Metadata, a key component of any document management system. Everyone needs it, but getting it set up and having it used are two completely different things.

Document management systems offer a number of features and functions over and above the typical vanilla file share. You will be familiar with many of them -- versioning, check in and check out, central search function. Another feature that comes up time after time is metadata.

Metadata is ‘data about data’, and is particularly useful in document management systems, as it allows us to store more information about individual documents than is included in the file itself.

For example, I can store a Microsoft Word document in a SharePoint document management system. The file happens to be a case study about a product I sell. Within the document is lots of information about this product but little else. Using metadata I can store the following information, along with the original file:

  • Document type: Case Study
  • Document author: Chris Wright
  • Sign off: Paul Honeyben
  • Date published: 02/03/2011
  • Status: Client approved
  • Client: Corp X
  • Short description: Case study on our green flower vase 
  • Expiry date: 02/03/2012
  • Keywords: flower, vase, green, tall

This information can then be used to better understand the document, what it can and can’t be used for and to help search for the document more easily.

Metadata Always Fails 

So, that is the theory, what about in practice? Well, metadata only works if it’s used. It's fine and dandy to have a deluxe metadata structure based on hours of interviews with users and your existing taxonomy setup. But, if no one tags a document with it, it’s a waste of time. And here is the rub, almost all metadata schemes fail because people don’t use them. There are two scenarios for this failure:

Scenario 1 - Skipping metadata

Metadata can be difficult to fill out for two reasons. First, there is too much of it. Second, users don’t know the necessary answers. In either scenario the user will get bored and skip it. They will simply upload documents and bypass any screen asking them for information. They may fill out the first few fields, they may even have a stab at a random selection -- but it is all a bit hit and miss. The end result? Documents get uploaded with no metadata.

Scenario 2- Skipping the document management system 

The metadata is still difficult to fill out. You may have tried to reduce the number of fields, but users might still have trouble with the answers. But in this scenario you have made some or all of the fields mandatory. The result now? People just don’t upload documents. They go back to their old friends -- email and ‘My documents’. They bypass the system totally because they can’t engage with the metadata.

Folksonomy: Pick Your Own

So, if users don’t engage with metadata what do we do? We scrap it altogether. We don’t build a taxonomy and we don’t spend time with our business analysts collecting terms and synonyms. We don’t impose any kind of structured taxonomy at all. What do we do instead? We put a folksonomy in place.

A folksonomy is a taxonomy created from scratch by users adding adhoc terms as and when they need to. They don’t have to add anything, and terms can be auto-suggested once they become popular amongst other users. The key idea here is users will be more likely to add metadata, because they themselves can select the terms. They can use terms that mean something to them.

Over time, a natural order will develop where the most popular terms within the user community will prevail and grow in usage. A natural order will develop if you will.

Freedom Means Adoption 

This system is totally free and open. Users are free to tag documents with anything they want. This freedom is the key to adoption. And adoption is the holy grail, as we have seen. If the system is not adopted by users then it is useless, no matter how sophisticated it sounds on paper.

So next time you are designing the perfect metadata model, think twice. The perfect model sometimes starts off blank, and is built by the very people that use it.