Recently I was asked to speak on a panel on taxonomy governance, so this gave me an opportunity to reflect more on the subject. “Metadata Enhancement for Improved Content Management – Taxonomies and Governance” was the title of a panel I spoke on at the Gilbane Conference 2013: Content and the Digital Experience in Boston on December 3.
When I had first heard of “governance” with respect to knowledge management and taxonomies, in 2005, it did not sound like a subject of interest to me. Perhaps I was thinking of it in terms business process management in general, which is not my field. Over the years I have come to realize that governance is a very important part of any taxonomy, and while governance can be limited to the governing the taxonomy itself it can extend to other areas that are related to the taxonomy, such as indexing and content management. Most significantly, though, there is a synergy or dualism of taxonomies and governance: to be effective taxonomies must be governed, yet the existence of a taxonomy itself is a form of governance. A taxonomy, after all, is a kind of controlled vocabulary, and “controlled” means governed. It’s better to describe what taxonomy governance entails than to try to define it. Taxonomy governance comprises the policies, procedures, and documentation for the ongoing management and use of taxonomy.
My main points in my brief presentation were:
- Governance process begins when taxonomy development begins.
- Each taxonomy is unique and has its own governance policy.
- Governance includes both:
- Documented editorial policies
- Taxonomy management procedures and responsibilities
- There are minimal guidelines to a taxonomy when it is started.
- Decisions reached to questions as they come up in the process are documented and eventually become policy.
- Taxonomy policy/guidelines includes both:
- Taxonomy specifications, style and maintenance
- Taxonomy usage and indexing/tagging/categorization policy (manual or automated)
Reflecting on the different taxonomy jobs I have had and projects I have worked on, taxonomy governance has taken many forms beyond the obvious of documenting the taxonomy editorial policies. Even though I did not hear of taxonomy governance until I had been working for years with taxonomies, I actually had been involved with governance for many years prior, just not by that name. My first job working with taxonomies (called then controlled vocabularies) was with the title of Vocabulary and Quality Management Specialist. In addition to maintaining the controlled vocabularies according to prescribed procedures, my duties included writing guidelines for the indexers using the vocabularies, especially for new topics and current events, and checking the published content for possible vocabulary-related quality issues. At my next employer, a developer of search software with built-in taxonomies, documenting how to create the taxonomies in a consistent style was simply a part of the documenting how to use the software. Later, on an assignment with a consulting firm, on ongoing contract involved making regular updates to ecommerce client’s product taxonomy, following a certain procedure and workflow that was tracked in SharePoint. Finally, in more recent years as an independent taxonomy consultant, I have made sure that taxonomy editorial policies and maintenance guidelines are always a part of my project plans.
When a taxonomy project is short on time or budget, there may be a temptation to skip the governance documentation and planning. But in the long term, that will cost more. Time will be wasted by the taxonomy editors going back through old emails to try to find out what was decided when individual questions came up. Taxonomy editors will also waste time having to redo some of their work, after realizing that they were not following a consistent style or policy. Finally, and most crucially, lack of governance will likely result in an inconsistently developed taxonomy, which in turn leads to inconsistent indexing/tagging, no matter the method used. Then the main purpose of the taxonomy is defeated.
Taxonomy governance might not be as hot a topic as it was a few years ago, but that’s only because it has become standard, accepted practice. Yet there is still a lot that an organization owning a taxonomy can learn about governance in the form of best practices and case studies. While organizations may not want to share their taxonomies, as intellectual property, hopefully they will share their experiences and tips on taxonomy governance.