The art and science of organizing terms and terminology – taxonomy -- has recently gained a lot of buzz in corporate tech circles, so much so that taxonomy consultants like me no longer have to explain that we’re not about stuffing recently expired animals to make them appear life-like in their natural habitat. No, we don’t have to do that any longer.

And even though taxonomy as a concept and a practice is becoming firmly established in even small and midsize companies, information management systems haven’t really responded to the demand. Case in point: SharePoint 2010 is a shining example of how a taxonomy management tool can work within a document management system. And even then, I’d really only give it 3 out of 5 stars. It’s a work in progress, and even Microsoft would probably agree.

Go ahead and look around at the other top CMS systems out there (SharePoint, Documentum, OpenText, Drupal -- heck, pick one!) and you’ll see why there are numerous taxonomy management software vendors out there in the market making a killing helping companies to manage taxonomies outside of their core content/document/asset management systems already paid for and in place.

It’s just not right.

Granted, taxonomies need technology to become active and provide value. And taxonomies, up to now, haven’t been the sexiest value-add to an information management system product feature list. Information management systems still haven’t caught up to harnessing the power and potential that a robust and well-defined set of taxonomies can provide end-users. That’s why we have taxonomy management software vendors (and I love ‘em all; they keep me busy!).

So, in the meantime, until information management software more thoroughly incorporates powerful taxonomy tools and capabilities into their offerings, what should you do to promote using a taxonomy in your company? Glad you asked.

Five Taxonomy Must Haves for Your Organization

5. A Taxonomy Maintenance Tool

In SharePoint 2010, it’s the Term Store. In other tools, it goes by various names. The point is that managing taxonomies in Microsoft Excel is just wrong. Get it out of Excel and into a managed system, no matter how poor that system may be. It’s at least a start. Once you commit to getting your taxonomies into a management tool, you need to retire the Excel merry-go-round of taxonomy maintenance. You can always modify the taxonomies later when your information management system vendor upgrades their product.

4. Employee Tagging

Even though professionally curated taxonomies are best, users are going to be one of the best sources of local tags. They’re called “system keywords” in SharePoint 2010, and they’re also known as “folksonomies” in other systems, but basically it’s users adding tags to documents, web pages, MySites, etc. that can really make taxonomies even more powerful. One note: I do not recommend tag clouds. I’ve always found them irritating and often hard to use. And most users don’t really know why one or two words are large, and others are small.

3. At Least One Robust Internal Taxonomy

It only takes one group, usually some energetic marketing or sales team, to build a “starter” taxonomy. From there, it’s a matter of using it as a model for other groups/divisions to build one of their own, or work with a taxonomy vendor to help build out more taxonomies across the enterprise. I’ve seen it happen over and over: no one cares about taxonomies until one group cares, then every group has to have one of their own. Get one group to publish their taxonomy and have them evangelize it throughout the company. Momentum will build.

2. Integrated Content Creation

Taxonomies work best when the content being created by the teams within the company is reflective of the terms in the taxonomy. Keyword-rich content is one of the best ways to improve one component of successful search results. It’s also a way for taxonomy software that auto-classifies content to do a better job of applying just the right set of tags to a document or a web page. This is a long-term goal and probably won’t get done right away. But it’s good to include it in a scoping document.

1. Management’s Blessing

Absolutely the most important part of building and maintaining a taxonomy is the ability to get management’s buy-in to financially support it. I know it sounds crazy to have something so political be the number one most important Taxonomy Must Haves for your company, but it’s true. I’ve seen many, many taxonomy projects start with the best of intentions by team leaders or small groups within a company, only to fail just as they were really hitting their stride due to lack of interest/understanding/support of management. Get your boss to invest in taxonomies.

What’s Up Ahead

In coming months, I hope to write more specifically about how to integrate taxonomies into your company and provide best practices and governance ideas for using taxonomies in your information management systems.

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