Information Management Projects and the Taxonomy Challenge: Is it a Dog or a Cat?

By Edan Puritt

Recently, I watched a video of one of my business partners, Bruce, describing what expertise each of the three partners bring to Askari. Bruce takes his intuitive understanding of a client’s procurement environment and makes it real, as well as safe. Greg can create a mental image of the path between now and then for a client’s service transformation initiative, and then make it real. And me: Bruce says I’m the Document and Records guy plus large project or enterprise management. Really? That’s who he thinks I am? recordsIt made me think about both what I do and who I am. I suppose he’s got a valid point. Not so much that I’m the document and records guy who sits in the windowless basement shuffling papers about that no longer have any business value. Quite opposite to that, I’m the one who is always wondering about how we organize our information better. Yeah, that’s my approach to document and records—business-based information asset management. Continuing on this path, I would have self-described the activities I undertake with organizations as helping them extract the most value out of their information assets, as well as reducing the waste associated with maintaining information that no longer has any value. stackesWhen the discussion is happening at that level (up in the clouds, looking down on hypothetical waste) everyone is nodding. Actually, better than nodding. Decision-makers are finding it refreshing to hear that document and records management is about managing information assets that have present business value, not just archival, or regulatory compliance values. The latter are seen as expenses, while the former easy qualify as investments. When I meet with decision-makers, I find it is important I use language they find familiar. As they are increasingly tasked with squeezing more value out of staff and resources with ever shrinking budgets, time, and resources, I focus on the benefits an information management project will bring to their department, and possibly to the larger unit. This is, in fact, a truism in most areas—more can be accomplished when the parties are all speaking the same language. From here, it got me thinking about the systems we use to organize information, and then, as usual, the people who need to configure the systems, use the systems, and maintain the systems. More often than not, things boil down to the words we use to describe what we do, how we do it, and even what each information asset is, who should see it, if we should share it, and how long we should keep it.

Backgrounds Shape our Frame of Reference and Understanding

Years ago, while sitting in a café in Kuching with a friend and her very precocious 6 year old daughter, Megan, a cat walked by our table. “Mommy, look at the cat!” exclaimed Megan, and I took this as an opening to challenge a young mind. ”That’s not a cat, that’s a dog.” Megan had seen cats before, and with the absolute certainty of childhood repeated, “NO!  It’s a cat.” So, beyond the obvious pleasure of tormenting a real bright 6 year old, the game was on. “How many Legs does it have?” catWithout missing a beat, “4.” “How many legs does a dog have?” “4,” was the immediate response again. “That’s a dog,” I teased. “No!!!” she asserted. “Does it have fur?” I challenged. “Yes.” “Does a dog have fur?” I pressed on. “Yes…” “That’s a dog,” I insisted. “NO!!!” with increasing agitation. Next I ventured, “Does it have teeth?”edan-and-megan As you can imagine, after a couple more questions, Megan stamped her foot and explained that she just wasn’t going to play with me anymore.

Can the Taxonomy Game Succeed in Business?

More recently, I was sitting down with the CIO of a large organization explaining the steps needed to implement a successful electronic document and records management solution, and I mentioned the word taxonomy. He stopped me right there. “No thank you, we won’t be doing that. Those taxonomy projects go on forever, and rarely produce anything of any business value.” ducksAnd he is of course, quite right. We really don’t need a taxonomy project. And even as I say that I can see Bruce’s expression, and Megan’s. No, we don’t need taxonomy projects, but yes we do need to agree on what things are. So, with all due apologies to our etymology colleagues, I don’t really care whether we call a leaf a rock, or a rock a leaf, but if someone yells, “Look out for that leaf,” I need to know whether or not to duck,… or sparrow, or bird. But that’s the whole point. The CIO I was talking to was quite right. When the taxonomy (or Controlled Vocabulary) project gets into full swing, it almost becomes a negotiation among all stakeholders (and who isn’t a stakeholder about language) about what we are going to call everything. And it almost is EVERYTHING. Most of our computers and search engines aren’t smart enough to know that a duck is a beautiful creature to some, a tasty meal for others, and essential to my well being if there is a rock, rather than a leaf, in the air. trees-and-leavesWe don’t need to agree about what every word means, just the ones where there might be differences, and/or the ones that may be essential to a business-oriented workflow. If I configure the software to go get a document about leaves and send it to Joan if it’s marked final, then some clear understandings need to exist. We, the users, the programmers, and the computer solution, need to know what a document is, who Joan is, what the word “leaves” is, and what “final” means, or some very strange things might happen. Indeed, while I may have frustrated Megan, and scared the CIO, they would have gotten along just fine.

IM Walkaway for Controlled Vocabulary or Taxonomy Projects

It’s not that Megan didn’t know that a dog and a cat are different, but she intuitively understood that we had agreed to call one of these creatures, cats, and one of those creatures, dogs. And, that was adequate for her to make it through her 6 year old day. Her vocabulary would (and has) develop(ed) as her need for a greater vocabulary developed, and not a moment sooner. Perhaps that’s the point the CIO was trying to make too. Control the organization’s vocabulary as needed, and only as needed. valueThat takes us back to the notion of business value and all things document and record management related. I really do enjoy all things document and records management related, and quite precisely because it is all about business value.

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