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Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Taxonomy: Buy or Build?

Any information architect, ECM manager, or CIO who is investigating taxonomy for the first time will inevitably reach a decision point: do I buy a taxonomy or do I build a taxonomy?

Each company has a lot of proprietary terminology that is unique to its business. This terminology needs to be included in a taxonomy, and you won't be able to find one off the shelf that is ready to go. However, that does not mean you should start from scratch. Building a taxonomy from scratch requires several ingredients:

1) Taxonomy expertise. A finished taxonomy may look simple, but this is because it was developed by somebody trained in the art. Building a taxonomy entirely from a blank slate requires knowledge of taxonomy techniques, and also awareness of the pitfalls that can be encountered. A poorly constructed hierarchy may confuse users more than help them find documents.

2) Time. Taxonomy projects can often take many months with only a few hundred terms to show for it. We've seen a lot of projects get caught up in internal committees and politics. Can you afford for your overall information project to be delayed several months waiting for a taxonomy that everybody agrees upon? Further, there can be a tremendous amount of internal time used in committee meetings. This is a soft cost that can add up very quickly.

3) Taxonomy management software. To construct a taxonomy from scratch, it is wise to invest in a taxonomy management tool. This software will help you create relationships between terms, add synonyms, follow naming conventions, and more. Many companies may just try to maintain a vocabulary in Excel, but that can result in confusion and is not optimal for governance.

4) Cross-Departmental agreement. Starting from scratch has the unique problem that every department, and people within the same departments, may think of the world differently. With no pre-conceived structure for what a taxonomy may look like, team members may all be pulling in separate directions. A pre-built taxonomy provides a common conceptual starting point for everybody.

On the other hand, a good pre-built foundation taxonomy can rapidly accelerate the development of your corporate taxonomy and save a lot of headaches and heartaches. By starting with something that gets you 75-80% of the way towards completion, your development efforts can be focused on adding high value terminology, not on setting up the basics. Consulting services can help you get this terminology added, but you will not have to use as many consulting hours as you would if you were starting from scratch. Finally, your information architecture project using taxonomy can be launched months faster than otherwise would have been possible if starting from scratch. By selecting a relevant pre-built foundation taxonomy, supported by a targeted customization project, you can have a high quality, relevant taxonomy much more quickly.
The WAND Taxonomy Library Portal gives an organization access to taxonomies covering nearly every industry and functional topic and is a great tool for an organization investing in taxonomy to improve information organization.