Oh Taxonomy, how quickly we forget you

One of the best parts of my job is that i get to participate in events and networking circles outside of my company’s primary customer base – which is SharePoint. I’m occasionally able to attend or present at events where very few, if any of the participants know anything about SharePoint (its rare, but those people DO exist). Of course, when I want to talk in detail about structured and unstructured collaboration at some of these events, I get a lot of blank stares. These are not your traditional IT Pro crowds, but otherwise come with fantastic learning and great connections outside of my typical circles.

image Visiting Chicago this week, I have been able to participate in 4 different events: I presented two sessions at SharePoint Saturday Chicago Suburbs (great inaugural event, btw), I presented to the Chicago business SPUG, I participated in a Rightpoint event at the Heartland Microsoft offices on social collaboration, and am half-way through an AIIM think-tank event. I love the opportunity to meet new people and hear their feedback about what is working for them within their own collaboration strategies, what questions they might have, and how they are approaching their individual business cases. One of the stand-out themes this week has been the need for stronger taxonomy and metadata management….and no, I didn't prompt these discussions (not this time, anyway).

Is it me, or has the latest SharePoint release blocked out all sunlight on this topic? (hence the picture of the eclipse) And yet it remains as one of the most fundamental architectural underpinnings of any collaborative platform. Metadata makes structured collaboration work, and is the key to tying unstructured (primarily social) collaboration to structured — -something that is not really happening just yet within the social/Yammer evolution inside SharePoint, but is (in my opinion) the next obvious step in the evolutionary process to bridge that gap between unstructured (Yammer) and structured (SharePoint) collaboration.

Of course, building out a taxonomy structure is just the first step. Most organizations don’t implement what they have developed, or, at best, are just not consistent in how their taxonomies are applied. From a business standpoint, this causes problems with the business owners who see all of this valuable time and resources going into defining process and taxonomy, and then receive no reward. They never see the benefits of this hard work because what was built was never completely deployed. Without following through, without consistent application of the taxonomy, and without development and adherence to necessary governance principles, much of this effort will be wasted.

Of course, this is a problem that goes beyond metadata and taxonomy spheres, and is a common trait of large, complex IT projects, in general. But while the statistics behind IT project failures is widely reported, the devil is in the details as to why many of these taxonomies efforts fail. My own experience has shown that a majority of these projects fail in large part to a failure to fully plan, or to fully implement against the plan. I love the quote by entrepreneur and author Jim Rohn: “Success is neither magical nor mysterious. Success is the natural consequence of consistently applying basic fundamentals.”

Consistency is the issue behind the failures to deploy the majority of taxonomy plans. Of course, there are some best practices that you can consider:

  • Build your taxonomy based on what needs to be searchable, not just based on common metadata, such as title and author. Dig a bit deeper.
  • Your taxonomy may vary based on the types of data being tracked – and that’s fine. You should design your taxonomy for the data.
  • Find your SMEs (subject matter experts) and utilize their expert knowledge to better capture and classify your data.
  • Use the taxonomy. Apply the tags you’ve created. You did all that work – now its time to apply it.
  • Don't compromise your plans over tool limitations. Cut corners with crappy technology and you undo all of your hard work. Outline your taxonomy first, and don’t limit what you build to the technology you are using today.
  • Remember that at the end of the day its about your end users. If they cannot find the content they need, your system is broken.

So here I am once again, lecturing my 4 readers on the importance of metadata. But come on people…it’s important. Yes, I know that building out your taxonomy is a hard task, but it’s crucial to the long-term success of SharePoint or whatever other content management system you’re using. Develop a strategy and stick with it.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Servers and Services MVP, the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Salt Lake City, Utah, and CMO of revealit.io, a blockchain-based video technology company.