Why Governance Matters

When organizations perceive the need for a taxonomy they have a natural tendency to focus on taxonomy development—the process of creating a taxonomy—as they approach the project. However, taxonomies do not exist in isolation. They exist within the context of multiple overlapping business processes and, like any asset, have a defined life cycle. Thus the need for taxonomy governance.

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.

The goal of governance is to create a repeatable, accountable, visible and predictable process for managing taxonomy changes.

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 governance works within the context of the organization. Many of the principles and goals of taxonomy governance are shared with the disciplines of information and data governance. A good first step when developing taxonomy governance policies is to examine related governance policies that already exist and are in use within an organization. Repurposing familiar policies and systems makes both adoption and compliance easier for taxonomy stakeholders. The best governance policies take advantage of existing structure, workflows and management processes while accounting for human and technical resources and constraints.

Strategic Vision and Day-to-Day Operations

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 Organization is responsible for both strategic direction and routine administration of taxonomy operations. As such it should include high-level sponsors and decision-makers in addition to trained taxonomists and technical support personnel. End users of the taxonomy should also be represented in the Taxonomy Management Organization.

In general, the strategic and operational responsibilities of the Taxonomy Management Organization are separated with strategic oversight provided by a Taxonomy Governance Team while a 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. 

Strategic Oversight

At the strategic level 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.

Define Responsibilities

Efficient taxonomy management is facilitated by formally designating team members’ level of participation and responsibilities. A RACI (responsible, accountable, consulted, informed) matrix or OARP (owner, approver, reviewer, participant) model is a useful tool for assigning and documenting responsibilities in governance activities. As will be discussed in more detail below, taxonomy management covers a broad range of activities and the most efficient use of team resources is achieved when responsibilities are clearly defined.

Document Use Cases

Identifying and documenting organization-wide taxonomy use cases is a second high-level 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.

Identify Success Metrics

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.

Directly linking taxonomy performance to end business goals can be challenging. However, it is often possible to use surrogate metrics. 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 the most costly aspect of any 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 is 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.

Taxonomy operations are typically performed by personnel with specialized training in library science or information management. The specific skills that should be present on the taxonomy management team and different staffing models will be discussed in the second part of this series. 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.

Categories of Change

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 consuming systems. Understanding and documenting both the technical details of how taxonomy data flows to consuming 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 consuming systems. Typical small-scale changes are spelling corrections or the addition of individual terms to existing vocabularies. Taxonomy management staff is usually empowered to make changes of this type 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 governance organization.

Change Request Process

Typical sources of taxonomy change requests are user 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. An obvious implication is that a channel is needed for users to provide feedback and for taxonomy administrators to communicate with users. Indeed, 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. Again, the most appropriate tool and process is likely to be one that is already in use within an organization and familiar to 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 encountered.

The distinction between small and large-scale changes often evolves. For example, it may be appropriate for the change process to be micromanaged in the early stages of an implementation. However, over time the goal of governance should be develop reproducible processes that are largely performed by taxonomy administrators.

The diagram below illustrates the processes involved in taxonomy change management from the initial change request through release of the updated taxonomy to all consuming users and systems. The details associated with each step will vary depending on the scope of the specific change request. As with any process involving the interaction of multiple people and systems coordination and communication are key.

Adapted from: http://www.slideshare.net/tzwizard/hitachi-consulting-taxonomy-governance-through-metrics

It should be emphasized that the difficulty and scale of taxonomy changes is highly dependent on the specific details of 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. Choosing a taxonomy management tool and the broad question of taxonomy implementation will be explored in a future Strategic Content blog post.

Bringing it Together

Of course the separation between strategic and operational is not a clean one. Collecting statistics on change requests and taxonomy use should be part of taxonomy administrator’s routine responsibilities. This data is 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. As we've discussed, there is no universal taxonomy governance solution. Rather, effective governance achieves an important set of general goals while recognizing the unique features of an organization.

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.

See part two of this series, Establishing a Taxonomy Governance Team.