What do search, social computing and your metadata taxonomy have in common? They all focus on helping your enterprise users find content as quickly and efficiently as possible.

Yet many organizations do not yet understand the criticality of metadata to the health and success of SharePoint (or any other enterprise content management or collaboration platform, for that matter). It takes time and effort to do it correctly. Management tends to push back on recommendations from IT staff or outside consultants when it comes to dedicating time and resources for planning, often because they don’t grasp the far greater costs of fixing it after problems inevitably arise while in production.

It’s a basic project management principle: Take the time to understand the scope up front and reduce pain (and cost) later. How, you ask? Up-front planning leads to a better overall design, which provides a stronger solution. That in turn reduces the amount of rework required to implement the solution, mitigating errors and downtime on the production system. Decades of case studies have shown this to be true, just as spending on preventative health care in the near-term reduces the cost of catastrophic health care in the future. Prepare now so that you won’t pay for it later. Yet many organizations ignore this wisdom when it comes to building out their taxonomy, because they don’t understand just how important it is.

The Business Case for Taxonomy

Metadata is tied to everything inside of SharePoint. Every artifact (e.g., document, PDF, spreadsheet) has inherent metadata (such as file type, date created, author, etc.), inherited data (such as location, state), and assigned data, whether automated or manual (e.g., tags, ratings, content type fields). Metadata connects these artifacts with people, and workflows move them through a decision tree where the metadata is changed (or more is added). Business intelligence tools, reporting systems and dashboards tap into this metadata to identify, sort and configure these artifacts and the underlying data into formats that help drive business decisions.

A strong taxonomy increases the speed and accuracy of search. Whether employing out-of-the-box search capabilities or deploying advanced tools or a third-party enterprise search device, an organized and structured metadata taxonomy allows for faster and more optimized search results. This same optimization improves capture and electronic discovery capability. An added layer of the search experience is social computing, which relies heavily on metadata and taxonomy to connect individuals and ideas through keywords. In fact, social computing amplifies search capabilities by allowing individuals to apply, validate and extend the metadata through social tagging, ratings, comments and discussions, and other tools. The result is a truly collaborative and contextual search experience in which the community helps define content relevance.

Beyond an optimized and efficient system, the real business value of a strong metadata taxonomy is how it can dramatically improve user adoption. When end users can easily apply metadata, they’re more likely to follow protocol and apply the metadata. When metadata is correctly applied, other end users can find the content they need to do their jobs. When people are helped, not hindered, by these simple tasks, they begin to explore more complex tasks in SharePoint or your ECM/collaboration platform, leading to greater efficiencies and improved productivity (which is why you purchased the software in the first place). By allowing the business to take advantage of the full capabilities within the tool, you get more value from your investment.

The Planning Process

Getting started is never easy. Rarely is there an opportunity to start from a clean slate. Realistically, the platform has already been deployed, and end users are actively uploading content and applying metadata in one form or another. Metadata strategies tend to roll out after the fact, when the impact of poor planning is already being felt across the enterprise. Most companies need help understanding how to jump-start the process and how to fast-track a fix. Unfortunately, there is no “easy button” to push  and best practices can be subjective. What may work for one organization may not work for others. However, some actions can be adapted for your organization to help move you in the right direction:

  • Assume that all teams on SharePoint are in production. Recognize that you may not be able to “lock down” the platform while you try to organize and apply your new taxonomy. You will likely need to work in real time. Break it down into the smallest components possible (by business unit, by site collection, by individual site) so that you can identify unique requirements, control your test environment and deploy incrementally.
  • Understand differences in teams. Do not be generic. As you work with teams (or site collections or sites), try to stay unbiased as you capture information, reserving decisions on how to clean up and where to streamline for later when you have a broader perspective. Recognizing and supporting the differences will make your taxonomy strong and, ultimately, drive user adoption.
  • Get users involved. Have them help you define and apply the taxonomy, because they know their content better than you do. Clearly define their roles and responsibilities so that you are using their time effectively – and then be sure to reward their effort with recognition, either directly or through their management chain.
  • Understand the gaps. Rarely will you start your taxonomy from scratch. There is data you can review from your old system, whether an old SharePoint deployment or another content management solution - learn from it. Know what worked and what didn’t work. It’s also wise to have a good understanding of your content. Where are the silos? What content do your end users most need to accomplish their jobs? Review activity and usage data so that you can prioritize the content on your system and focus on the areas that will deliver the biggest bang for your end users.
  • Implement iteratively. By breaking your planning into smaller, iterative pieces, you’ll be more able to learn as you go, folding user feedback into the plan and making changes to improve upon the plan. Work with your end users to assign the metadata, and grow the plan organically. The rate of change will decrease as you move forward and the system improves, and the quality of feedback from your end users will improve as they see their feedback accepted and implemented.

While mostly common sense steps, the hard part is always the execution – and getting people to interrupt their current workload to refocus and retool how they use SharePoint. Following an iterative discovery and design process will lead to an improved overall information architecture, which will have a direct impact on the end user experience. As a platform, SharePoint  is what you make of it. While it can be powerful out of the box, its true capability is unleashed only when tailored for the unique requirements and cultural norms of your organization.
Just realize that it’s not about force-feeding taxonomy, but about adaptive change management. Listen to your end users, understand their requirements and do what makes sense for the organization. And whatever you do, be ready and willing to change.

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