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Nobody wants a drill, they want a hole in the wall

December 27, 2010
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With this post, we come to the end of the series that’s been focusing in on my approach to taxonomy, which I introduced in the initial post (Irrelevant Taxonomies). My goal throughout has been to contrast my approach with how I see taxonomy typically done, as well as to solicit feedback, comments, and general heckling from you all out there–nothing like industry scorn to sharpen your ideas, right?

In that initial post, I introduced a number of dichotomies about relevant versus irrelevant taxonomies; in this series of posts, I’m taking the time to explain more about each of these dichotomies.

That having been said, let’s dive right in to the final dichotomy: are seen as ends in themselves or as a means to an end that is of questionable value to the organization versus are seen as a means to an end that is important to the organization.

But do you “need it” need it?

Nearly everyone involved in how content is managed at an organization will tell you they need a taxonomy (and need one badly), but very few of them can tell you exactly why they need one. Sure, they’ll all talk about organizing content better so it can be found easily and accurately or having a more consistent information organization across departments and repositories. But if you push them and ask why anyone should care about those things, you’ll likely get some blank stares and scoffing–after all, having your content organized better is just, well, better than not having it organized…isn’t it?

It is, but the real issue isn’t whether it’s better for the organization, but in what ways it’s better. That is, in what ways does having content better organized improve the organization?

And in answering this question, we need to avoid proximate results, like better findability or less time searching–as we talked about in the last post, these are only perceived as valuable to an organization insofar as they contribute to one of the three ultimate goals: increased revenue, decreased costs, or increased margins.

Get specific

In my day-to-day work with clients, I find the best way to connect taxonomy benefits to one of these three ultimate results is to understand each client’s business well enough to be able to put my finger on the business activities that better findability or reduced search time will improve. I want to understand how poor information organization affects people’s jobs every day, i.e., what are the specific tasks that they either can’t do or can’t do as well because they can’t find content easily or accurately?

For example, you might hear from the sales team that while on the road, it takes them a really long time to find all the documents they need to prep for client meetings, even though they use the same documents over and over again and the process could be streamlined. You might also hear that they are under the gun to stay on top of client outreach, account management, and prospecting.

Making it easier for the sales team to find the documents they need for client meetings, then, is a way to give them more time to do the other sales activities they are responsible for–and that are directly tied to generating revenue for the organization.

This is only one example. In an extended client engagement to build a taxonomy, there are many opportunities to find lots of specific examples of business-relevant taxonomy benefits…if you’re looking. The problem is that as practitioners we often fall into the trap of assuming that our work is valuable in and of itself and execute our project totally focused on getting the taxonomy right, while paying little to no attention to articulating exactly how this project will benefit the organization, in terms that the organization cares about.

When we do so, we not only put the project at risk, but also shortchange our client, because we’ve squandered an opportunity for making their organization better while at the same time helping them better understand their processes and operations.

The final word

All of this is not to say that you can’t get support for a taxonomy project that isn’t tied to an ultimate goal–or that in the end it can’t be successful. You’ll occasionally find executives out there who “get” taxonomy and have enough clout to gain support for the project and drive adoption without demonstrating a direct connection between taxonomy and revenue, costs, or margins. But I wouldn’t bet on being this fortunate on a regular basis.

So much for my approach to taxonomy. Thanks for joining me over the last few weeks, and thanks to everyone who jumped in with comments and feedback–as always, I appreciate your willingness to share your ideas and get the conversation started!

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