Enterprise Information Architecture: Don’t Do ECM Without It

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May 05, 2004

May 2004 Issue

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Two questions resound throughout the content industry: Why do Enterprise Content Management (ECM) projects take so long to implement? And why do they fail with such alarming frequency? While all enterprise-level IT projects prove to be difficult and risky undertakings, a deeper examination of the ECM challenge in particular will reveal an endemic inattention to—or at best belated appreciation of—its critical corollary: the need for Enterprise Information Architecture (EIA).

Information Architecture (IA) is commonly understood to be the art and science of structuring, organizing, and labeling information so that content owners can better manage it and users can find what they're looking for more effectively. IA can be bottom-up (i.e. analyzing and labeling content chunks) or top-down (i.e developing standardized categorization schemes or taxonomies).

This traditional approach for IA works very well for improving individual Web sites or helping departments find and manage information more efficiently. But developing effective information architectures at the enterprise level presents another dimension altogether.

The EIA Problem
To understand the case for EIA, consider the following examples:

An enterprise employee needs to file a trip expense report. The policy that describes acceptable billings resides on a local server, but another applicable policy resides with HR, and the expense form application sits on the IT intranet. Thus, the enterprise's org chart stands between this weary traveler and her simple reimbursement task.

A major manufacturer changes a product category from "filters" to "furnace filters" when launching of a new line of products and, as a result, the entire enterprise must respond in unison. Unless all the different business units embrace this new labeling simultaneously, customers will get confused across Web sites, channel partners, newsletters, call centers, etc.

A company sells software through multiple channels. Unfortunately—but not uncommonly—the marketing silo tells customers something different than its catalog and support groups do (or vice-versa). Clearly they need a common labeling structure. To support casual site browsers, this requires a unified taxonomy across divisions. Assisting hard-core searchers requires content analysis across silos to describe chunks of information so that they can be retrieved effectively and properly linked together.

Lou Rosenfeld, an IA guru who teaches a highly-respected seminar on EIA, puts his finger on the problem saying, "No one is advocating for users of enterprise-wide content. We just have advocates for business units and this leads to a lot of frustration and confusing duplication."

Enterprise is Harder
An enterprise-wide information architecture should define a model for working with disparate business units in a manner that presents employees and customers alike with a unified way of accessing information across the whole company, according to Peter Morville, president of Semantic Studios and Rosenfeld's co-author of O'Reilly & Associates' Information Architecture for the World Wide Web (a.k.a. the "Polar Bear book" for the bear depicted on its cover).

The problem is that, in an enterprise setting, IA evaluation methods, designs, and (especially) governance models become much more complex, but there are no textbooks for practicing IA in large, decentralized environments made up of content silos. Indeed, this very complexity is likely to introduce new, arcane concepts—like ontology, thesaurus, and metamodel—that make EIA seem all that more overwhelming, especially to senior decision-makers.

For example, at an enterprise level, different "types" of metadata rise to the fore, followed by the need for synonyms to achieve effective enterprise-wide search engine results. Rosenfeld cites the example of a multinational corporation whose national divisions employed a plethora of overlapping terms to describe employee time off: Annual leave (Australia), the holidays (U.S.), public holidays (Australia, U.S.), vacation (U.S.), bank holidays (U.K.), holiday (Australia and U.K.), and personal leave (all). What term will any given searcher use? And remember that this international company had it easy—at least those terms were all in English!

So, in order to face this level of complexity, there'd better be a darned good business case.

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