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Social Tagging and the Enterprise: Does Tagging Work at Work?

10 minute read
Stephanie Lemieux avatar

As social tagging grows increasingly popular on the Web, organizationsare curious to see how this trendy Web 2.0 approach can benefit thebusiness world.

Social tagging allows users to employ their own language to organizeand retrieve content, and encourages social collaboration between peersby making those tags visible to others. Organizations are thus lookingto social tagging as a potential solution for increased findability onintranets, news/blog monitoring and collaboration in work groups. Theenterprise context is different however, and many of the elements thatmake social tagging work on the Web make it a challenge behind thefirewall.

These include a smaller and more defined corpus of content, a muchsmaller user population with less available time, and stricterinformation retrieval requirements. Other challenges include the qualityof tags (misspellings, compound words, personal tags) and of tag searchengines (no spell-check, no stemming), both issues which impact theperformance of social tagging. These problems aside, social tagging isstill a valuable tool for the enterprise, as long as these challengesare considered. A hybrid solution that employs social tagging and formaltaxonomy as complementary information access approaches is emerging as awinning solution.

Introduction

You can tag just about anything these days: vacation photos,products, blog posts, friends on Facebook, etc. But what about that travelapproval form you can never find on the intranet? Or the latest companyannual report? While the popularity and application of social tagginghas been on a continuous climb on the Web since the launch ofDel.ici.ous in 2003, the enterprise has been slower to adopt the trend.In the past few years, vendors -- from niche companies like Connectbeamto large providers like IBM Lotus -- have launched social taggingproducts aimed at the enterprise, hoping to capitalize on the growingcuriosity around how this Web 2.0 approach can benefit the businessworld. But just what is social tagging in the enterprise: a cheapsolution to information organization in difficult economic times, givingpeople the tools they love at home to use at work, or just a faddishattempt to incorporate “cool web 2.0 stuff” into the enterprise context?

Social Tagging on the Web -- Popularity Explained

Before we can determine whether social tagging works in theenterprise, we have to understand why it works so well on the web.Social tagging originally emerged as a solution for offering individualusers control over findability. It allowed individuals to use their ownlanguage -- tags with personal meaning -- to organize and retrieve contentimportant to them. No need to sift through unwieldy directorystructures or guess at a good search term. When made visible to others,the value of tags expanded from the individual to the group: you couldnot only re-find your content but also explore content tagged similarlyby others. So tagging moved from being a personal use tool to enablingserendipitous discovery of content, ideas, and peers.

The ability to support a multiplicity of views is an important aspectof this approach. Whereas taxonomies and thesauri force convergencearound a preferred term (e.g. use Cinema, not Movies), folksonomies(“structures” that emerge from social tags) allow users to choosewhatever term they find meaningful and there is no funneling into asingle point of view. Essentially, people tag the same contentdifferently, and not only is this OK, but it's the whole point: peoplewho tag content as “cinema” probably think differently than those whotag using the term “movies”1. This allows users to get aroundthe “problem” of semantics, that is, having to figure out what termsothers have chosen.

Why Introduce Social tagging in the Enterprise?

So why does the enterprise want to bring social tagging behind thefirewall? There are a couple of simple answers to this: it's a quick,cheap and easy way to enable lightweight social collaboration andaugment findability.  Social tagging software solutions are typicallyinexpensive niche products or modules you can add on to your existingsoftware suite. They don't represent a big investment, and arerelatively simple to implement. Additionally, the technology is usuallyrelatively easy to use (compared to an ERP or CMS, for example), sothere is no need to spend heavily on training or special staff.

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Figure 1: Sample Tool View -- Dogear from Lotus Connections

Organizations are interested in using social tagging technology bothwithin work groups and across the enterprise. Tagging can supplementinformation retrieval options in intranets and document managementsystems, allowing employees to use tags to enhance the findability ofinternal and external content without waiting for an informationprofessional to categorize it. Many tools allow you to subscribe to whatis called a “tag stream” and monitor content being tagged. This is anexcellent way to provide trend monitoring, news/blog aggregation, andother external company-related information. Social tagging can also beused to help share documents, research, and more, both within formalwork groups and informal communities of practice. This increases not onlycollaboration, but also expertise location, as viewing a tagger'sprofile can tell you a lot about their interests and expertise.Essentially, social tagging creates a richer set of options for userswithin the enterprise for locating content and colleagues.

[Editor's Note: You may also be interested in the article Social Networking in the Enterprise: What's the ROI?]

The Difference Between the Web and the Enterprise

These all sound like great benefits, so why doesn't every companyimplement social tagging? The problem with transposing approaches thatwork great on the web into a corporate setting is that we don't oftentake into account the contextual differences that affect success. Thefirst major difference between the Web and the enterprise is nature ofthe content. The Web is a seemingly infinite collection with no clearedges, no authority, and no structure. Outsourcing the organization ofinformation on the Web to users makes sense in this context: people canbe free to make up their own definitions and categories, and structurewill emerge from the chaos simply through volume.  Corporate content isdifferent: it is a more defined corpus of information that is meant tosupport specific tasks and users, entities are structured and there isauthority to be respected. Finding information is mission-critical inthis context, so employees have a higher need for precise and reliableaccess to information.

People are also different on the Web vs. the enterprise. One of thebig success factors in many Web 2.0 approaches is population size. AForrester study showed that 16-18% of users between 18-40 have taggedWeb content. 16-18% is a lot when you consider the millions and millionsof people who surf the Web, but not a lot in the context of a 30 personwork team or a 500 employee company. Recent case studies published fromMITRE and BUPA indicate that the level of participation in theenterprise tends to be more around 10% of users. People at work alsohave less time and motivation to participate in social software: theyare focused on deliverables and deadlines and do not often have thespare time or incentive to focus on sharing and tagging information.They also have more concerns about privacy and security, given thattheir tags and tagging profile may be made visible to other employees.

Other issues that must be considered pertain to the quality of tagsand tagging systems. Unfortunately, people are not especially good attagging: they tag inconsistently over time and are usually moreconcerned about personal findability than the “greater good” (which isarguably the original point of social tagging). This translates itselfinto tags of dubious quality: misspelled tags (e.g. Sharepiont),inconsistent tags (e.g. dog vs. dogs), compound words (e.g.SocialTagging), personal use tags (e.g. toread), etc.2 Forexample, the top 75 tags from LibraryThing.com (book tagging) shows suchissues.

Learning Opportunities

 

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Figure 2: Top 75 Tags from LibraryThing.com

This is compounded by the fact that tag search engines are not yet verysophisticated. Most do not have spell-check or stemming (expanding asearch for “ski” to include “skis”, “skiing”, etc.), nor do they havethe ability to search for synonyms (e.g. Ursa Major vs. Big Dipper).Some tagging sites, such as LibraryThing, are experimenting with anapproach called “tag equivalency”, where a user can make two tagssynonymous, but this is not widespread.

These issues lead to a problem of precision and recall in tag-basedsearching. Precision is the ability of a search engine to return itemsfrom the collection that are truly relevant to your search (exactness),while recall is the ability to return all the relevant results in acollection (completeness). In the world of the Web, precision and recalltend to be less critical, as you are dealing with collections withmillions of items and less of a : does it really matter if you don'tfind every single picture of cats on Flickr? It does matter however ifyou don't find all the relevant cases in your law firm's case historydatabase.

The Content Continuum

This is not to say that social tagging is an irreparably flawedapproach that should be avoided in the enterprise. Quite the contrary:as stated earlier, there are many situations and contexts in whichsocial tagging is not only interesting but practical. What it boils downto is the nature of the content being tagged and whether its consumerscan afford the drawbacks of social tagging. Some enterprise content ismore mission-critical than others, such as policies and approvedmethods, and organizations should invest the time and effort required toensure that this content is findable. Other content, such as blogs,external links and discussion postings can afford to be moreserendipitous.

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Figure 3: The content continuum

The Hybrid Approach

However, the best approach to enterprise findability is a savvycombination of both approaches. That is, don't fire your libraries andthrow out your corporate taxonomy just yet: keep them for tagging yourhigh value content and ensuring that you have consistency ofcategorization and terminology. But do supplement your intranet searchand other less formal sources with social tagging, show tags alongsideofficial categories and result sets.  Finally, social tags can be agreat source of terms to augment your corporate taxonomy, as they tendto represent the most current and natural user terminology. Some toolsare also exploring taxonomy-directed tagging, where type-ahead tries tomatch user-generated tags to a controlled vocabulary (e.g., ZigTag).

Essentially, organizations should not be afraid to get involved insocial tagging: it is a simple and inexpensive way to inject a littleWeb 2.0 into your employees' lives and supplement more formal approachesto findability. Given that the technology is relatively mature, thereare also some good case studies available to guide your effort3.To get you started, here are some basic do's and don'ts around socialtagging implementation and governance.

  • Don't assume social tagging will replaceother corporate metadata. View it as a way to enrich existing contentorganization and add life to your taxonomy.
  • Doinvestigate which tool is right for you: most enterprise software suiteshave add-ons, there are new specialized products, or you can custombuild on based on open source tools.
  • Don't skimp onmarketing the use and benefits of social tagging to target users.
  • Doallow users to import their tags from online sources (e.g. Del.ici.ous)if possible, this will pre-populate the system and make the tool seemvaluable faster.
  • Do evaluate whether your corporateculture can support open tagger profiles or would be better suited toanonymous tagging. Either can work, but an open system results in moresocial connections.
  • Do consider some minimal effortaround tag clean-up and vetting to weed out inappropriate tags andbasic misspellings/inconsistencies.

As long as you are aware of how enterprise tagging differs from itsweb counterpart, you will be ready to hit the ground running and makeyour tagging project a success.

About the author

Stephanie Lemieux

Stephanie Lemieux is a consultant and passionate advocate of taxonomy, search and content management (i.e. bit of a geek), helping clients create better information environments for their users. She is newly back to consulting after a stint as the Director of Search & Content at the Yellow Pages Group in Montreal, Canada.