It’s no secret that the Internet is changing the way we consume and digest information. Every day, consumers who used to reach for the Yellow Pages now reach for Yahoo!, Google and hundreds of other online resources. Information seekers who once cracked open those cherished encyclopedias in the library now surf Wikipedia online.

 

For years, many enterprises watched this transformation from the sidelines, satisfied to continue adjusting the content management systems in which they had invested.

 

But the consumers at home are also our employees at work. And when they arrive at their desks, they bring a new set of expectations that have been shaped by their experiences with the Internet, cell phones, email, mobile handheld computers and iPods. These and other innovations have changed the way people consume and interact with information.

 

Content and document management is not immune to this transformation. Online sites such as Flickr and del.icio.us allow users to submit their own metadata, known as tags, to shape the architecture of their knowledge and how it’s shared.

 

These practices known as social tagging are too big and too valuable to the enterprise to be ignored. As information professionals, we can either be intimidated by our fears of anarchy and information chaos, or we can choose to apply these practices to our advantage. In time - perhaps a very short time - we may not have much of a choice. Enterprise users will demand flexible, easy-to-use tagging tools as part of their own pantry of supplies. The only remaining question will be whether or not we are prepared to serve it up.

 

Consider it an embarrassment of riches: for the contemporary enterprise, progress is not inhibited by a lack of information, but by a lack of easy access to that information. You know the data you need is out there, but where? You believe there’s an expert in your organization who can help, but who? You suspect that there’s a better way to share knowledge, but how?

 

For many years, enterprises have responded to the information glut by creating taxonomies, structured hierarchies of metadata - or data about data - that organize knowledge in a more orderly, more accessible manner. These systems may be used to classify documents, digital assets and other content within any type of physical or conceptual entity - products, processes, knowledge fields, teams and groups, etc. - at any level of granularity. In its simplest definition, a taxonomy is the standard vocabulary a company uses to describe its business. In practice, taxonomies should make information easier to find.

 

Folksonomies to the Rescue

 

Tagging, also known as social bookmarking, social indexing or social classification, allows users to store, organize, search and manage content with metadata they apply using freely chosen keywords. Thomas Vander Wal, the man who coined the word folksonomies for this social approach to metadata, defines it as “collaborative categorization using simple tags.”1

 

Tagging can facilitate collaboration among specific teams and/or specific projects. As tags are shared, a feedback loop is organically produced between the “taggers” and those consuming the tags. In addition to the actual tag itself, the act of tagging can provide information about the piece of content the tag has been applied to and about the users who have tagged it. On del.icio.us, for example, users can see how many times a piece of content has been tagged - which may denote the relative importance of that reference within the community - as well as who has tagged it (possibly including notes on why it was tagged).

 

Some enterprise social bookmarking applications have expertise locator profile views that are dynamically generated based on the information collected from the users’ tags, helping the community identify experts on various topics. This kind of triangulated metadata further enables knowledge identification and sharing.

 

Tagging content can improve the connections between content creators and users, helping them do their jobs more efficiently and intelligently.

 

While folksonomies can play a powerful role within the enterprise, it would be both premature and undesirable to abandon traditional taxonomies altogether. For one thing, many organizations have already made significant investments in a working taxonomy that has proven its validity. More importantly, a professional taxonomy offers an orderly structure into which individual contributions can be meaningfully placed. Further, the information professionals themselves provide necessary oversight and monitoring to reduce the amount of redundant or ambiguous tags that could create more confusion than clarity.

 

The Hybrid Approach

 

Without a formal taxonomy, the enterprise risks losing control of vast volumes of growing information resources. Without a folksonomy feature, the enterprise risks losing knowledge that might remain unidentified within the corporate taxonomy. Worse, it risks losing users frustrated by a complex taxonomy that resists their input and defies their own vocabulary - creating, in essence, a dinner party at which no guests arrive.

 

Fortunately, the taxonomy versus folksonomy issue is not an “either/or” debate, but an opportunity for mutual progress. By combining the virtues of each approach into a working hybrid model, the enterprise can achieve its goal: a user-friendly system that encourages collaboration and makes information easier to find.

 

Many of the core benefits of a hybrid model are germane to taxonomies in general: the integration of fragmented information, increased knowledge-worker productivity, improved distribution of information and more effective team and cross-team collaboration.

 

Yet the incorporation of tagging technology into the hybrid model yields new benefits that cannot be realized - or cannot be realized as efficiently - through a corporate taxonomy. Although there may be considerable overlap among the following categories, it pays to consider the advantages to three key constituents: the enterprise itself, users/creators, and taxonomists or information professionals.

 

Benefits to the Enterprise

 

Several direct enterprise benefits exist:

 

Greater scope and depth to information capture. Social tagging helps the enterprise capture documents, data, reports and objects with a wider and swifter net than hierarchical governance, gathering content that would have been lost or delayed had only the hierarchy been applied. Tagging leverages the collective power and knowledge of multiple eyes reviewing a broader landscape of material.

 

Increased customer/market understanding. It’s one thing to organize your internal data, but incorporating relevant outside information raises the challenge to another order of difficulty. In the past, individual browser-based bookmarks were lost to the broader community. In addition, most users were discouraged by the difficulty of cutting and pasting external documents into the organization’s document management system. Tagging, however, makes it easy to bring outside information in. According to a Forrester study of a pilot tagging program, 83 percent of the tagged content was external to the organization; tagging rapidly incorporated relevant material into the enterprise.2

 

Improved collaboration. Users can easily create tags by product (e.g., “Megatext2.0”), project (e.g., “market review”) or even group identity (e.g., “Ryan’s team”) to identify information relevant to self-defined groups and encourage its rapid dissemination among members.

 

Encourage transparency. Who found a given item valuable and why? Tagging tools supplement submissions with information about the tag author and with opportunities for the submitter to add explanatory commentary that establishes him or her as part of the conversation.

 

Retain “lessons learned.” Experience can be hard won, but losing valuable lessons is a bitter pill indeed. Collaborative tagging preserves the collective wisdom of team effort, ensuring that lessons are retained even as individual employees change departments - or change employers.

 

Benefits to Content Creators and Users

 

The benefits to content creators include:

 

Faster and more effective sharing of knowledge. Tagging turns ordinary data collection and retrieval into an active conversation among peers. The social context not only expands the pool of contributors beyond the professional taxonomists, it encourages a deeper engagement by facilitating more connections among contributors and across items of information.

 

Superior findability and refindability. Too many inquiries become “Where’s the beef?” challenges amidst a complex stew of information. Informal tags apply the colloquial language of actual user groups, increasing the odds of identifying information through terms familiar to the user.

 

Expertise discovery. Sometimes a personal call is the quickest route to insight - but who are you going to call? Social tagging puts “faces” (in some tools, quite literally - with photographs) to previously anonymous information. Users can follow tags as leads to potential experts. They may also peruse the bookmark or tag sets of individual contributors as a fresh entry point to previously unexplored information.

 

Satisfying expectations. Many organizations turn a blind eye toward technology on the Internet, failing to recognize that today’s consumers on the Web are tomorrow’s employees on their intranets. The truth is, today’s workers - especially younger employees who have been virtually nursed on cell phones, iPods, instant messages and more - expect speed, simplicity and control, and they expect it now. If the enterprise fails to provide tools that fit their expectations, they won’t simply conform to standard practices - they’ll ignore formal processes and continue to use the tools that enable them to be successful, irrespective of potential corporate impact. Better to incorporate tools that bring these people in rather than impose complex content management structures that shut them out.

 

Once an enterprise has decided to move forward with selected tools, it needs a plan for stimulating their use. Successful adoptions apply the following elements:

  1. Enlightened self-interest. What enlightenment philosopher Adam Smith said of free markets works for the free exchange of information as well: self-interest can work for the benefit of the community. Any tagging tool must first serve the individual’s need to organize material to his or her advantage - or he/she won’t use it at all.
  2. Appropriate training. As we’ve learned from early iterations of PC operating systems, few things are truly intuitive. Any investment in a folksonomy/taxonomy tool should be complemented with an investment in employee training.
  3. Seed the system. Early adopters bring two important things to the table: a set of tags that prove useful to others approaching the system for the first time and a core of cheerleaders who can be advocates for the system to other people within the enterprise.

Models and Best Practices for Successful Hybrid Taxonomies

 

A great meal begins with a simple question: “What do I want to eat?” Similarly, the best way to approach a potential hybrid taxonomy for your enterprise is to begin with appetite: what do you want to get out of your folksonomy/taxonomy metadata initiative?

 

There is no one right way to incorporate a folksonomy into your enterprise. Instead, there are levels of engagement ranging from free and loose social tagging with little supervision to closely monitored tagging built around a tightly controlled core taxonomy.

 

By precisely identifying your goals, you can more effectively determine the balance between community freedom and centralized control that is right for your enterprise.

 

Today, the state of enterprise folksonomies is comparable to the state of corporate intranets a decade ago - a learn-as-you-go period of trial-and-error experimentation. The following is a sampling of ways enterprises can incorporate social tagging tools into their taxonomies:

  • As a way of rapidly classifying content by allowing the user community to create its own system of content reference - through tags - under casual oversight by enterprise information professionals.
  • As a way of adding associative keywords to controlled vocabularies. User screens display terms from the enterprise taxonomy, to which they may contribute their own free-form tags or tags previously suggested by other community members.
  • As a way of attracting new terms vetted by information professionals. Users can freely submit tags as they wish, but these are reviewed by small groups of moderators before they enter the system. As fresh tags are submitted, taxonomists can observe new concepts and nomenclatures discussed within the enterprise and can become better aware of emerging topics worth adding to the corporate taxonomy.
  • As a way of validating existing terms within the enterprise taxonomy. A working folksonomy gives information professionals a means of measuring term popularity. If, for example, the top five tagged terms are in the taxonomy, the folksonomy has confirmed the terms’ relevance.
  • As a mining tool to uncover new terms and concepts important to the community. Digging through user tags and search logs can provide additional information about the way people use enterprise search tools.

There is no end to the possibilities of a hybrid approach to enterprise taxonomies and folksonomies. In fact, the important conclusions are not the ones drawn here, but the ones you reach after careful consideration of your enterprise needs and ambitions.

 

References:

  1. Thomas Vander Wal. “ Folksonomy
  2. Leslie Owens. “Don’t Throw Away That Corporate Taxonomy Just Yet.” Forrester Research, Inc. January 30, 2008.

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