Thursday, May 31, 2007

Hierarchies Don't Work As Well As They Used To

Hierarchies are tools that can used to categorize information into groups with logical 'parent-child' relationships. You see them everywhere, but the issue with them is that they are only one person's or one companies opinion of how the world looks. Companies use them extensively to describe their organizational structure, their process models, their product inventories, and this works great when everyone in the organization can be trained to fall into line and talk the same language.

However your customer doesn't always think in the same way as you. Their hierarchy may be different or most likely they don't think about a hiearchy at all! Second, not only are their new categories popping up all the time, but the lines are blurring between many categories. What once fell neatly into a well defined bucket, can produce hours of debate with no right answer.

The concept of folksonomies has become popular with the rise of Web 2.0. Folksonomies are user generated taxonomies or structured use to categorize content typically with the use of tags and tagging. Most people are familiar with tagging, but companies don't often see how this could or should be applied within an organization. However its not an all or northing decision. For example, it would be chaotic to organize your inventory internally through employee or customer created folksonomies (for the purpose of warehousing, ordering etc), but at the same time, why force your customers to try and figure our your archaic structure when they are trying to find a product to purchase? Yes search can help but customer driven folksonomies will help even more AND if tapped can also help search.

The thing is that most people in business today grew up in a world of parent child hierarchies. It has been ingrained in the way we think. Putting things into strict classifications helped us feel in control, but with the pace of change today, structures are quickly outdated and become very painful to re-organize. In our business we constantly fight with trying to classify advertising mediums, (ways in which you could advertise a product). It use to be simple - print, radio, television, direct mail and a few others captures almost everything. The fragmentation in this space is mind boggling now. How do you accurately categorize a blue tooth text messaging cell phone campaign? Or what about a direct mail campain via email. Is it an online offering or direct mail? Well its both but more importantly, it depends on who's doing the searching.

Even stretch your mind to think about internal classification structures. Since I have a background in process engineering, I know that people love to define and map out strict process hierarchies and 'teach' the rest of the organization how the business operates. But could processes be organized into employee created folksonomies to some degree? Process ownership and accountability is still required so its not about letting everyone decide separately how the organization runs itself, but the issue comes when people are trying to 'find' the details of a given process. (maybe for a new software application implementation) Do I find the 'employee onboarding process' under HR, under operations, under IT? (well it actually touches all three and more). Accountabilities aside, if tagging was was available and used, there would probably be a lot of time and argument saved by not having to create a hierarchy that meets everyones view of the world. And most importantly, the person who really needs the information, can find it.

The key point with this is to think about who your customers are (whether internal or external) and what they are trying to do with your information. The easier they can find, store and categorize in their terms, the more likely they will use your information assets in the future. How you categorize and use the data is completely different than how they see or want to use the data. Don't make it your customers problem to understand your structure.


Doug said...

Great issues around taxonomy and folksomony: as an amateur user of some deep applications (heck, even some MS Office apps), I find myself frustrated with the help sections. I have a term in mind that I'm looking for, but the app is so structured in its own taxonomies, that I'm lost.

Kevin Donaldson said...

Thanks Doug - great point - help documentation is a perfect example! thanks for sharing.