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Zach WahlIntroducing the Business Taxonomy

by Zach Wahl

November 2006

 

Web technology continues to accelerate with opportunities for average end users to directly access information as back end information management technologies and concepts are moving to the forefront. Typical business users today are asked to be much more technology and information savvy than in the past. The average user is expected to have an understanding of how knowledge management tools such as portals, document management, and web content management systems work.

Web technology continues to accelerate with opportunities for average end users to directly access information as back end information management technologies and concepts are moving to the forefront. Typical business users today are asked to be much more technology and information savvy than in the past. The average user is expected to have an understanding of how knowledge management tools such as portals, document management, and web content management systems work. More specifically, these users are expected to know how to search and navigate to find the information within these systems. In many ways, users have risen to these challenges. Today, the average user understands the core concepts behind web information systems. However, many organizations are struggling with the basic issue that knowledge management concepts like taxonomy design and metadata strategy, historically used only by information science professionals, are now accessible for use by typical business users. Many organizations have failed to adjust the design and strategy of taxonomies as the audience and uses have changed. As a result, many taxonomies currently found in front end systems are overly complex and far from intuitive for the end users. This issue is exacerbated by confusion concerning the uses and applications for taxonomies. This white paper will address the current disconnects between taxonomy definitions and the organizations that try to build them. It will also introduce the concept of a Business Taxonomy built specifically to serve the needs of today’s users and applications.

The concept of taxonomies is based on the categorization of components into a logical structure. Traditionally, taxonomies have been utilized within the scientific and information management worlds in order to classify vast amounts of data into a logical structure. Traditional taxonomies are characterized by rigorous categorization rules, mutually exclusive classification, and exhaustive granularity. As knowledge management tools have become technologically and functionally available to the end user, this concept of the traditional taxonomy has been tried and it failed. The average business user, regardless of technical savvy or subject matter experience, does not receive the intended value from such an offering.

Unlike a traditional taxonomy, designed primarily for the sake of classification, a Business Taxonomy is designed primarily for usability. Whether it will be used to power back-end metadata classification, front-end navigation, or both, a successful Business Taxonomy must be designed for intuitive browsing by end users. Design at every stage of the Business Taxonomy must therefore consider whether the average user will be able to understand both the terms and the hierarchy of the taxonomy and react to it in a meaningful and consistent manner.

With this primary design requirement in mind, the Business Taxonomy must possess certain core characteristics that differentiate it from a traditional taxonomy. First off, the Business Taxonomy will possess simple terminology that avoids jargon or technical complexity that could confuse potential users. When considering the terms for a Business Taxonomy, the designers should identify the “lowest common denominator” of user types and build using terms and topics that will immediately resonate with them. This is especially important at the highest levels of the taxonomy, where all users must be able to immediately understand what they’re looking at and where they can go to find the information that will meet their needs.

Another characteristic of the Business Taxonomy is looser adherence to traditional taxonomy rules. Whereas a strict taxonomy would create a complex hierarchy of mutually exclusive and collectively exhaustive terms, a Business Taxonomy strives for a flatter, less granular structure that is eminently more intuitive and easier to navigate. In practice, this translates to a traditional taxonomy that might have 100 top level nodes that all go 12 levels deep, to a Business Taxonomy with only 8 top level nodes, none of which go more than 3 levels deep. In other words, the Business Taxonomy sacrifices detail for usability and consistency. Detractors will state that this lack of detail undermines the value of a taxonomy. However, when we consider that we’re asking our business users to work within this structure, a simpler taxonomy is clearly the correct choice to ensure the user understands it completely, can navigate it, and can consistently find documents or refer to documents in a repeatable manner. A flatter structure with less granularity, designed to reduce the number of “clicks” between the users and their desired content minimizes the administrative burden of sorting content into the taxonomy. This results in greater usability, and therefore greater findability of content.

Yet another key characteristic of the Business Taxonomy is built-in flexibility, ensuring the existence of a dynamic design to adapt to changing user needs and content. Whereas a traditional taxonomy is rigorously maintained and subject to minimal modification, a Business Taxonomy is built on the premise that it must be easy to alter in order to respond to changing business needs and audiences. This concept supports a methodology of iterative taxonomy design. Organizations must be prepared to support the long-term evolution of their taxonomies to react effectively to both changing requirements, as well as to user feedback. With the proper feedback mechanisms in place, users will be able to provide taxonomy designers with guidance on how to better organize the taxonomy. In turn, the designers must be prepared to react to this feedback to continuously improve the taxonomy and better serve the end users.

Though many organizations fully recognize the value of what a Business Taxonomy offers, there is nonetheless a theme that organizations are unable to achieve successful Business Taxonomy designs. There are multiple reasons for this hesitation. First off, organizations are unable to break away from the concepts ingrained within traditional taxonomies. Even the designers that are indoctrinated in the concepts and values of a Business Taxonomy tend to fall back to old habits and default to building more complex structures as they forget the important needs of end users. Another primary issue with achieving a Business Taxonomy is that designers overanalyze and over think their taxonomy efforts, inevitably resulting in project delays and complex taxonomies that are overly wide and deep. The most effective approach to move towards a Business Taxonomy design for an organization is to convene a small working group of cross-functional representatives who own and use content throughout their work day. These representatives must be familiar with their own business needs and be able to represent those of their constituents. After being oriented in Business Taxonomy best practices and goals, the group should be facilitated in such a way as to draw out their stories, or use cases for how they think about information and how they classify it themselves. Starting at the top level of the Business Taxonomy, this group can define and discuss the primary nodes and then successively dig down into sub-nodes of increasing detail. At every level and at every decision, the group must validate that the decisions they are making serve the needs of the end users. Though the process may be arduous, the end result will be a Business Taxonomy that truly reflects the thoughts and needs of the end users.

Fueled with intuitive and simple Business Taxonomies, organizations will foster greater information sharing by breaking down the vertical barriers that currently exist around information repositories. Individual users will spend less time searching for information and more time benefiting from information they discover via their taxonomy. With a successful Business Taxonomy, knowledge management tools will experience greater user adoption and increased ease of use. In all, Business Taxonomies will serve both individual users and the organizations they serve by increasing information findability and system usability.