Lee Romero

On Content, Collaboration and Findability

Archive for January 15th, 2009

Enterprise Taxonomy – A Business Process for Managing A Taxonomy

Thursday, January 15th, 2009

Now that I’ve posted quite a bit on the technical side of an enterprise taxonomy, I thought I’d share a bit on the business process side of how we have managed our taxonomy.

I spoke about this topic at the  2007 Taxonomy Boot Camp. (As an aside, I tried to find if the presentation I used is available on the site but I couldn’t find it – if someone knows of an online archive, please let me know and I can provide a link from here.) The session I delivered was titled, “The Process and Politics of Implementing a Corporate Taxonomy” and focused on the overall process we have implemented.

What follows is an overview of the larger process we used to establish the taxonomy and a description of the smaller process used to maintain it and I’ll close with some of my own thoughts on what it is that triggers changes in a taxonomy.

Getting Started

When we first started trying to formalize a taxonomy, one of the first steps we took was to do an organizational mapping to identify participants in the process. We focused on the following:

  • Groups that had significant investments in web content publication
  • Groups that had significant interest and investment in knowledge capture and sharing
  • Groups that have influence on the corporate culture

We felt that this organizational mapping was important because it would help increase buy-in to the taxonomy from those who have most vested interest in it and also (with help from that last group) would help increase larger scale adoption of the language. Once we felt that we had identified the groups that met these criteria, we engaged with the executives for the groups to help us identify one or more people who could be included in our Taxonomy Review Board.

The rest of the “getting started” process included content audits and analyses to identify terminology used to describe the content, definition of the structure of the taxonomy we wanted to use, organization of the terminology into this structure and then working with the Taxonomy Review Board to confirm the end result as a first version of the (evolving) taxonomy.

We also layed out the objectives we had for the overall process – which you can find in my post on the vision we have developed for our taxonomy. The really pertinent items we wanted to ensure were: We wanted to ensure that the taxonomy was actively managed and we wanted to ensure that the management process was transparent.

The People

Now that the taxonomy had been established, we needed to identify the people and process we would use for maintaining and enhancing the taxonomy.

The people who are involved include:

  • The taxonomy manager – a single person responsible for responding to requests for changes, proactively identifying proposed changes within the taxonomy and handling the “administrative” side of the process. If it’s helpful, I’ve found that this responsibility probably takes about 10% of a single person’s time (though that obviously reflects the size of our organization and volume of content, etc., and can vary at different times) This is my role within the process.
  • A core team – a group of about 3 people (one of which is the taxonomy manager) who do a first-level check of change requests to make sure that requests that are obviously (at least in the minds of the core team) not worth moving farther in a review process are not further considered. Time commitment for this group is probably on the scale of about a few hours a month.
  • The above-mentioned Taxonomy Review Board (TRB)- A cross-organizational group that reviews proposed changes and aligns with them or propose counter-proposals. This group currently has about 15-20 members. Time commitment for this group is minimal – normally, the proposals for change have been considered and detailed enough by the time this group sees them that their involvement is to receive emails with change proposals and either align (so no reply necessary) or write a counter proposal.

This organization has helped to keep the taxonomy managed, while also keeping overall enterprise expense to manage it fairly small.

The Process

Now, I am, at heart, a software engineer. Why is this pertinent? Early on in my career, I came to appreciate the need and value for change control (or, as I prefer to think of it change management or change visibility – I’ve always thought “control” seemed a bit stronger than you could really achieve) and that has seeped into our process.

At its heart, our process is similar to a software development team’s change control board (CCB) process:

  1. All changes, upon identification, are captured in the same bug-tracking system used for our engineering and IT systems (an implementation of Bugzilla). Just like with software, all changes are treated as either enhancements (extending beyond what we have now) or defects (a problem or mistake that was not anticipated) and so they follow the same lifecycle (I generically use the word “bug” below to mean the specific documented request in our tracking system for a change, regardless of whether the change is an enhancement or defect).
  2. Once a change is documented as a bug (I’ll write a bit more below about the sources of changes to the taxonomy), it is assigned to the taxonomy manager for resolution.
  3. The taxonomy manager then needs to do a few things:
    1. Ensure that the bug contains all of the necessary details and any obvious questions are answered. An example of this would be the specific guidelines we have for one of our classifications – I shared these with the TaxoCoP and Patrick Lambe blogged about them as well. In this case, the taxonomy manager is on the hook to ensure a request adheres to these guidelines.
    2. Describing the impact of the change on the rest of the taxonomy (if any).
  4. The change is then reviewed by the core team – this review is typically virtual via email exchange but can be a meeting convened by the taxonomy manager.
    1. If the core team aligns with the change (perhaps after some continued evolution of it), it moves forward for a review by the full Taxonomy Review Board.
    2. If the core team rejects the change, it is canceled. The taxonomy manager communicates that back to the requester (if the trigger for the change was a particular person or group).
  5. When a change is put to the Taxonomy Review Board, which is a virtual team (and which is geographically very distributed), it is communicated by email to the TRB.
    1. At this point in the process, we want to ensure efficiency in process so we do not use a “request for comment” type of approach.
    2. Instead, the change is detailed for the TRB and the TRB members are given two options: 1) align with the change as stated or 2) provide a counter proposal. This helps keep focused and helps to avoid potentially lengthy discussions on the change at this point.
    3. To further accelerate decision making and reduce time on the part of the TRB members, each request is also positioned as a time-boxed proposal: You have until <this date> to provide a counter proposal or else you are assumed to align to the change. In other words, no reply from a member equates to alignment.
    4. Another implication of this is that by the point a change reaches the TRB it is almost inevitably going to go ahead in some form (perhaps changed by counter-proposals from the TRB). It will not be canceled. That seems possible but so far has not happened in practice.
  6. Upon achieving alignment within the TRB on the final proposal, the change is executed in the taxonomy and the request closed. The change is communicated back to the requester to close the loop and (especially for significant changes) the change may also be communicated to our larger content manager community.

Issues with the Process and Framework

While it has worked effectively we still face a number of issues with this process. These include:

  • The need to keep on top of organizational changes – specifically, with regard to membership in the Taxonomy Review Board. A member’s role within the enterprise can change to the point where they may not be in the best position to represent a group of interests. In addition, with some organizational changes we’ve seen, it can result in an “unbalanced” TRB.
  • Which brings us to the second issue – organizational coverage. Currently, we have a TRB that overly represents our marketing organization and is missing representation from some groups that should be represented.
  • Lastly, support of this process from within our IT organization is a concern. I see this in a couple of different ways:
    • Organizationally, the taxonomy manager falls within IT but the responsibility to continue managing the taxonomy is not perceived as a priority (and there’s a question as to whether it should even organizationally be within IT);
    • In terms of adoption, it has been a challenge to educate the IT organization about the value and use of the taxonomy. An example would be integration with a business intelligence solution to ensure consistency in language and, more specifically, to be able to effectively integrate insights about content (which does use the taxonomy) with more transactional-based “data”.

Identifying the Need for Change

What triggers a change in the taxonomy?

As I (re-)gather my thoughts on this topic, one lingering question came back to me about the overall process. The question is external to the process (which takes the approach of “a change comes from somewhere and we’re not going to worry about where it comes from but once it’s been identified, we’ll wedge it into this process”) but I am interested in understanding what other taxonomists might actively do in maintaining a taxonomy. In other words, how much change do you experience that comes from others compared to your own recommendations or insights?

Here’s a list of triggers that have resulted in changes in the taxonomy:

  • We provide content publishers with a mechanism to request a change to one facet (“Item Type”) at the point where they are submitting a piece of content. I consider this to be a purely tactical, reactive change and, given the above process, suffers from the problem that a content publisher cannot sit at their computer waiting for the business process to complete before they submit their content. So even if a new value is adopted, they will need to publish their content with a temporary value and remember to come back and change it after the fact.
  • I have engaged with content owners several times who were planning to publish a set of content and worked proactively with them to understand their content and ensure that the taxonomy provides good coverage. It’s lucky (though perhaps it shouldn’t be!) when this can happen and I manage to ensure the taxonomy changes are in place before they need to publish content.
  • When a new repository is being migrated or merged into a system using the taxonomy, there will likely be a number of changes in the taxonomy, including adoption of whole new classifications and introduction of new values. Also, this almost inevitably require a good mapping from local system values to the taxonomy values where there is (near) overlap.
  • Most proactively on my part, I have also used analytics from a number of sources to help refine the taxonomy, including:
    • Reviewing search query logs to understand the language being used by people looking for content
    • Reviewing the “free text” fields (e.g., title, description, etc.) within content management systems to look for terms that are commonly used that might warrant explicit use in a constrained classification.
    • Reviewing the volume of content when split along various dimensions of the existing taxonomy – looking for opportunities to merge (values are under-utilized), split (values are over-utilized) or perhaps retired (values are not utilized)
  • Adoption of new terminology by groups responsible for that part of the taxonomy. A common example is the terminology used to describe our various solution offerings – these will, at times, be changed unilaterally by our marketing organization and we then need understand how that translates to the existing taxonomy and to content tagged with that taxonomy.
  • Lastly, given that another part of the vision of the taxonomy is to use systems of record where possible, a number of changes are triggered outside of the taxonomy and simply synchronized in from the source system. This approach assumes (true in all cases as far as I am aware) that the source systems provide their own management process on values and these changes do not require any review through the above taxonomy management process.