Enterprise Information Architecture: Don’t Do ECM Without It

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May 05, 2004

May 2004 Issue


Where's the EIA?
If EIA is so great, then why is it apparently practiced so little? There are several plausible reasons.

Many IA specialists concede a generalized failure across the industry in getting the message of enterprise IA across to senior corporate leaders in ways that would spawn more effective champions and project sponsors. Says AARP's Lee, "As the discipline grows, we are going to have be able to evangelize our techniques to a room full of C-level leaders. Lee recounts a breakthrough of his own when he persuaded the CFO at a major financial institution to learn about the role of "user personas" and support their application in the enterprise.

Ironically, EIA also suffers from a lack of expensive software being associated with it. Without a big budget line item (and major implementation) at stake, EIA tends not to command the attention of senior sponsors. As a result, IA staffers get tacked on to heavyweight ECM projects, sometimes as an afterthought.

Some responsibility for the dearth of EIA activity also lies with IA specialists themselves. There is a bit of a tendency in the IA community to over-invest precious energy in KM-esque intellectual debates about ontologies and topic maps, when thought and research could better be applied to more pressing issues, like how to build compelling business cases for a corporate EIA team.

The Future of EIA
Still, some positive change is afoot. A recent survey by the Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (AIfIA) found significantly more IA specialists working at big companies than in the two years previous. In researching this article, a handful of major enterprises were reluctant to discuss their own EIA successes; clearly they see their hard-earned EIA achievements as a competitive advantage. Doubtless there is more good EIA work going on out there than is generally known.

Amid nearly endemic corporate reorganizations and priority shifts, departments today get buffeted a lot. A canonical reference repository or unified content model can serve as a force for continuity and adaptation that an enterprise can rally around to make sure its most valuable and sought-after information continues to be readily available to staff and customers alike.

IA guru Rosenfeld believes that most enterprises are going to get this right at some point. His only question is will it take three to five or ten to fifteen years? Surely a solid EIA strategy, effectively communicated to company leaders, will accelerate the process.

Sidebar: A Select Glossary of IA Terms

The IA community, characteristically, has come up with its own common glossary of terms, excerpted here from the IA Wiki:

Bottom Up: A process of developing an information architecture based on an understanding of the content and the tools used to leverage that content (e.g. search, indexes). This involves the creation of building blocks, the databases to contain them, and the procedures for their maintenance.

Card Sorting: A user-centered design method to discover the inherent categories of collections of content.

Content Inventory: A complete list of all the content that the information space holds and will hold.

Controlled Vocabularies: A collection of preferred terms that are used to assist in more precise retrieval of content. Controlled vocabulary terms can be used for populating attribute values during indexing, building labeling systems, and creating style guides and database schema. One type of a controlled vocabulary is a thesaurus.

Labeling: The systematic application of terms used to describe content objects. A Controlled Vocabulary can be used to develop appropriate labels.

Metadata: A definition or description of data, often described as data about data. For example, the data of a newspaper story is the headline and the story, whereas the metadata describes who wrote it, when and where it was published, and what section of the newspaper it appears in. Metadata can help us determine who content is for and where, how, and when it should appear.

Ontology: Resembles faceted taxonomies but use richer semantic relationships among terms and attributes, as well as strict rules about how to specify terms and relationships. Because ontologies do more than just control a vocabulary, they are thought of as knowledge representation. The oft-quoted definition of ontology is "the specification of one's conceptualization of a knowledge domain."

Taxonomy: A set of controlled vocabulary terms, usually hierarchical. Once created, it can help inform navigation and search systems.

Top Down: The process of developing an information architecture based on an understanding of the context of the content and the user's needs. This involves determining the scope of the site and the creation of blueprints and mockups detailing the grouping and labeling of content areas.

User Personas: A user archetype you can use to help guide decisions about product features, navigation, interactions, and even visual design.

Wire Frames: A rough outline of page elements and their arrangement within the page.

Sidebar: Where are the Tools?

Since Enterprise Information Architecture can become quite laborious, you might think a thriving market for EIA automation tools would emerge. Think again.

Enterprises are investing in content integration applications, although that's not the same as EIA. Point-to-point integration applications (often homegrown) can allow two systems to share content, but this tight coupling tends to become fragile in the face of business change and the nearly inevitable need to draw other repositories into the mix. Enterprise Content Integration (ECI) software is designed to solve this problem by creating a "virtual abstraction layer" above diverse information sets [see "Content Integration", EContent, March 2003, pp. 26-31], but successful implementations typically presume that the enterprise has worked out some sort of underlying reference model to describe and find the content intended to be shared or exchanged. In short, ECI depends on EIA.

Collaboration Tools
Since much of EIA revolves around obtaining group consensus, there could be a role for specialized collaboration tools. IBM recently released a beta version of EZSort, a client application to help companies organize information based on users' expectations gathered from card-sorting exercises. This is potentially useful, but card sorting represents only a very small piece of the EIA puzzle.

CMS Bible author Bob Boiko, now a professor at the University of Washington, has also developed a collaboration utility with some of his students. Boiko has been around the EIA block too many times to believe that companies can easily create a common taxonomy, even when people are talking about the same thing. His Web-based tool assumes that business units in the same enterprise still use different vocabularies and simply tries to create a kind of metadictionary to relate terms.

In short, the application allows a set of people who implicitly share a common vocabulary to co-create an explicit vocabulary. You can't buy this software; it was simply a feasibility study. Through experiments, Boiko's team found that collaboration was indeed feasible, but automation adherents take note: it still took a lot of attention and energy on behalf of the participants.

One software company, SchemaLogic, has addressed the EIA marketplace head-on. The company's product, SchemaServer, manages taxonomies and vocabularies in shared repositories. It imports, reconciles, stores, and makes those models available to departmental subscribers, who can import pieces into their systems.

As you might imagine, reconciling is the tricky part. Whenever a change to a vocabulary is suggested, SchemaServer supports an annotated consent process that includes voting and owner veto where necessary. In the end, though, there is still manual work for the various systems representatives to reconcile the changes, ideally coordinated by an IA specialist who is administering the whole process.

The software sounds fascinating, but it may be a measure of the relative immaturity of EIA that the company can boast only one implementation in production after more than a year of promoting the product. (SchemaLogic says several other firms are piloting the software.)

Peter Hallett, the company's VP of marketing, remains optimistic, "If you build an infrastructure where people can share content structures and then see how each other system is using similar or even overlapping information structures, then it is not a far step to getting to core taxonomies or vocabularies. So, when anything is changed, that impact is known and people can have access to it, and subscribing systems can get the new labels as a web service."

Most EIA specialists maintain a healthy skepticism for automated solutions. "I haven't seen any good EIA tools except those that help with project management," harrumphs Rosenfeld. But Taxonomy Strategy's Busch cautions that if you are serious about EIA, you will likely need some kind of enterprise reference data repository or tool, even if it's just MS Excel.

Companies and Additional Info Featured in this Article

AARP www.aarp.org
Asilomar Institute for Information Architecture (AIfIA) www.aifia.org
Bob Boiko's UW Research Project http://cmslab.ischool.washington.edu/projects.asp?page=projects/proj_accomp.htm
IA Wiki www.iawiki.net
IBM EZSort www-3.ibm.com/ibm/easy/eou_ext.nsf/publish/410
Enterprise IA Seminars http://louisrosenfeld.com/presentations/seminars/eia/
Semantic Studios www.semanticstudios.com
 SchemaLogic www.schemalogic.com
Taxonomy Strategies www.taxonomystrategies.com


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