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April 6, 2020

The benefits of a taxonomy (podcast, part 2)

In episode 74 of The Content Strategy Experts podcast, Gretyl Kinsey and Simon Bate continue their discussion about the benefits of establishing a taxonomy.

“Communicate with the stakeholders. Don’t just get their input and then go away. Communicate all along what you’re doing and identify your benefits.”

—Simon Bate

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Gretyl Kinsey:     Welcome to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. Since 1997, Scriptorium has helped companies manage, structure, organize, and distribute content in an efficient way.

GK:     In this episode, we continue our discussion about the benefits of establishing a taxonomy. This is part two of a two part podcast.

GK:     So if you are at an organization and you have never had any sort of taxonomy in place and you’re starting to realize that you need something to help categorize your information, how do you go about starting that process to build a taxonomy?

Simon Bate:     Well, the first thing of course, is to meet with your project sponsor, the person who’s really asking for this thing and get a sense of what’s their purpose and rationale and what’s the actual purpose, why are you building out the taxonomy.

SB:     So then you want to, once you get a sense of that, you can map the scope of the project, including the knowledge domains and both visible and invisible stakeholders in those domains. So in meeting with the sponsor, you find out what do they need and who has a major stake in it.

GK:     Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s really important. A lot of people I think skip that step of getting that sponsor buy-in upfront. Especially if you’re not the one who has the power to or the finances to sponsor that taxonomy yourself, then it’s really important to make sure that you have someone who does have that power to be your ally and really help understand what you need. And so if that person’s not the driving force behind it, but maybe you are, but maybe you’re not in any sort of management or leadership role where you have control over finances, it’s really important to talk to whoever does have that power and make sure that, between the two of you, you can get on the same page and prove to them. Here is the business advantage of establishing a taxonomy and here’s what we are losing if we don’t establish one. Here are all the customer frustrations with not being able to find this information in this way and that will kind of help you get over that first hurdle.

SB:     Yeah, absolutely. Having a justification, demonstrable return on investment or whatever, is really important before you can get started on any project like this.

SB:     So actually once you’ve then gone past that first step, you’ve got a buy in there, then the next thing to do is to go to those stakeholders that you identified and engage with them. You want to validate your map of the scope, you need to understand their needs and it’s really, really important.

SB:     If you try and start building a taxonomy out and you don’t include all the stakeholders, you’re setting yourself up for problems later essentially.

GK:     Yeah, and we’ve seen lots of cases where that happened where maybe one department or one small group within a department started a taxonomy because they had an immediate need for it. But they didn’t go talk to anybody else who may have been impacted by it later. And so then, down the road, they realize, oh, we’ve got a taxonomy that started over here in the training department, but the marketing department really needs to be using it and to be consistent with it. But because there was no communication, maybe marketing started their own taxonomy and it’s very different. And so kind of getting that alignment is a lot easier on the front end than it is to try to bring things into alignment later. So the earlier that you can engage other stakeholders and other groups, the better off you’re going to be.

SB:     Absolutely.

SB:     So the third step in building the taxonomy is to then refine your project purpose and get the sponsor’s agreement. So get things together and then go back to your sponsor and just make sure that they also have buy-in on what you’re doing.

SB:     The fourth step is design your approach and then step five, build your communication plan and identify the benefits. And really one of the important things here is communication, as in many things like this. It’s really important. Communicate with the stakeholders. Don’t just get their input and then go away and do things. Communicate all along what you’re doing and identify your benefits.

GK:     Yeah, it should be a collaborative process and that goes for, when you do design that approach, that step four, it’s really important to have that collaboration going on during that phase too because then you know if another group comes up with a concern and says, “Oh, we need the taxonomy to be able to do X thing for us,” but you also need it to do Y thing for you, it’s good to know that up front when you are designing how you’re going to put that taxonomy in place. And the same is really true, getting back to the point we talked about earlier when we were discussing that that sort of confirmation bias and the other sorts of biases that you may encounter, you want to make sure that no one group has too much bias in the taxonomy, and that if there is any customer end user information that any or all of the groups has access to, that’s being shared across the board. So when you are going through those phases of designing your approach and figuring out that communication among everyone and identifying how the taxonomy will benefit each group, it’s really important to collaborate throughout that whole process. And as Simon mentioned, not just have each group or one group go off and do their own thing. It really needs to be cohesive across the board.

SB:     That’s right. That’s right. Because eventually, getting your taxonomy back to the real world, when you present these things, when you present the terms that you’ve agreed upon on the taxonomy, they are present in many ways. Your company expresses things publicly, so you might have things appear in marketing brochures, you might have things occur on your website, you might have things occur on the documentation. And you really want, that’s well one of the advantages of the taxonomy is that when these ideas, when the concepts, terms of whatever, are presented in all of these areas of your company, they all come out the same. You’re using the same language consistently and that’s a major advance for you.

SB:     The sixth step here in building your taxonomy is to start the process of taxonomy governance. So a taxonomy isn’t a static thing. You don’t just build it, set it, and then go away. It’s going to evolve. It’s going to continually change. People are going to add to it, people are going to refine it. People are going to take things away from it. You do need to set up some process, some way that people are going to help remain engaged and continue helping to maintain your taxonomy.

GK:     Absolutely. And there are tools and systems out there that can help with this, but I think it really comes down to that agreement for everyone to continue collaborating on it in the end. I mean, you can put some kind of a tool in place that’s designed to help maintain a taxonomy and update a taxonomy, but everybody has to agree to use that correctly and to do the work it takes to keep that taxonomy managed and maintained. So it’s kind of a culture shift. If you’ve never had a taxonomy of your organization before, it can really be sort of a major change to realize, this is important. Here’s why it’s important. Here are the benefits that it’s going to bring us and therefore, we need to dedicate X number of resources toward maintaining and improving it over time.

GK:     So how does taxonomy fit within a larger content strategy?

SB:     Well, there are several places within your content strategy that a taxonomy can help. So there is search, for instance, there’s targeted delivery and personalization. These are some pain points where taxonomies can help you.

GK:     Yeah, absolutely. And I think we’ve actually seen that with several of our clients where, if something like personalization is a goal and they don’t have a taxonomy in place that needs to become part of their content strategy.

GK:     Same thing for search. Depending on how people need to search your content, and that’s both end users, but also content creators, subject matter experts, people like that, people in support, anyone that needs to search your content, the taxonomy really does a lot of the work on the backend of making sure they get the right results when they’re doing those searches. So all of these factors are a major part of your content strategy and the taxonomy can be the piece that gets recommended to help resolve those issues.

SB:     Yeah, that’s correct.

SB:     So another place is in borders or you may also want to think about silos. You want to prevent silos. So you have a whole number of different groups within your organization. They all had the same final goal. And what you want to do is use your taxonomy to help you get around those borders. Because your taxonomy, as I was mentioning a few minutes ago, helps maintain consistency across all of your groups.

SB:     And then of course, you can think vertically. There are your levels. So within your content strategy, you want to think about what’s happening at your corporate level, what’s happening at business group level, what happens at the department level. And in some cases, there are calls for different levels of taxonomy or different types of taxonomy within that. But essentially, in the end, it all boils down to the same thing. You have taxonomies that cover the needs of each of these different levels.

GK:     Yeah, absolutely. And that’s what we think of as an enterprise taxonomy where you are encompassing different groups, different levels, and the needs of each of those, and making sure that they are all in sync. But that then each individual group or level also has maybe some different taxonomies or different categories that apply specifically to them.

SB:     So one other place where we can fit a taxonomy within a content strategy is just your level of end user. So you may have experts, you may have novices. So for instance, you may be dealing with medical or a technical language and how physicians will search for information may use very different language than how lay people, people who are non-physicians, will search for things.

GK:     Yeah, that’s very true. And we’ve seen that, not just with medical but you said with technical as well, and the same as the case with an end user versus maybe a software developer. The same is true if you get into something like manufacturing. Someone who’s an engineer is going to use different language than an end user as well. And so it’s important to think about what levels are there. Maybe you have expert and novice, maybe you have more kind of intermediate levels in between, especially if you are dealing with educational content. You may have different levels for different grade levels in school or different course levels if you’re looking at a university. So it’s really important to think about that aspect of taxonomy as well.

SB:     Yeah, those are all great examples.

GK:     So we touched on this a little bit, I think when we were talking about taxonomy and how it fits with some of the aspects around search and personalization. But how does taxonomy relate to metadata?

SB:     Well, of course, metadata is information about your data. So metadata can be things like labels. You can add additional identifying information. There’s a lot of things you can do in metadata and the metadata in your content can be used for a number of different things.

SB:     And so there are four principle things that I like to think of when I’m dealing with metadata. You can have metadata that helps your managers track your content development. So for instance, the current state of things, who modified something, or when it was last updated. The metadata can be used by your authors. They may need to find appropriate content. They have an assignment to go and make a modification for a product change or a new strategy or something. So they need to go find the appropriate content.

SB:     Also, as they’re creating that content, they may need to reuse particular content, they have to find the content to reuse. They may also want to create cross-references. They need to find the content to cross-reference. Your metadata can also provide production information for your output generators. So for instance, when you’re creating a book or a PDF, you might have a copyright date and an owner. The cover might have part numbers on it. You might have branding, cover images, and so on. All of this can come from your metadata.

SB:     And finally, as we’ve been using as an example many times, the metadata in your content can be used by your users to search for information. So the search turns out to be, it’s the prime example, but it’s not the only way where we have metadata. And of course, that same metadata that we’re talking about for the search, this is information that comes from a taxonomy.

SB:     So, often, this metadata grows organically. It starts out somebody who’s just creating a user manual or just creates a piece of information about something, people add to it and over time, people start adding more and more metadata to it.

SB:     The problem is, if you want to develop this metadata in an organized and thorough way, the correct starting point is actually to roll back a bit and start with your taxonomy. It’s always difficult and time consuming to go back and modify or even add metadata to existing content. So it’s much better if the metadata can be developed along with your content. The earlier you can create a taxonomy with buy-in from all your partners, the better.

GK:     Yeah, I think that is very solid advice and the way I would wrap up that advice too is just to say don’t leave taxonomy as a last resort. Make sure it’s a priority. Especially if you know you have these requirements around search, around content organization, around the way that both your content creators and your end users are going to need to find and use that information. Taxonomy needs to be a really important priority for you and you need to make sure, as we’ve talked about all along, that you have that buy-in, that you can prove that value, and that you collaborate across the organization with anyone who’s got a stake in that taxonomy to make sure that it’s going to best serve your organization’s needs.

GK:     And I think we can go ahead and wrap up there. So thank you so much for joining me, Simon.

SB:     You’re quite welcome.

GK:     And thank you for listening to The Content Strategy Experts podcast brought to you by Scriptorium. For more information, visit or check the show notes for relevant links.