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Taxonomy Governance

When organizations have the need for a taxonomy, they focus on taxonomy development and they do not take into consideration the need for taxonomy governance. Taxonomy governance is part of information governance and should be taken seriously.

Taxonomies exist to support business processes and the associated organizational goals. A well-managed taxonomy provides the structure needed to manage content across multiple internal systems and gives users options and flexibility for how content is accessed and displayed. Taxonomy governance plans ensure that the taxonomies are maintained in a way that satisfies current and future needs and provides the maximum return on investment.

Taxonomy governance consists of the policies, procedures and documentation required for management and use of taxonomies within an organization. Successful taxonomy governance establishes long-term ownership and responsibility for taxonomies, responds to feedback from taxonomy users, and assures the sustainable evolution of taxonomies in response to changes in user and business needs.

Taxonomies are never “finished.” Rather, they are living systems that grow and evolve with the business. Taxonomy governance ensures that growth happens in a managed, predictable way.

Taxonomy governance answers the following questions:

  • Who are the taxonomy stakeholders?
  • What are their respective responsibilities?
  • Who is responsible for making changes?
  • What is the process for making changes?
  • How are prospective changes evaluated and prioritized?
  • When are changes made?
  • When are processes reviewed and updated?

The goals of taxonomy governance are similar across organizations but it is important to remember that there is no universal taxonomy governance solution. Successful taxonomy governance works within the context of the organization.

Many of the principles and goals of taxonomy governance are shared with information governance.

A good first step when developing taxonomy governance policies is to examine related information governance policies that already exist within an organization. Repurposing familiar policies and systems makes both adoption and compliance easier for taxonomy users.

The best governance policies take advantage of existing structure, workflows and management processes while accounting for human and technical resources and constraints. Governance policies provide a strategic framework to guide day-to-day taxonomy management.

The main components of this framework are the taxonomy management organization and the operations they perform. Governance has a role at both strategic and operational levels by defining roles and responsibilities of taxonomy organization members, articulating communication, decision-making and escalation policies and providing protocols for taxonomy maintenance operations. Above all, governance provides accountability for decision-making and operations on both a large and small scale.

Taxonomy Management

Ongoing maintenance and development of a taxonomy is best achieved by a formal organization with well-defined and clearly documented roles, responsibilities, and processes. The Taxonomy Management team should be responsible for both strategic direction and routine administration of taxonomy operations. This team should include high-level decision-makers as well as trained taxonomists and IT if needed. End users of the taxonomy should also be represented in the Taxonomy Management team.

The role of a taxonomy governance team is to ensure that taxonomy management occurs in a systematic, measurable, and reproducible way. It provides a mechanism for managing the needs and concerns of all taxonomy stakeholders and helps maximize the value of taxonomy resources by establishing organization-wide policies for taxonomy development, maintenance and use.

Taxonomy Management Team manages taxonomy administration and development. As with governance policies in general, the specific makeup and divisions between teams as well as the terminology used to describe them will vary depending on the particulars of organizational structure, history and goals.

Taxonomy governance focuses on strategic goals and company-wide policies for taxonomy management and use as well as levels of responsibility for different taxonomy stakeholders. These goals and policies are developed by the Taxonomy Governance Team.

Identifying and documenting organization-wide taxonomy use cases is very important task of taxonomy governance activities. Taxonomies can potentially be used in multiple business areas. Content strategy, web design and user experience, marketing, customer support, site search and business intelligence are a few examples. Developing tangible, specific use cases helps communicate the taxonomy’s value throughout the organization and is necessary when prioritizing taxonomy-related investments.

Governance policies should also be developed that define taxonomy success, performance and quality. Metrics should validate the quality of a taxonomy implementation through quantifiable, direct measurement of taxonomy performance. Regular assessment ensures that the taxonomy meets business and user needs over the long term.

The ability to share data across systems, improved quality of search results, improved user experience of websites and regulatory compliance resulting from effective record keeping and document management are all examples of benefits that can result from effective taxonomy implementation and management. A goal of governance should be to identify and document benefits of this type that are relevant to the specific organization.

Taxonomy Operations and Maintenance

Ongoing maintenance is very important aspect of a taxonomy project. Taxonomies must be continually updated to reflect changes in content, competition, and business goals. In the absence of maintenance taxonomies atrophy and the value they provide will be greatly diminished.

Organizations must anticipate the resources needed to maintain the taxonomy and develop effective management processes to realize the maximum value from their taxonomy investment. At this level governance is primarily focused on operational details. It provides the framework for taxonomy operations in the form of guidelines, processes, documentation and a defined organizational structure.

The specific tasks performed as part of taxonomy maintenance consist of a wide range of large and small-scale changes to the taxonomy. Taxonomy staff are also typically responsible for providing training, preparing documentation materials, interacting with IT groups to ensure smooth operation of taxonomy systems and providing expert advice and feedback to business leaders to inform strategic decision-making.

The Taxonomy Change Process

One of the most important purposes of taxonomy governance is to define the organizational taxonomy change process. Governance policies define and document specific taxonomy changes and provide guidance to taxonomy administrators on making those changes.

It is especially important to provide guidance on decision-making authority and escalation processes. Defining and documenting different change types allows rational decisions to be made as to which changes can be routinely handled at the discretion of taxonomy administrators and which changes require higher-level consensus and approval. The first step in defining a taxonomy change process is to categorize taxonomy changes by impact and scale.

An important consideration in categorizing the impact of changes to the taxonomy is that taxonomy data is often used by multiple internal tools and systems. Content management, marketing, web analytics and SEO, product inventory and web publishing systems are just a few potential consumers of an enterprise taxonomy.

Experience shows that the level of engagement with the taxonomy team varies widely between users. To avoid unpleasant surprises, taxonomy administrators should be proactive in tracking users and systems where taxonomies are used. Understanding and documenting both the technical details of how taxonomy data flows to these systems and the specific business use case of various users is an important part of the taxonomy change process and should be addressed in both change processes and communication plans.

Small-scale changes will affect only a single term or small number of terms and will have a minimal impact on users and systems where they are used. Typical small-scale changes are spelling corrections or the addition of individual terms to existing vocabularies.

Taxonomy management staff is usually empowered to make this type of changes as part of routine taxonomy administration. In contrast, large-scale changes will impact large numbers of taxonomy consumers, multiple consuming systems and/or require a significant commitment of taxonomy management resources for an extended period of time. They require high-level approval with input from the entire information governance team.

Change Request Process

Typical sources of taxonomy change requests are users feedback, routine maintenance by taxonomy administrators, and new business needs.

User feedback is usually the largest and most important source of small-scale taxonomy change requests. A channel is needed for users to provide feedback and for taxonomy administrators to communicate with users. Interacting with taxonomy users and serving as a general point of contact for taxonomy issues is one of the most important aspects of routine taxonomy maintenance for taxonomy administrators.

Email aliases, bug/issue tracking software, dedicated portals, message boards, and other tools used in a help desk or customer support setting are all potentially useful mechanisms for taxonomy administrators to interact with users. Governance policies should address these needs with a well-defined communications plan.

It is also common for predictable events to have an impact on the taxonomy. Marketing campaigns, product updates, new products, company reorganizations and mergers are a few examples of events that could lead to taxonomy changes. Changes of this type can be significant in terms of scale but they can usually be handled as a routine part of taxonomy maintenance. These events should be identified and relevant change and communication policies developed.

In contrast to small-scale changes, large-scale changes tend to be infrequent and are typically driven by strategic business needs. Major expansions in scope requiring the creation of large numbers of new terms and implementation of significant new systems or technologies are examples of large-scale taxonomy changes that may be needed.

Difficulty and scale of taxonomy changes is dependent on the specific details of its implementation. Management of the taxonomy with a dedicated taxonomy tool versus within a content management system, the capabilities of the tool being used, the number and complexity of taxonomy use cases and the number and characteristics of consuming systems are a few variables that will influence the change process.

Collecting statistics on change requests and taxonomy use should be part of taxonomy administrator’s routine responsibilities. This data should be reported to the governance team and used to inform strategic decision-making. In the same way decisions made at the strategic level will impact the prioritization and performance of day-to-day tasks.

Maximizing ROI on Taxonomy Investments

Quality control mechanisms are an important function of governance, especially for businesses that operate in highly regulated environments, but they are not the only, or most important purpose of governance.

The high-level goal of taxonomy governance is to maximize the return on taxonomy investments. The taxonomy governance team establishes strategic goals for the taxonomy and develops organization-wide policies for taxonomy management and use designed to meet those goals.

Goals, policies and procedures should not only be designed to mitigate risks but also to improve organizational performance and capabilities. An enterprise taxonomy is used by many different individuals, groups, and systems and can impact multiple business processes. All of these stakeholders should have insight into taxonomy management processes and a mechanism to provide feedback. Because of the breadth of business processes using the taxonomy it is also important that the governance team include high-level representation to provide strategic guidance and advocacy for taxonomy operations. In return, the governance team must communicate the positive benefits to stakeholders so that policies are more than just vague background noise.

One of the most important tasks of a governance team is to communicate these policies and procedures in a positive way. Governance is often perceived as an enforcement mechanism and it’s natural for stakeholders to react defensively if they believe that policies are in place because they’re not trusted to produce high-quality work. Processes, standard operating procedures, responsibility matrices and so on are viewed as a an active obstructions to productive work.

Galaxy Consulting has 20 years experience in taxonomy development and taxonomy governance. Please contact us for a free consultation.

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