience contained at corporate headquarters,” Hon says. “Much of the work that our international staff members are doing has already been done. Instead of starting from scratch, they can take advantage of what others have done in setting up new plants and distribution centers, developing snack products or frozen foods, setting up human resource policies, and many other activities. Conversely, easy people connections will help researchers at corporate headquarters take advantage of some of the expertise and ideas coming out of our international talent pool.”
Also, because there is quite a bit of internal project rotation in the ITQ group, the ability to reference work that others have done is critical in making sure that there is continuity as people move between projects.
When researchers had to perform search inquiries in multiple applications and wade through reams of poor results, it discouraged them from making the effort in the first place. “We want researchers to take full advantage of all the knowledge that the company has accumulated,” Check says. “With a better search capability, researchers have greater confidence that their searches will be worth the time, which encourages deeper research. They spend the time documenting their own work more diligently, because they see how it will benefit others, and they take the time to search the work of others.”
Easy to Customize, Low Costs
By building its ITQ search application with SharePoint Server 2010, General Mills was able to build on its IT staff’s existing knowledge and take full advantage of extensive functionality included SharePoint Server 2010 and FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint. “SharePoint Server got us 85 percent of the way there, out of the box, meaning that 85 percent of what we needed to build a custom search site was included in the packaged SharePoint Server and FAST Search Server product,” Hon says. “Also, because General Mills has a Microsoft Enterprise Client Access License Suite, we are realizing great pricing advantages.”
General Mills is evaluating the possibility to extend SharePoint Server 2010 and FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint companywide. “We have dozens of business groups in the company, and they all have different search needs,” Werner says. “Right now, all these groups use their own search portals, which represent a heavy investment and maintenance burden on the IT staff. With FAST Search Server 2010 and SharePoint Server, we can give each group the specific results based on their user context.”
“If we roll out the solution companywide, we’ll be able to quickly spin up new search applications for different areas of the business and give different sets of users the features they need to conduct searches that meet their specific requirements,” Werner says. “We’ll also be able to easily customize the user interface to meet different business needs, as the Web parts are customizable and reusable.”
Hon concludes, “Our goal is to connect people, documents, and communities, so that anyone can quickly find out what they need to know about anything. Our vision is for employees to enter a phrase or product name, such as “Cheerios,” and find all the past projects that involve Cheerios, research underway, product specifications, label information, nutritional information, and everything necessary to become an expert. We believe that SharePoint Server 2010 and FAST Search Server 2010 for SharePoint are the foundation for this vision.”
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