Taxonomy planning in SharePoint 2010

By Danielle Arad - May 10, 2012

Taxonomy is a difficult concept. Correctly developing taxonomy in SharePoint 2010 takes that difficulty to the next level. You’ll be surprised to learn that taxonomy development is really not all that complex but very easy to get wrong. This post highlights considerations for planning taxonomy in SharePoint 2010.

If you are a developer or an IT manager, it’s important that you understand taxonomy and its role in ECM. Why? Because it is very likely you have been or will be asked to implement ECM. Without knowing the what’s, why’s, and how’s, you will get nowhere. It’s shocking to me how many organizations demand that ECM be implemented by their SharePoint Developers, Architects, and IT Managers, without considering that ECM is not actually an IT concept.

What: Taxonomy is a component of Enterprise Content Management ( ECM ). ECM is the methodology ( NOT TECHNOLOGY ) for capturing, storing, securing, and actualizing content. Taxonomy is the logical organization of content in an ECM system, such as SharePoint. This should not be confused with information architecture, which is the physical + logical storage of content. Taxonomy is an extremely strict, preset, static, and mandatory part of contributing any content to the system. There are different types of taxonomy, the most common being Regional, Functional, and Time Based.

Why: In my opinion EVERY organization needs taxonomy. If you are a public company or in a regulated space there are legal reasons for taxonomy. If not, taxonomy should be used to keep your knowledge workers more effective when they locate and communicate organizational content. If you’re involved in litigation, eDiscovery will allow you to prove to a judge that you have a valid system in place for content storage and retrieval. A judge will never accept, “We couldn’t find all of the content because our search didn’t work.”

How: Using SharePoint, taxonomy is implemented using the Managed Meta-Data Service ( MMS ). Do not mistake MMS for taxonomy itself. Taxonomy is the practice; MMS is the technology used to execute that practice in SharePoint 2010. MMS is also used for the more flexible Folksonomy ( read an argument between Chris McNulty and myself here on the differences between Taxonomy and Folksonomy ). At minimum, companies will deploy taxonomies for functionality. Those are created per department or function. It takes 3 to 6 weeks to complete each taxonomy. Here are some rules to follow when building your taxonomy.

  • FIRST If your organization is not willing to put in the effort, don’t do it
  • Add flexibility with synonyms, do not allow ad hoc terminology, OR use Taxonomy & Folksonomy
  • Build taxonomies in committees consisting of users (it must be in their language)
  • Do not use the terms “Other” or “Miscellaneous”
  • Do not use any transient terms ( once a term is set, it should never change )
  • Terminology should never be classified in more than 4 levels
  • Design in CSV and always use the CSV file as the master for each taxonomy ( when SharePoint 15 ( 2013 ) comes out you will be happy you did this )
  • File shares are a good place to start, but are not the final solution
  • Use a pre-built taxonomy as guide, not as an end-result ( here are some examples )
  • Before implementing in SharePoint, have your users implement their taxonomy on content in share drives
  • Allow the selection of only ONE term per taxonomy column
  • Don’t call it “Taxonomy” call it something familiar such as, “Classification”
  • Make the taxonomy column mandatory
  • Don’t allow use of SharePoint Workspaces or Explorer view because this allows users to bypass taxonomy
  • Do not allow users to change terms
  • Don’t be afraid of multiple MMS columns if they are useful
  • Each taxonomy should be it’s own term-store in MMS
  • Set columns to show entire path of taxonomy in lists and libraries

Is the process fun? Unless you have OCD, definitely not. But, doing it right ensures taxonomy will not only be used, but used properly. I stated earlier that if your organization is not willing to commit to the process, don’t waste your time. Just be warned that retroactively implementing taxonomy is much worse than starting from scratch. To encourage adoption, many organizations will find super users who are champions within each department or even make a competition out of the process.