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Scalable Taxonomies

In working on enterprise taxonomy projects, the issue of scale always comes up. “Scale” is a word that gets tossed around a lot but what does it really mean for taxonomies? How can taxonomies scale? What do organizations need to think about when considering requirements for taxonomy scale?

We’ve found that the best way to define the scale of a taxonomy is to consider the following:

  • Size — The ability to grow a taxonomy by adding new terms or relationships between existing terms
  • Function— The ability to grow a taxonomy to support new (known or unknown) use cases
  • Usage—The ability to support the addition of new products to a taxonomy

Taxonomy Size

The first consideration of scale looks at a taxonomy’s ability to grow by adding new terms or relationships between existing terms. This might look like growing a topic taxonomy to easily incorporate new terms identified in a search log. Or, it might need to consider the ability to support the addition of new high-level categories to the taxonomy.

The latter example would be relevant for a growing company that is considering adding new product lines or expanding via acquisition.  This type of growth may have significantly different requirements than a taxonomy that needs to scale to support the addition of synonyms or more sophisticated relationships. In the former case, the taxonomy and governance plan will be tightly tied to the capabilities of the systems or analytics that are dependent on the taxonomy.  In the latter case, the taxonomy and the taxonomy management system would need to support a high-velocity workflow.

Taxonomy Function

Another consideration of scale looks at the ability to grow a taxonomy to support new (known or unknown) use cases. This is a common scenario where a taxonomy may need to support the scaling of the overall business landscape. Planning for the growth of use cases can be extremely challenging. It requires that a lot of thought and planning go into the overall model. A well-designed model is really a thing of beauty, especially when it takes into account the full set of requirements (current and anticipated) and modeling best practices. Taxonomists are often fully satisfied when people start asking about how the taxonomy model will address different scenarios or use cases. A successful model will have anticipated these requirements and be able to support them with minimal adoption cost.

No model can be all things to all people. A great taxonomist should really understand the business environment where the taxonomy will be used AND do the extra work to make sure that the model follows best practices. For example, there is always a point in a project when a random collection of terms only seem to fall under some notion of “miscellaneous”. The work required to really find the best place for them in the taxonomy may seem daunting. However, taking a step back and figuring out how to address them is almost always worth the extra effort. This will likely require the organization to take a deep look at why those terms are there to begin with. (Consider the number of times we have had to find a place for branded beer cozies!) The ability to look around corners and know where to abandon taxonomy standards in favor of supporting business requirements or where to push back on the business requirements to support a rational model is the crux of a successful taxonomy.

Taxonomy Usage

Lastly, the ability to support the addition of new products is often a requirement that comes up. Usually, this occurs when considering the requirements of a navigation or product category hierarchy taxonomy. While the products themselves will not be part of the taxonomy, the taxonomy or navigation structure will often need to change to support the new products—even when the products are all associated with existing product categories. In this case “scaling the taxonomy” is really a process of updating it to make sure it is well balanced and in terms of product distribution. For example, if a retailer increases the number of items in a category, they may likely need to increase the number of sub-categories to support the end user experience or the needs of their merchandisers. While this may seem to be the easiest for the taxonomist to manage, it is often the scalability scenario that companies are most concerned about. Taking the time to make sure that taxonomies can be adjusted accordingly will be essential to support this type of scalability requirement.

Taxonomy Scalability in a nutshell…

Scalability ultimately comes down to creating a model that can be managed in the technology stack.  It also means designing a governance process that will allow the growth to occur in a way that is manageable and durable over time. The better the taxonomist’s understanding of the business landscape and business requirements the better they will be able to understand what type of scalability is required.  This increases the likelihood that a taxonomist will be able to create a robust model that will withstand the test of a hundred new use cases, marketing initiatives, or product lines.