Enterprise Information Architecture: Don’t Do ECM Without It

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May 05, 2004

May 2004 Issue

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Getting Started
If EIA sounds intimidating, consider the following practical advice. For veterans of epic enterprise content management campaigns, many of these suggestions will sound quite familiar.

Invest in search and very lightweight metadata in the near-term. For search, the most important metadata attribute may be page or document title. "If you can standardize on implementation and naming conventions, you can improve users' experience dramatically," according to Rosenfeld. Simple search log analysis can persuade skeptical business managers that searchers are looking for information across silos—though you will likely need IT help to merge and analyze disparate logs.

Recognize the political implications of EIA. When trying to reconcile taxonomies, start at a broader level first and focus on official products, services, and other public-facing terms. Lombardi preaches, "Follow the politics." At his super-distributed financial services firm, he is trying to create an EIA process that is friendly to the firm's unique culture, emphasizing handbooks over rulebooks and directories over gospels. In fact, Lombardi's firm is so decentralized that individual business units have complete freedom over product naming conventions. So Lombardi built a guide to all the products, classifying them and linking to their URLs.

Publish guides. Sometimes this is the best way to help people find stuff. Rosenfeld defines a guide as a "single page containing a selective set of important links embedded in narrative text that address important, common user needs." A guide might highlight a specific topic or help that corporate traveler complete her expense reimbursement process. Guides are easy to create, and, Rosenfeld notes, they minimize political headaches by creating new real estate rather than redeveloping old turf.

Consider starting with one business unit or Web site at a time. Look for high-value content that is heavily trafficked to give your pilot project some visibility. Mike Lee, the manager of creative Web development for the AARP.org site, took this approach. Over the past year, he and his team have been converting the organization's main site into a content management system and registering the content with rich metadata. Like most enterprises, AARP has several Web sites, but now Lee has a master information template to work from.

Don't be a control freak. "IA inherits a lot from Library and Information Science, which is much more about controlling the organization of content," notes information architect Lombardi, echoing a common lament among EIA specialists. "We need to be more like Google, and help content organize itself," he adds. AARP's Lee points out that, at a minimum, an IA specialist can serve simply as a resource to other departments struggling to figure out how to work together.

Get Vertical
Thus far, we've been discussing working horizontally across multiple silos to create common content models and directories. But enterprises also face a vertical IA problem too: converging legacy data that's often buried in legacy systems with front-end, (typically customer-facing) unstructured content. For example, you might want to link a product or ingredient (data) with a recipe (content).

At Taxonomy Strategies, Busch has worked on a couple of commercial projects where the enterprises were very interested in integrating back-end supply chain data stores with their public ecommerce Web content. In one case he says, "The IA people had designed a lovely user experience but could not make integration happen because they couldn't bridge to legacy data," since no one had aligned the two systems' metadata.

The gap between data modeling and information architecture is part cultural but still quite real. It often manifests itself as a puzzling bifurcation between content and services in many enterprises, including on large government Web sites.

There is a growing sense that to do EIA, IA specialists are going to have to step up and deal with data and legacy IT systems and issues, instead of just content and user experience. To be sure, this will be a difficult (and perhaps not always welcomed) transition for those without an IT background. Busch also points out that, "data architecture(DA) people have the opposite problem: Just because you have good clean data, it doesn't mean you're going to have a good user experience." Clearly there is a need to meet in the middle, with IA and DA specialists cooperating to develop truly enterprise applications.

This is particularly the case in financial services, where lots of data resides in enterprise systems that remain far removed from customer interfaces. Lombardi, who practices IA in a large financial services firm, sees much of his work as decreasing the distance between the enterprise and its various customers. "You can have the most organized thesaurus," he says, "but if it doesn't serve the customer, it has no effect."

Lombardi has found that making information models customer-centric tends to take control away from business people—or is at least perceived that way—and some managers become uneasy about this. A good EIA strategy might reward information managers who think about the customer first and the business unit second the way the EPA's Leavitt has mandated.

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