Logo Rob Buckley – Freelance Journalist and Editor

Taxing taxonomies

Taxing taxonomies

A growing number of information managers are implementing taxonomies in a bid to improve customer retention and employee efficiency.

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Categorise every document in an organisation? It sounds like a lot of work for little return. Yet proponents of “taxonomies” would have many information managers do just that, arguing that the savings made in employee and customer time will more than compensate for the time, effort and money spent implementing corporate information taxonomies.

Until now, taxonomies have primarily been adopted by companies in highly regulated environments and those with enormous amounts of information, such as pharmaceutical companies. However, with all companies facing increasing levels of corporate governance, and with customers expecting ever more personalised and responsive service, the use of taxonomies is spreading.

Engineering company Arup, for example, which was responsible for the Sydney Opera House and the Millennium Bridge, had an information overload only a taxonomy could sort out. When it bids for business, it needs to know if it has worked on a similar project in the same or a different location; who has experience of the challenges it will face on the project; and whether it has ever designed a similar system.

But with 120,000 project records, searching would have been almost impossible without a taxonomy. Following the application of a taxonomy to its project management and financial systems, it can now search, for example, for all the projects done in UK universities for the last three years and locate experts within minutes.

But to implement a useful taxonomy takes several things: a good understanding of both the information within the organisation and how people will try to access it; properly categorised documents; processes to ensure that the taxonomy adapts to organisational changes; and an appreciation of the complexities of taxonomies.

It is not without reason that many of the organisations that implement taxonomies hire information professionals, such as librarians, to develop them. If the project is not managed carefully, it is very easy to create an irrelevant or excessively large categorisation system.

Choosing a taxonomy
The first step is to conduct a content audit. This will categorise the types of content (email, business documents and so on) and their data types (text, graphics, video). It will also provide an understanding of the technical scale of the problem.

The next step is to decide how to generate the taxonomy: start from scratch, create a partial taxonomy and use automatic indexing to add to it, or to buy in a pre-existing taxonomy. For many organisations, this is the most daunting step. Unless they have a skills base in information sciences or the project is very small, most analysts advise companies not to try to generate their own taxonomy from scratch. In most situations, starting with a pre-existing taxonomy and customising it either manually or automatically is the best way forward, say analysts.

There are a number of vendors on the market selling specialised taxonomies. Some have been developed by information management specialists, although these are typically intended for use by librarians rather than in IT systems, and some have been developed by a consortia of companies from a specific vertical industry sector, such as the oil and gas industry. More commonly now, however, taxonomies are being sold with search engines and enterprise content management (ECM) systems - the results of work by the vendors for previous customers.

According to Peter Ahearn, senior IT consultant at PA Consulting, organisations should evaluate these commercial taxonomies the same way as they would with any other software. “I would put this out with a formal procurement process. Go to tender, look at a number of options, and get the companies to prove to you that their taxonomy works using a part of the taxonomy that's difficult or different.”

Usually, a bought-in taxonomy will either be too large, since it is intended for a range of potential customers, or will not quite match the organisation's business, so some customisation will be necessary. There is also likely to be a need for some customisation on an ongoing basis, to create a more relevant subset of the taxonomy or to expand it slightly.

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