Integrated Taxonomy: A Foundational Approach to Records Management and Improving Workflow

If it’s time for your firm or company to design a taxonomy for your paper and electronic content, then you likely already understand the benefit of document management best practices. But implementing an effective taxonomy is no longer just about drafting consistent naming conventions across your organizations. It requires an understanding of how your content is being used and how best to organize it for ease of access.

Effective workflows require easy access to accurate and complete data. However, it’s not enough to provide consistent document naming across the organization. It also requires a consistent approach to file folder structure, which makes a content management system easier to use.

An integrated approach to taxonomy implementation establishes a strong foundation for the management of increasing volumes of digital content by directly addressing the full scope of data stored at an organization and how to leverage that data to streamline workflows.

Taxonomy best practices

The purpose of introducing a clear taxonomy is to organize content in a way that’s meaningful to everyone at a law firm or company. This requires using best practices to ensure the taxonomy effectively informs all workflows requiring accurate data.

Such best practices include the following:

  • Define the Purpose – Before designing a taxonomy, the purpose should be clear. Why is it needed and what issues should it address? The overall purpose should serve the end users, making it easier to search for documentation when needed.
  • Use Simple Language – Focus on describing documents as economically as possible while still communicating the essence of the content for search purposes. Agreement on consistent vocabulary should iron out unnecessary complexity, although end users will need to have a hand in what language makes sense.
  • Use Simple Structure – For a taxonomy to have value across an entire enterprise, it should be broad yet shallow. Such simplicity will make it easier to apply consistently. The more granular the approach, the less useful it will be to everyone. A clear taxonomy will also make it easier to apply auto-categorization tools, which can provide increased granularity without sacrificing consistency.
  • Allow for Flexibility – Given how business needs change, taxonomy design will need to adapt over time. A final taxonomy proposal won’t dispense with feedback, and a committee responsible for defining the rules should be prepared to re-examine them.

Having some form of document taxonomy is always better than not having one; although it won’t be effective if it doesn’t provide a consistent approach across business units or if it’s too complex for people to use. A document taxonomy should always make it easier for users to find content.

Keep in mind, however, that the organization of content extends beyond the naming of documents and should encompass how that content is organized by folder.

File foldering isn’t taxonomy

A File Folder Matrix lays out a plan for where files should be stored, determining the appropriate level of specificity using folders and subfolders. It requires examination of how files are currently being stored, both electronically and physically, to arrive at a consistent approach that reinforces the benefits of a taxonomy.

Documents should be stored differently, based upon the purpose of the documents and the obligations imposed on users. Medical records will need to be handled differently from employment documents or tax forms, and will all need to be retained for varying lengths of time.

Sample File Folder Matrix

A File Folder Matrix should begin with an examination of the activities of the business. For a law firm, this may be largely a matter of breaking up documentation based upon practice area. For a company, this may require a layout that breaks down divisions by functions.

As with the creation of a taxonomy, a file plan benefits from simplicity and consistency, to ensure that the functions are easily understood and likely to be applied by everyone. And like a taxonomy, it should be designed to easily adapt to new requirements.

Naming isn’t profiling

The naming of a document might help others locate it at a later date, but all of the searchable information shouldn’t be limited to a single field. There should be enough fields such that a document can be easily located using specific defining features such as date, document owner and internal classification number. The use of different fields, aka metadata, to identify a document is called profiling.

With the investment that companies make in content management software, it’s a shame not to optimize use of it, which means that any taxonomy and file folder matrix should be tied into existing technology. That technology can turn your document repository into a highly efficient search engine, improving document retrieval and even automating the application of records retention schedules.

Simplicity and consistency are critical, with the ease of searchability being the primary goal. By making some field values mandatory, you can more easily ensure consistent application of some of the fields. The more consistent the approach to profiling documents in a company’s content management system, the less confusing it is and the sooner the benefits will clearly outweigh the time spent adjusting to a new approach.

Sample profiling screen

When determining what fields to use for search purposes, consider how people at your firm or company look for documents and what metadata is most important to them. This will clarify what fields to make mandatory and what additional fields will need to be created.

Putting it all together

Given the many aspects of document management at stake, a taxonomy policy can’t be drafted without some consideration given to file folder structure and technology capabilities. This is why an integrated approach to taxonomy assumes a three-pronged approach:

  • Document Naming
  • File Folder Matrix
  • Content Management Technology

Integrated taxonomy creates a stronger foundation for the handling of digital workflows by examining all three approaches to improving consistency and accessibility of workflow data. The involvement of key stakeholders will help arrive at solutions that will provide a simplified and consistent approach that proves invaluable to everyone at your organization.

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Baron Brady

Baron Brady

Baron Brady, Esq., is a Solution Engineer, Legal - Information Governance Solutions for Canon Business Process Services, a leading provider of managed services and technology.
Baron Brady

Baron Brady

Baron Brady, Esq., is a Solution Engineer, Legal - Information Governance Solutions for Canon Business Process Services, a leading provider of managed services and technology.