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It’s time for taxonomy

by Darin Stewart  |  October 12, 2011  |  4 Comments

I’ve been writing and speaking about taxonomies and metadata for a little over a decade.  In the early days, my audiences consisted mostly of library science refugees seeking shelter in corporate IT departments.  I considered myself lucky if there were a dozen people in the room.  Last week I attended the annual Microsoft SharePoint Conference in Anaheim, California, and realized things have changed a bit.  The session on taxonomies was held in a room with a capacity of 900 people.  It was standing room only.  People are finally starting to “get it”.  Five years ago, taxonomy was all about “findability”.  Consistent terminology and tagging makes search engines work better and navigation easier to…well navigate.  This is as true as ever but today taxonomy and metadata are more about content lifecycle management running the gamut from content creation to disposal.  It is finding its way into every corner of the enterprise.

With popularization comes the increased likelihood of dilution.  As people, vendors in particular, jump on the buzzword bandwagon and co-opt terminology for their own nefarious purposes, concepts get muddled and best practices are lost.  At the conference, I heard the phrase “unstructured taxonomy” being thrown around.  This is an oxymoron at best and utter nonsense at worst. A taxonomy, by definition, is a structured vocabulary.  The hierarchy is the whole point.  There are other forms of vocabulary that are unstructured, but they are not taxonomies.  The offending vendor in this case was attempting a neologism for “folksonomy” and in the process confusing his audience and annoying the analysts.  (maybe it was just me).

As people start to get religion with metadata, other heresies are sneaking in as well.  The most common I’ve encountered recently is managers placing artificial and arbitrary constraints on vocabularies.  I’ve heard teams say things like “we are not allowed to have more than 200 terms in the vocabulary” or “a document can’t have more than two tags”.  When pressed for the motivation behind such strictures the answer usually amounts to “we want to keep it simple.”  A noble goal, but too often one issued as a fiat rather than as the result of analysis.  Simple means the least amount of work necessary, but no less.  It should be driven by functional requirements (and possibly platform limitations), not by artificial mandates from on high. Decision makers are starting to understand the benefits and potential of managed vocabularies and metadata, but don’t yet understand the practice of managed vocabularies and metadata. 

Start with the standards. Z39.19 and ISO2788 are as close to scripture as it gets in the taxonomy world, though ISO 25964 “Thesauri and Interoperability with other Vocabularies” should soon be canonized as well.  Invest in training.  The practice is mature enough and the community large enough that you no longer need to go it alone.  Don’t’ reinvent the wheel.  Vocabularies and metadata frameworks are available for most common domains.  License and modify is usually more effective than from scratch DIY.  And of course, call Gartner for guidance.

It was gratifying to see so many people packed into a session on taxonomy at the SharePoint conference.  The practice has come a long way, but some things never seem to change.  In the early days, metadata champions were a small group of oddballs that couldn’t get funding for their projects.  Now, it is managers, architects and business analysts who still can’t get funding for their projects.  The practitioners have seen the light.  Now we need to convince the people who sign the cheques.

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Category: collaboration  enterprise-content-managment  metadata  taxonomy  

Tags: managed-vocabularies  metadata  microsoft  sharepoint  taxonomy  

Darin Stewart
Research Vice President
6 years with Gartner
21 years IT industry

Darin Stewart is a research vice president for Gartner in the Collaboration and Content Strategies service. He covers search, knowledge management, semantic technologies and enterprise content management. Read Full Bio

Thoughts on It’s time for taxonomy

  1. Rob McLellan says:

    It seems to me that one of the problems is that we’re trying to get the clients (“cheque signers”) and developers (“implementers”) excited about taxonomies and metamodels, which is like trying to teach 10 year olds the grammar of their mother tongue – to communicate they don’t really need it (up to a point), and it takes something they know how to already and adds confusing (and to them, irrelevant) structure and terminology. Of course, it’s highly interesting to architects and librarians.

    How do we find the engagement point that gets the funding, and more importantly the commitment to invest time and effort to work with us to create and populate our taxonomies and models to unlock the value? “trust me this will pay benefits for the enterprise” doesn’t seem btw be cutting it. Thoughts?

  2. edison says:

    By doing taxonomy, will save us more time. working efficent

  3. Rob Howard says:

    Like article. As an extra I would also call out the ISO 10303 suite of standards that provide domain models for product data and the ability to use standard taxonomies provided by other sources

  4. Alex Smith says:

    I am see a major disconnect between the tiers of upper and middle management, and of course they are disconnected with the line workers. The upper group doesn’t get it, the middle group can’t/isn’t willing to dedicate FTE to work on a taxonomy properly, and the line is desperate to be able to find something but is too busy putting out fires to go and look for water (i.e. build it today so that you can use it tomorrow). What is killing me is that if all three groups could come to consesus, see the value, and spend a little extra time implementing a taxonomy the payoff will be huge. To me that remains the great mystery – how to bring them together (oh, and every other organizational/corporate culture needed change).

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