A Manageable Taxonomy of Taxonomy Management Tools

By Richard Medina posted 03-20-2013 22:41


This post provides the fundamentals of taxonomy management (TM). It outlines the general types of taxonomies, the components of the TM process, the TM tool market and how to tell the products apart, the specific capabilities comprising the TM process, and what your next steps should probably be.

Types of Taxonomies

Taxonomies help organize content to facilitate the use, management, and governance of documents and other information. Taxonomies differ in scale (from small to enterprise) and complexity. Complexity ranges from a list of simple controlled vocabularies of terms, to:

  • Simple hierarchies of terms that organize them into categories, to
  • Complex hierarchies, which require thesaurus capabilities (e.g. for creating and maintaining terms and their complex reciprocal relationships), to
  • Ontologies, which also require customizable semantic relationships between terms.

Components of the Taxonomy Management Process

The TM process involves the following components:

  1. Development includes creating, importing/exporting, and modifying the taxonomy; assigning user roles and permissions; thesaurus capabilities such as merging and subsuming terms, designating candidate and approved terms, indicating term creation date and modification date, permitting multiple hierarchies, disallowing illegal relationships, term editing functionality, and relationship rules enforcement.
  2. Deployment includes classifying and metadata tagging the documents according to the taxonomy; it also includes integration with external ECM, RM, search, and other applications that use the taxonomy.
  3. Maintenance and Governance includes modifying and administering all aspects of the taxonomy in a controlled manner, approval workflows, and activity logging.
  4. User Functionality includes capabilities for different types of users. It includes access, search, browse, and presentation of taxonomy content; different views, visualizations, and reporting; generating reports in different displays; and customization capabilities.

Most organizations are at an early stage of their Information Architecture initiatives, and therefore should prioritize Development. They should place less priority on Maintenance and Governance, User Functionality, and Deployment, although all are important.

How to Tell the Tools Apart

Taxonomy management tools differ widely in their ability to scale, their complexity, and the components of the TM process that they address.

1. Scale: They range from single-user tools to systems for enterprises that are large in all relevant dimensions (people, locations, organization units, document volumes, systems, etc.).

2. Complexity: Different categories of tools are best suited for different ranges of complexity; for example:

  • Spreadsheets can adequately address simple controlled vocabularies of terms.
  • Spreadsheets can address simple hierarchies of terms (where categories are columns).
  • Basic and advanced thesaurus-based tools are usually required to address more complex hierarchies, with more complex relationships and other needs. Some other categories of taxonomy tools are sometimes adequate for complex hierarchies, particularly ECM, RM, search, and auto-categorization solutions that have some TM capabilities. But each case must be addressed individually.
  • Ontology tools are a more specialized category, consisting of pure ontology products and some advanced, thesaurus-based tools that provide the relevant capabilities. Such tools are required when the information architecture requires capabilities such as customizable semantic relationships between terms.

3. TM process components: The tool categories and products within each category differ widely in how well they address the TM process components Development, Deployment, Maintenance and Governance, and User Functionality. Spreadsheets and basic thesaurus-based tools don’t excel in any of these areas. Some advanced thesaurus-based tools are excellent or at least adequate in all of them, while others have significant gaps in Deployment. The ECM, RM, search, and auto-categorization solutions are weak in most areas except parts of Deployment (tagging and categorization).

Most organizations will require tools to develop, deploy, and maintain their taxonomies, as even the simplest hierarchy requires a spreadsheet to effectively manage it. Today, a large number and wide variety of tools are available to address TM. However, note that the market for TM tolls is currently a mess – at an early stage of consolidation that resembles the market segment for social media, as opposed to that of ECM.

The Final Word

The following recommendations are a good starting point. Use them as default hypotheses for your organization to be accepted or rejected:

  1. You probably should use Microsoft Excel and Visio for basic TM until you’re ready to get an enterprise TM tool. They are the best low-cost, low-risk, entry-level tools for simple TM. But they cannot automate TM or perform most of the tasks required for complex enterprise TM.
  2. You probably shouldn’t use any basic thesaurus-based tool for enterprise TM. This option is the “junior college” approach; enterprise TM requires a more advanced approach.
  3. When you are ready to implement an enterprise TM tool, consider one of the few advanced-thesaurus-based TM suites that are designed for multi-user to enterprise deployment, and can integrate with indexing, auto-classification, search, and ECM/RM systems.
  4. Don’t use the taxonomy-related modules provided by the ECM vendors for developing and maintaining your taxonomy. But consider them – later – for classification and tagging to help deploy your developed taxonomy. Whether to acquire and use them should depend primarily on how well they perform on your organization’s real documents and categories.


#ontologies #TM #TaxonomyandMetadata #taxonomymanagement #Taxonomy #hierarchies