Making IA Part of Your Operational Activities

For many of us on the IT side of the house, productivity has long been a part of our metrics, taking on many different forms — from personal KPIs, to project and workload-specific activities, to org-wide efforts to “improve the way that we work.” Ultimately, the goal of productivity is to help our businesses move faster, become more effective, and to be more efficient in all that we do. No matter what the platform or solution at the center of our collaboration activities, for most users, the importance of a strong information architecture (IA) strategy as part of our productivity improvements is unclear. Having worked within the SharePoint and Office 365 community for more than 15 years, I can state confidently that this lack of clarity is fairly widespread across most organizations, unfortunately.

I’m looking at things through the lens of a SharePoint / Microsoft Teams / Office 365 standpoint, but it’s not a problem just within the Microsoft ecosystem, of course. The same issues we experience within this community are common to every other knowledge or information management platform. Within the SharePoint community specifically, stakeholders need to understand that IA is foundational to everything else you want to accomplish on the platform — especially if they want to take advantage of the latest features, many of which are driven by artificial intelligence (AI) and search, for which a strong IA is a critical component. And because SharePoint is a core component of Teams, it’s obviously important for those users, as well.

Some metadata and taxonomy management can be streamlined and automated as content is added to the system, but it requires a lot of up front work. While it’s exciting to think about some of the latest capabilities (Project Cortex, for example), much of the new stuff will not have an impact on your current systems for quite some time, so focus on the technology you have in place today. Begin with an assessment of what you have in place today. An assessment of your overall information architecture should be central to your ongoing operational SharePoint activities anyway, and a core aspect of your regular governance discussions. In my experience, there are a few “universal truths” that should be considered as you begin planning your IA strategy:

  • Metadata is fundamental to making social, knowledge management, and SharePoint itself, work.
  • The business dynamics of how Information Workers capture, consume, and interact with data are changing.
  • Many of our content interactions, from metadata assignment to the social tools we use to engage with surrounding our content and activities, are just another layer of the search experience.
  • Organizations don’t understand, much less track and measure, user productivity.

Three of these four points are clearly visible within our common daily interactions within SharePoint, such as through the sharing of a document with your team that includes leaving a quick social interaction. The upload process, the comment you leave, the people you share it with, the content type you use — these are all keywords and metadata, and can take advantage of your organization’s taxonomy structure.

Microsoft has shown that they are serious about addressing the changing way in which we work, and improving the ability of our intranets, extranets, and external-facing websites to surface the right content, at the right time. While many people wait breathlessly for the general availability of Microsoft’s new Office Graph capability via the Delve (formerly codenamed Oslo) interface to help them surface content that is relevant and timely to their needs, there is much you can do with the platform you have today.

Organizational goals for improving productivity may differ, but the foundational ideas for improving productivity within SharePoint begin with some simple ideas:

  1. We need to increase the volume and accuracy of metadata assignment and content categorization. Metadata drives search, content and task aggregation, and it enables most of the new features within SharePoint. Think about the most common SharePoint scenario: adding a document to a document library. As you upload a file, you might have the ability to apply relevant keywords from a pre-defined term store. Your taxonomy adds structure to the content. In addition to the required taxonomy fields, you may also apply a few relevant keywords that are not part of the taxonomy, but which you know will provide richer context to the content. Folksonomy, in conjunction with a proactive governance model, refines your taxonomy so that common folksonomy terms eventually find their way into the managed taxonomy, so that others can use those terms more broadly. To make this model work requires some effort from your team — a governance process to regularly review end user keywords, delete irrelevant terms, promote others, and overall optimize your platform for a healthy search experience.
  2. We need to better socialize our content and activities. Social tools (whether native SharePoint capabilities, Microsoft Teams, Yammer, or other) utilize your metadata to enhance conversation, and make your dialog applicable to your work output. A simple social interaction further enriches the context and visibility of your content. In its most basic form, social applies additional folksonomy (end user-generated keywords) by sharing the document with others, liking it, rating it, commenting on it — all of which add richer context to the content, and increase its value to the organization.
    We don’t always know what content we’re looking for. The limitation of the traditional search model is that we only find that content which fit into our specific search terms. If someone uploads content without applying taxonomy or folksonomy (which, let’s admit it, is the case for the majority of our content) then you rely on your search crawler to search through titles and metadata descriptions. But through our social interactions, we may locate new content based on personal and professional relationships, and through tags (an ever-growing folksonomy) applied by people you’ve never met and maybe never will…..because they were able to find that content through their social circles and apply some context of their own.
  3. We need to closely monitor, and proactively work to improve, the search experience. Productivity improves when people can find their content, and (more importantly) when the processes you ask them to follow — to ensure that metadata is assigned, and that your compliance/security guidelines are being met — also fits into the way they need to work. That’s really the key: design solutions that match the needs and working habits of your people, rather than force people to learn a new way to work. Social tools tend to be a more natural fit for the way that people connect and collaborate.

Measuring end user productivity is a difficult task to master, and is an ongoing activity. My best advice is to monitor usage of your platform, and begin to understand the features and tools that people gravitate toward, and those they avoid. Overall, I cannot stress any more the importance of thoughtfully building out your information architecture, and reviewing it regularly to ensure that business needs have not changed — or that what you have learned about end user habits can be rolled back into the platform. The lack of a strategy can impact these common scenarios outlined above, and limit your ability to leverage the full functionality of SharePoint.

Christian Buckley

Christian is a Microsoft Regional Director and Office Apps & Services MVP, and the Founder & CEO of CollabTalk LLC, an independent research and technical marketing services firm based in Lehi, Utah, through which he provides fractional-CMO for partners in the Microsoft ecosystem.