Well done taxonomy management makes searches simple and finding the right answers near-effortless. But the effort it takes to create these ideal results requires a well thought out plan.

At the KMWorld Taxonomy Bootcamp event in Washington DC this past fall (2011), Marjorie M. K. Hlava, President and Chairman of Access Innovations Inc., provided a solid introduction to the process of creating a taxonomy, defining it as a collection of controlled vocabulary terms organized info a hierarchical structure (refer to the ANSI/NISO Z39.19-2005 standard).

One of the most compelling themes in her presentation was what she saw as a "shift in semantics" around taxonomies, recognizing that many organizations now refer to knowledge management and the capture of metadata and taxonomy structures as "knowledge organization systems." Recognizing this shift in language is important because many organizations are struggling with building out their taxonomies, and coming to a shared understanding of what it is, and why it is important, is the key to moving forward.

According to Ms. Hlava, most content management systems (CMS) and SharePoint tend to focus on the hierarchical view of content, looking occasionally at definitions and synonyms. While much of the perspective she shared comes more from an educational or government emphasis, much of the advice she provided can be applied to mainstream business -- and can help companies struggling to add depth to their taxonomies.

For example, Ms. Hlava advised that you should review the representative collection of content when building a taxonomy, determining core areas and peripheral topics. This might include psychology, sociology, education and legal content and topics. The scope can always be modified later, but it is easier to edit than it is to add.

Where to Begin

Should you build or buy your taxonomy?

I hear this question a lot on my travels, and the answer really depends on the quality of off-the-shelf taxonomies, and the reputation of the firms that provide them. Test these taxonomies for scope, depth (how deeply do they index?), make or break terms and cost. Hlava recommends that you start with what is known about your industry, and build from there. Use your own product literature, your content, the lists you already have internally.

But important to building a taxonomy, whether or not you build or buy, is to have a continuous process to review, add to your taxonomy and regularly purge when references become outdated and unused. Wherever possible, involve taxonomists and subject matter experts (SME), your project management team and most of all -- your end users.

If your plan is to build your taxonomy rather than buy, you can collect your terms through:

  • Documents and databases
  • Department terminology
  • Text books and indexes
  • Book tables of contents and indexes
  • Journal quarterly indexes
  • Encyclopedias
  • Lexicons, glossaries on the topic
  • Web resources
  • Users and experts
  • Search logs (how often are terms being searched, used. Best bets, behaviors-based taxonomies)

Above all, choose terms based on their importance to your users, providing what they need to find content quickly and efficiently.

Implementation Can Be Hard

One of the biggest problems with developing these extensive taxonomies is that many teams either fail to implement their hard work, or do a poor job at implementation. Many organizations confuse the components of their solution, not understanding differences between their taxonomy and the tasks related to separate system components, i.e. different system components may work differently with your taxonomy, and treating them all the same may cause problems.

This is a key reason why search fails. Most organizations have multiple software solutions for search. As a result, you may experience inconsistent results, have an unclear path to results, inconsistent vocabulary and weak governance practices.

Taxonomy is often Fire, Ready, Aim! Taxonomy management is an afterthought, when things don't work out the way you expected. To conclude her presentation, Ms. Hlava outlined some best practices for building a taxonomy, which double as her recommendations for ongoing governance management:

  • Follow the data
  • Look at the data, format and content
  • Design taxonomy for the data
  • Leverage the standards
  • Use taxonomy to tag data
  • Choose search and repository software for data
  • Load the data into the system
  • Keep your eye on the target

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in reading: