Metadata is a lot like physical exercise. We know it’s good for us. We know we should be doing more of it and that we’ll pay for it in the long run if we don’t. So we commit. We’re really going to do it this time. We’ll do it properly and stick with it. Starting…tomorrow. No one can argue with a straight face that we don’t need to exercise or eat properly, but sometimes its really hard to get motivated and even harder to stick with it. Enterprise metadata initiatives are the same way. We know our content repositories are a mess and that no one can find anything. Likewise we know that taking the time to add appropriate tags and classification will make our content more findable, useful and ultimately more valuable. It’s just so hard to change old habits.
When the doctor (or rather the CIO) finally gives us an ultimatum, ‘change your ways or suffer the consequences’, and we admit that the exercise DVDs and high fiber cereal aren’t going to cut it, we break down and join a gym with the proper facilities and equipment. In order to take full advantage of our membership we hire a trainer to show us the proper use of the equipment and then we make the workout a part of our regular routine. We need to take the same approach to metadata. Haphazardly adding user generated tags in random keyword fields is the information management equivalent of purchasing “Sweating to the Oldies” and a ThighMaster. This approach might ease our conscience, but it is not going to improve our health or that of our content management environment.
What is needed is consistent, structured and sustained effort. Establishing standard, basic metadata fields for each content type we manage and always populating them, is a good start; the equivalent of Pilates three nights a week. Defining a few basic controlled vocabularies to be used in conjunction with those metadata fields or perhaps adopting a standard framework such as Dublin Core, will bring you to the next level of fitness. Building metadata creation into the content creation and publication process, either by baking it into the templates or as a mandatory element, can act as a dedicated workout buddy who will keep you motivated. Methodically extending your metadata framework and expanding the range of you vocabularies, essentially adding more weight and repetitions to your workout, will over time bring your content to a peak level of fitness.
Just as we don’t need to build the equivalent of a fully provisioned 24-Hour Fitness franchise in our garage to get healthy, we don’t need to build an advanced metadata management platform from scratch in order to get our content under control. Most ECM platforms have metadata facilities that are grossly underutilized. They tend to not be particularly sophisticated, but they get the job done. For example, Microsoft’s Sharepoint 2010 Managed Metadata Service is sort of the Bowflex of metadata solutions. It provides only rudimentary taxonomy management capabilities, but makes the application of consistent terms simple, convenient and most importantly, routine. When you are just starting out you don’t need an Olympic training facility, just something to get your heart going.
Ultimately, even if your goals are modest, you still need someone who can show you how to get in shape without hurting yourself in the process. You need a metadata trainer. Preferably this will be a permanent, dedicated resource, who understands the difference between a taxonomy and a tag and can guide your organization through the painful process of getting your content in shape. This is a specific skillset that is hard to find among IT and communications staff. You may need to bring in an outside expert trained in classification, indexing, retrieval and related skills (Yes, library science is making a comeback.) Even if this trainer is only there to bootstrap your metadata efforts, they can help you identify your flabby bits, set up your routine and keep you from getting the content equivalent of a hernia.
Just like the financial benefits of a gym membership, the ROI of metadata can be hard to quantify. (It can be done, but that will have to wait for another post). The true rewards are less tangible, but arguably more important. They are the quality of life improvements brought through better health. Information becomes more available, more accurate, more useable and remarkably more valuable. Realizing those benefits doesn’t happen overnight. Just as a single trip to the gym and skipping dessert after one meal won’t take off twenty pounds, a “lunch and learn” on the value of keywords won’t solve your content problems. Only consistent effort, with the appropriate tools, under the guidance of a proper trainer will get you to your content fitness goals.