Link Information Architecture to Productivity

The importance of a strong metadata and taxonomy strategy is unclear for many users. And this lack of clarity is fairly widespread across most organizations using SharePoint. But it's not just a SharePoint problem: the same issues are common to every other knowledge management or collaboration platform.

Metadata is foundational to everything you want to accomplish on the SharePoint platform -- especially the latest features of SharePoint 2013, many of which are search-driven. And it's safe to assume that the next version of SharePoint out later this year -- SharePoint Server 2016 -- will be equally reliant on search to enable productivity features.

Some metadata and taxonomy management can be streamlined and automated as content is added to the system, but even the most automated platforms require up-front work. There's no getting around it: making search work well is difficult to accomplish, and requires an ongoing effort to maintain, refine and support.

A regular reassessment of your overall information architecture should be central to your SharePoint strategy, and a core aspect of your regular governance discussions. In my experience, there are a few "universal truths" that should be considered as you begin planning your metadata strategy:

  • Metadata is fundamental to making social, knowledge management and SharePoint itself, work
  • The business dynamics of how Information Workers capture, consume and interact with data are changing
  • Many of our content interactions, from metadata assignment to the social tools we use to engage with surrounding our content and activities, are just another layer of the search experience
  • Organizations don’t understand, much less track and measure, user productivity

Three of these four points are clearly visible within common daily interactions within SharePoint, such as the sharing of a document with your team that includes leaving a quick social interaction. The upload process, the comment you leave, the people you share it with, the content type you use -- all are keywords and metadata and can take advantage of your organization's taxonomy structure.

Microsoft has shown that it is serious about addressing the changing way in which we work, and improving the ability of our intranets, extranets and external-facing websites to surface the right content, at the right time. But even these out-of-the-box capabilities require some degree of configuration, management and planning to get the most out of them.

While some may wait breathlessly for the next generation of Microsoft's new Office Graph capability via the Delve (formerly codenamed Oslo) interface to help surface content across hybrid environments (i.e., on prem platforms, as well as Office 365), there is much that can be done with the platform you have today. Productivity rarely comes through just the out-of-the-box capabilities -- at least not through measurable means -- but through alignment of these technologies with core business processes.

Organizational goals for improving productivity may differ, but the foundation of improving productivity within SharePoint begins with some simple ideas:

1. Increase the volume and accuracy of metadata assignment and content categorization

Metadata drives search, content and task aggregation, and it enables most of the features within SharePoint 2013 (and presumably within SharePoint 2016). Take the most common SharePoint scenario: adding a document to a document library. As you upload a file, you might have the ability to apply relevant keywords from a pre-defined term store. Your taxonomy adds structure to the content. In addition to the required taxonomy fields, you may also apply a few relevant keywords that are not part of the taxonomy, but which you know will provide richer context to the content. Companies like Pingar (Metadata Extractor) and Firestring (Serendipity for SharePoint) have solutions to help with this kind of automation.

Folksonomy, in conjunction with a proactive governance model, refines your taxonomy so that common folksonomy terms eventually find their way into the managed taxonomy, so that others can use those terms more broadly. To make this model work requires some effort from your team -- a governance process to regularly review end user keywords, delete irrelevant terms, promote others and in general, optimize your platform for a healthy search experience.

2. Improve socialization of content and activities

Social tools (whether native SharePoint capabilities, Yammer, third-party solutions like Beezy or future-looking features) utilize metadata to enhance conversations and makes dialog applicable to work output. A simple social interaction further enriches the context and visibility of content. In its most basic form, social applies additional folksonomy (end user generated keywords) by sharing the document with others, liking it, rating it, commenting on it -- which adds richer context to the content, and increases its value to the organization.

We don't always know what content we're looking for. Traditional search models are limited in that we only find content that fits into specific search terms. If someone uploads content without applying taxonomy or folksonomy (which, let's admit it, is the case for the majority of content) then it's up to your search crawler to search through titles and metadata descriptions.

But social interactions may help locate new content based on personal and professional relationships, and through tags (an ever-growing folksonomy) applied by people you've never met and maybe never will … because they found that content through their social circles and could apply some context of their own.

3. Closely monitor, and proactively work to improve, the search experience

Productivity improves when people can find their content, and (more importantly) when the processes you ask them to follow fits into the way they work -- such as to ensure that metadata is assigned, and that your compliance/security guidelines are being met. That's the key: design solutions that match the needs and working habits of your people, rather than force people to learn a new way to work. Social tools tend to be a more natural fit for how people connect and collaborate.

Measuring end user productivity is a difficult task to master, and is an ongoing activity. Monitoring the search habits of your team is the quickest way to determine what's being used, how it's being used and by whom. The data will help to determine the right workloads and activities on which to concentrate your productivity measurements. My best advice is to monitor usage of your platform, and begin to understand the features and tools that people gravitate toward, and those they avoid. I cannot stress enough the importance of thoughtfully building out your information architecture, and reviewing it regularly to ensure that business needs have not changed -- or that what you have learned about end user habits can be rolled back into the platform.

Just remember: your information architecture should be a key aspect of your overall productivity strategy. A poorly executed information architecture will limit how your end users can utilize the platform, and therefore skew the results of any productivity measurements.​

Creative Commons Creative Commons Attribution-No Derivative Works 2.0 Generic License Title image by  Liz Henry