SharePoint 2007 – Implementing and Managing Taxonomy

We’ve been doing a lot of work with SharePoint lately so I thought I’d put together a quick post on some approaches to implementing taxonomies in the new version. As you may or may not know, MOSS 2007 (or Microsoft Office SharePoint Server) is quickly becoming the new platform of choice for many organizations. This newer version of the application is being leveraged in the development of corporate Intranets, Extranets and even public facing Internet websites, providing information workers with enhanced collaboration and document management capability.

With the exponential growth of implementations worldwide (MOSS is the fastest growing server product in the history of the company) come greater challenges and opportunities for improving knowledge management and information access within the enterprise. The need for consistent organizing principles across enterprise information is of ever increasing importance and, when done correctly, can result in leaps and bounds in employee productivity.

Before we get to any of the details however, let’s remind ourselves that the purpose of building and maintaining taxonomies is to improve the findability of information by:

  • Defining preferred terms along with their synonyms and variants;
  • Establishing equivalent, hierarchical, associative or custom relationships between those terms;
  • Increasing the effectiveness of site navigation; and
  • Enhancing enterprise search by leveraging functionality such as faceted navigation.

Typically, the ideal place for the development and management of taxonomies is a central location outside of any one enterprise system. The reasons for this are many but an important one is that once built, taxonomies are meant to be consumed by other corporate applications. In a typical environment, different branches of the taxonomy will be consumed by different systems at different levels of granularity. As a result, end-users are only exposed to subsets of the taxonomy as it is applied in different contexts throughout the organization.

So with that, let’s take a quick look at what we can and can’t do with taxonomies in MOSS 2007.

Out of the Box Taxonomic Capability in SharePoint 2007

The first and cost effective approach is to leverage features and functionality inherently part of the platform itself. Doing so means the implementation of taxonomy is done through a combination of site content types, column definitions and custom lists.

A typical implementation of taxonomy might look something like this: As an administrator you navigate to the root or site collection settings and do the following:

  1. Define Taxonomic Metadata – Create custom site lists to be used for the management of metadata attributes you want to surface as controlled vocabularies for your site users.
  2. Define Site Columns – Create new site columns that get their information from the custom lists created above via lookup fields.
  3. Define Content Types – Create new site content types and add the appropriate site columns as required.
  4. Allow the Management of Content Types – Enable the management of content types on site lists and libraries that require these consistent organizing principles.
Implementing Taxonomy in SharePoint

Implementing Taxonomy in SharePoint

For instance, we might have a content type called Department that is comprised of site columns for the Department Name, Geographic Location, Operating Units and Lines of Business. Each of the site columns would get their information from the list of the same name. As users contribute content to a site list or library that allows the management of content types, they would be prompted to select the appropriate metadata values (some required, some not) from the controlled vocabularies that have been defined as part of this process.

This is a simple scenario, but one that illustrates just about as far as you can go with respect to the implementation of taxonomy in SharePoint out of the box. So what are we missing?

Custom Development of Taxonomies in SharePoint 2007

The problem with the scenario above is that to make it easier on the user (and for the sake of data integrity) you might want to limit the list of Geographic Locations, Operating Units or Lines of Business to a subset based on the Department selected. Unfortunately, the creation of hierarchical pick lists that dynamically update based on user selected values does not come out of the box with SharePoint.

Additionally, SharePoint 2007 also falls short with respect to the management of all types of taxonomic relationships. Simple equivalent relationships can be defined as part of the MOSS thesaurus file but the integration of terminology between it and the content types that have been defined does not exist out of the box. This results in decentralized management of taxonomy terms.

Further, data defined using content types is not leveraged as part of the creation of either navigation or faceted search. Basic navigation is generated manually or dynamically based on settings selected as part of a site, sub-site, list or library. Simple faceted search, although not available out of the box, can easily be implemented using the MOSS Faceted Search extension from CodePlex. It allows for the grouping of search results based on facet but does not provide for a true hierarchical refinement of results. Again, facets are defined as part of the extension (not from content types) further decentralizing taxonomy management.

That said, SharePoint isn’t meant to be a taxonomy management tool, nor should it be. Managing your enterprise taxonomy should take place outside of your enterprise systems in a central location using either MS Excel, if fairly simple, or through a more complex solution such as the WordMap Taxonomy Management System.

Want to learn more about SharePoint and Taxonomy?

In our first Taxonomy Community of Practice (TaxoCoP) call for 2009, we will be discussing the top things to consider for the implementation of taxonomies within MOSS 2007.  You won’t want to miss this one. Visit this page to register now.

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