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Taming Taxonomy Terrors
Volume 41, Number 6 - November/December 2017

Taxonomy. As a taxonomist, I’ve heard the jokes from those unfamiliar with the profession. Do you stuff animals? Does it have something to do with taxes? What’s another word for thesaurus? The first two alone—death and taxes—would make anyone facing a taxonomy project tremble. If you’re setting out on a taxonomy project, you may not know where to begin. When you’re a novice, you have the taxonomy terrors about learning what a taxonomy is. For the expert, your taxonomy terrors relate to scope and adoption. Either way, you have to start somewhere and tame those terrors. I have some suggestions for you.


First, find the plot. What does that mean? In one sense, you have to ask yourself, “What is the plot of my story?” You need a good story to sell taxonomy to upper-management, communicate the value and the everyday use to your end users, and present your project in a nice, compact, elevator pitch that is clear to all levels and roles within the organization.

In another sense, the plot has to do with constructing something. Let’s metaphorically call that something a house. In order to build a house, you need a plot of land—a space—on which to build it. Depending on where you are in your process, this can mean several things. If you have nothing (which isn’t often the case), you are literally at a greenfield state. You can design and build whatever you want, wherever you want it. For most of us, you have inherited a plot of land with several structures in various states of disrepair that you need to fix up, make livable, and transform into useful space.


Planning the architecture is a little closer to the reality of an organization’s internal current state. Whether you eye it from the technical or business point of view, you should have a planned architecture. Metaphorically, this is architecting your house and its associated buildings. In the practice of information architecture, the Information Architec ture Institute defines it as “the structural design of shared information environments; the art and science of organizing and labeling websites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability; and an emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape” (iainstitute. org/sites/default/files/what_is_ia.pdf). Quite likely, you’ll be doing a bit of all of this.

Chances are, you are working with existing systems in a state of disarray—our inherited, ramshackle house and surrounding structures. For the purposes of this metaphor, let’s say you inherited a house, an outhouse, and a garage. It’s all a bit antiquated, and you’d like to rebuild and pull these structures into one home.

First, you should get a lay of the landscape by conducting an audit of your systems and content (also called a knowledge audit). Since we are dealing with an inherited structure with pre-existing content, you have to know what you already have. Tour the house and its buildings to see what’s already there. While it’s tempting to identify and profile anything and everything, for an initial project, it may be enough to identify critical information systems and key content. Prioritize these systems and content so they can be the first items tackled in a proof of concept. By doing this, you’re showing the value of the project immediately and taking on a manageable amount of work.

Whether or not you already have an existing taxonomy, performing an information audit can run in parallel with designing and building or restructuring a taxonomy. For example, meeting with a functional group can surface what tools they use (a Software or Systems facet), what documents they use or create (a Content Types facet), what processes they perform (a Processes facet), and what projects they’re working on (a Projects facet). Approaching taxonomy construction in this way can achieve much more in less time by identifying important content and systems and having a representative taxonomy.


After your content and systems audit, start looking at the architecture and work on how you can connect these systems. Wherever possible, the user experience should be seamless. A good search front end can potentially act as a landing page and portal to content from various locations. Just like your foyer is the entry, it has doors and hallways leading to all the other rooms in the house. Likewise, in our example, an antiquated outhouse isn’t going to be practical and needs to be relocated in the house.

Here’s what you’ll need in your home, literally and metaphorically:

  • A landing page. The landing page is your home base, your entryway, and can be the front end of a unified information system. This is the place you greet your users and show them what kind of home they are entering. It’s a place that sets expectations and the tone for a user to explore other areas.
  • A content management system (CMS). The CMS has all of the functionality to capture, manage, and offer support for the retrieval of information. In the house metaphor, each room holds a variety of content appropriate (or in some cases, inappropriate) to each location.
  • A taxonomy. Any self-respecting taxonomist will balk at what I’m about to say next, but a good taxonomy is the wiring in your new home. Not very romantic, not necessarily pretty, and often hidden from view, wiring goes into every room of the house and powers whatever is in each room. Without a taxonomy, you’re walking from room to room with a candle.
  • Search. Now, on to insult the search professionals. Search is the plumbing that allows information to flow. Like indoor plumbing, search is extremely important. You want the good information flowing freely from
    the tap and the bad information flowing … well, out.
  • You will undoubtedly have many more systems/rooms than this, including file shares, digital asset management (DAM) systems, human resource systems, product information systems, bespoke internal systems, and on and on. However, let’s focus on the essentials.

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Ahren E. Lehnert is senior manager, text analytics solutions, Synaptica.


Comments? Email the editor-in-chief:

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