The Business Taxonomy Workshop

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As I discussed in a previous entry, business taxonomies can address a number of challenges regarding information capture, management, and findability.  A well-designed and implemented business taxonomy can improve the “findability” of information, improving search and browse within a variety of sites and systems.  A business taxonomy can also help users discover content, vastly cutting down on time wasted re-creating content that already existed.

Though many organizations have gained maturity in their awareness of business taxonomies, their importance, and their strong potential for return on investment, these organizations often still struggle with how to make a business taxonomy project successful.  Indeed, the struggle is understandable.  An effective business taxonomy is one that will span the enterprise of information, users, and potential needs.  This vast scope is often daunting to organizations, especially those that are global in nature and varied in offerings or activities.

In order to help address this challenge, I developed the Business Taxonomy Workshop methodology.  Often imitated but never replicated, my workshop methodology involves the actual business users in the initial design phases of a taxonomy design effort.  As a result, the methodology has several unique benefits.  First, with actual business stakeholders in the room there is no need to “translate” or infer requirements.  The direct involvement also creates a force of potential change managers.  By including a functionally, geographically, and hierarchically diverse group in the workshop, we create a group that will potentially help their colleagues and cohorts in their own functional areas, locations, and management levels to understand the taxonomy project and prepare to adopt it.  For instance, by involving a member of your Human Resources department in the design of a new taxonomy for your intranet, you not only get the insights and requirements to appropriately tag and categorize H.R. content, you also get a member of the H.R. department grounded in your efforts and prepared to go back to their colleagues and help spread the message.

These initial workshop participants play another important role as well.  As we know, no taxonomy is ever finished or perfected.  Taxonomy design efforts can span a significant length of time as well.  This initial group of workshop participants easily translates into a Business Taxonomy Working Group that will help see a taxonomy design effort to roll out and then continue to iteratively improve it.

Over the last decade I’ve personally run well over 200 of these workshops on six continents.  Throughout that time I’ve honed the specific exercises but the core concepts remain the same.  Though there are any number of potential variations, the best outcomes are derived from a workshop that runs for one or two days and includes 12-18 participants of a wide variety as I’ve described above.  We facilitate these participants through a series of five core exercises, each of which has a specific product that feeds into the next.  First, we ask participants to define the “what” and “why” of the business taxonomy.  In short, this is the abbreviated business case for the effort.  Though this may seem elementary, it is common to find participants and stakeholders who have highly varied opinions as to why they are there and what they’re being asked to accomplish.

Next, we have participants discuss the intended audience for the business taxonomy.  This helps to define scope and highlights the challenge of a business taxonomy to serve multiple different types of users with a single vocabulary.  From this exercise we also derive personas, which we reference back to throughout the remaining effort.

For the third exercise, we ask participants to identify the verbs related to the system for which taxonomy is being designed as well as the verbs associated with the activities of the organization itself.  The interesting thing about this exercise is that it is largely industry and organization independent.  Participants will offer verbs such as “research,” “search,” “browse,” and “learn” for the system verbs, and slightly more contextualized words for the organizational firms such as “manufacture,” “sell,” or “educate.”  The point of this exercise, and the value it offers, is to serve as a guide for the workshop participants to get to what actually has the greatest value for business taxonomies, and that is the topics, or nouns, that contextualize the verbs.

Topics represent the core of a good business taxonomy design.  They are the way we naturally relate and categorize most everything in our daily lives and therefore they are natural and intuitive to virtually all users.  For the fourth exercise, we ask each of the participants to provide the core topics that comprise their business.  One of the ways this is done is by asking for them to “fill in the blank” behind the verbs they already provided, again, providing the context to what the organization does.  More importantly, however, we’re seeking to derive the subjects of the organization and the systems for which the business taxonomy is being designed.

We collect each of these words from the users, including repeated words, and display them all together.  What this yields, typically, is a clear view of the commonalities between the different workshop participants and the subject themes of the organization.  Put simply, the product of the workshop provides a map of topics or subjects that people individually derived but naturally agree on.  This is the start of the business taxonomy.  From there, we can map the words that are most common and use the outliers to facilitate a discussion around what might be missing.  This process is not supposed to be easy and has often proven to be a challenge, but after hundreds of successful outcomes, the results can’t be argued with.

The fifth exercise addresses the potential metadata fields and taxonomies beyond the core topics.  As an outcome of the topic mapping, many participants will have suggested words that aren’t pure topics, but could more easily be characterized as a function, location, document type, or some other less contextualized type of word.  As we did with the topical mapping, we identify these words, their potential value, and we use them to derive a list of additional metadata fields and values that could be of value as part of the overall taxonomy design.  This is particularly important as it nods to more traditional taxonomies and eases the change management challenge with which the less flexible individuals might otherwise struggle.

Depending on the time allowed and progress made, the fourth and fifth exercises can be repeated at additional levels of detail, effectively creating a top-down business taxonomy design.  In other cases, the initial products of the workshop can be leveraged by smaller groups, our own experts, or additional workshop participants to continue and refine the design efforts.  In all cases, however, the workshop provides a direct and actionable starting point that reflects the needs of the users and the perspectives of the business.  In a matter of hours or days, an organization can get their arms around what might otherwise have stymied them and risked or delayed an information management project.


Zach Wahl Zach Wahl Expert in knowledge and information management strategy, content strategy, and taxonomy design. Zach is passionate about forming and supporting high-functioning teams and facilitating results-focused outcomes with his clients. More from Zach Wahl »