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Standards designed to improve information usefulness.

[This column lets experts in the information technology industry discuss the challenges and trends in their corners of the marketplace.--Ed.]

I recently bumped into the argument for standards in a number of contexts. Perhaps "bumped into" is not the correct term; it's more similar to being bludgeoned with the argument. On more than one occasion, I've discussed strategies to improve findability of content through various organizing principles and been met with blank stares and the comment, "Don't they have standards for that?"

One analyst mentioned a standard for the retail industry, saying, "That problem has already been solved" when I discussed ways to perform usability testing to optimize information on a retailer's website. If it has already been solved, then someone should tell the retailers that continue to use inconsistent organizing principles throughout their navigation structures, making it almost impossible to search, navigate, or filter on the attributes that are most meaningful to the user's task. My wife, who has learned a bit about taxonomy through osmosis, is always telling me I need to fix [fill in famous retailer's name here]'s website because its search is suboptimal (but she uses another term to describe things that are suboptimal).

Don't get me wrong, standards are very important. An oft--quoted phrase that is attributed to computer scientist Andrew Tanenbaum sums it up: "The nice thing about standards is that there are so many of them to choose from...."

Bulk Vitamins and Peat Fuel

I recently attended a class on integrating taxonomies with unstructured information taught by Bill Inmon, known as one of the pioneers in the field of relational databases and data warehouses. The course discussed approaches to taking unstructured content and putting it into a relational database. The class was interesting, but there was a bit of a difference of philosophy. One of the resources for students was a collection of standard taxonomies produced for various fields. For the Energy Sector, terms included everything from Peat as a fossil fuel to Lamp Oil as a fuel oil. Terms in the Organic Chemicals branch included Antibiotics and Bulk Vitamins as well as some very specific chemical terms.


I am sure that whoever created the taxonomy thought those terms needed to be included in order to be complete. But the issue is that this standard set of terms could not be practically used as is. It would need a great deal of work to prune unneeded branches and remove terms that were not relevant. Starting with a standard taxonomy to describe content seemed as if it was a good idea, but after closer examination, it became clear that standard vocabularies for describing subject areas are not very practical.

Limits of Search

Most people working on solutions to information overload have run into the limits of search tools, and they realize that improved information find-ability requires paying attention to the structure of information. When you begin to address this issue, the question of standards always comes up. Who has done this before, and what can we leverage? We should not have to reinvent the wheel.

There are definitely opportunities to leverage standards, and they are very useful, if not mandatory, under certain circumstances. This includes communication and data exchange with external parties. The automotive and aerospace industries consist of extensive supplier networks that communicate and transmit data according to various standards. However, there are certain situations where using a standard may actually make the problem worse.

Standardization for Efficiency, Differentiation for Competitive Edge

Standards serve two broad purposes: to describe the structure/administration of information and to describe the topical nature of information. There are two principles that need to be considered: 1) Efficiencies come from having a standard information structure, and 2) competitive differentiators come from presenting information uniquely.

These may seem to be in opposition, but the simple analogy is that of a book. A book has a title, author, and chapters. If it is nonfiction, it has an index in the back of the book (the subjects). The information contained in two books on the same topic will be different, and the indexes will be different. The structure is the same, but the presentation is different. You can't take one book's index and put it in another book. The index contains topics that are unique to each book. This is analogous to how taxonomies are used. Suggesting that the subject taxonomies could be standardized is a mistake. The subjects in a taxonomy (and in many other vocabularies) have to be tuned to your content. Your information should follow a standard structure if possible. How that information is described is unique to the audience.

Standards work well when addressing the issues of consistent structure for communication and integration. However, describing the nature of information needs to be tuned to the body of content, the task or process supported, and the specific needs of the audience. Those details are never standard.

Seth Earley is the president and CEO of Earley & Associates, Inc. (, an information management and taxonomy consulting firm. Earley & Associates helps institutional and Fortune 500 companies improve the way people, technology, and content connect. Over the past 2 decades, Earley & Associates has increased information flow and reliable access of data through a combination of classic information science principles and new approaches to information management. Send your comments about this column to

SETH EARLEY, President and CEO of Earley & Associates, Inc.
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Author:Earley, Seth
Publication:Information Today
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jul 1, 2011
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