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Information Architecture – What It Takes to Succeed

This Articles was originally published in the Jan/Feb 2013 issue of Intranets: Enterprise Strategies and Solutions.

Intranet solutions that delight users require the right information architecture (IA): taxonomy, metadata, and navigation design.  They also depend on integrating the IA into tagging, search, application development, and a governance framework.  With lots of moving parts to an Intranet solution, senior managers often seek consulting assistance. Some seek to fill technical skill gaps in their organization, while others look for a partner that can lead them through a comprehensive approach.

After seeing many companies stumble in navigating to the end result, we have increasingly proposed the more comprehensive approach.  Nevertheless, in many cases, the customer says “oh, we can handle that part – we just want to have you help us with the really tough bits.”  Fair enough, many companies have the methodologies and capabilities needed.  However, many don’t, and yet  may still not look for  full life-cycle assistance.  By focusing on gaps in staff capabilities, they overlook the need to bring a comprehensive approach to the table.

I can make this point by talking about an analogous situation where the tables were turned – we were the client and we were hiring consultants to assist in the sales process. We tried the approach of deciding which parts the consultant should do while asking for help in the areas where we thought we needed it most. “Just help with the actual sales call. We understand operations processes.” Certainly this approach provided some value. But the challenge is that it is sometimes difficult to see the distinction between something that looks good to a smart person and something that is crafted by an experienced professional with an eye toward the whole.

We did not think we needed any help on our overall process. We had sales stages that made sense to us, we had mechanisms for tracking activities, and we held meetings with our sales resources. It was not until another consultant came in to review the end to end approach and look at all of the related processes that we realized  that our “good” choices each contained  sub-optimal components.

When combined into a whole, they did not achieve what we required.  If each part is just slightly off , the whole becomes an ill-fated sum of the errors.

I went through an information architecture process with a client where they said “we’re doing all of that.”  Then someone added “but maybe not as thoroughly as what you presented.”  The other said “we’re doing most of it.”  That is THE key. What seems only incrementally different, and not really that significant, when added to many other choices that are incrementally different, will produce a sum of the parts that operates at an order of magnitude of difference. Have you ever done something that does not quite come out the same as the professional version you may have seen? The differences are subtle indeed. But the whole – the result - is entirely different.

Before determining the kind of consulting you need, ask the following questions:

  1. Does your organization understand the correct approach?
  2. Consistently follow all of the steps to the process?
  3. Put in the time and attention needed?
  4. Have the will to operationalize the required change?

In you answer any of these in the negative, you need a consultant with a full lifecycle perspective.  It is possible to research approaches to developing taxonomies, but successfully applying them to solving multiple problems in search, master data management, content modeling, product agility, multi-channel marketing, knowledge management or digital asset management requires a nuanced approach across multiple work streams, technologies and processes. If it works and the desired outcomes are achieved, then all is well. If there are still problems that have not been addressed, it is likely that steps were skipped or may have been missing.

There is an enormous difference in outcome between executing on an approach with focused attention to detail and, on the other hand, “doing most of it”, while cutting corners or skipping steps.  Don’t put a significant enterprise program at risk in order to shave a few dollars from the cost. Doing so can undermine the larger goal - improving business processes and outcomes that are directly related to top line revenue, bottom line income, and customer and employee satisfaction. After all, content supports processes, processes enable business imperatives, and business imperatives are aligned with the goals of the organization. Sometimes saving a few thousand dollars in project costs can put millions in benefits at risk.

Seth Earley
Seth Earley
Seth Earley is the Founder & CEO of Earley Information Science and the author of the award winning book The AI-Powered Enterprise: Harness the Power of Ontologies to Make Your Business Smarter, Faster, and More Profitable. An expert with 20+ years experience in Knowledge Strategy, Data and Information Architecture, Search-based Applications and Information Findability solutions. He has worked with a diverse roster of Fortune 1000 companies helping them to achieve higher levels of operating performance.

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