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Taxonomies - Why You Should Standardize Terminology Across All Marketing and Knowledge Management Systems

By Rachel Shields Williams posted 07-19-2022 17:16


Please enjoy this blog post authored by Rachel Shields-Williams, Director, Knowledge Management, Sidley Austin LLP.

As our technology stacks grow and we begin to break down data silos across our firms, these processes often expose our firm’s need for a standard taxonomy for each concept used across systems like Industry, Area of Law, Courts, among other data points. This process requires threading a delicate balance between how the outside world describes a given attribute and how members of your firm want to describe it (and how they have described it historically). Any taxonomy should have enough structural integrity to withstand the scrutiny of practicing lawyers and enough flexibility to accommodate new fields and values. So where to get started? There are two types of taxonomies: external (standard and commercial) taxonomies and internal (custom) taxonomies.

External Taxonomies

There are several sources of external taxonomies, which can be divided into two categories: governmental- or association-developed, and commercially developed taxonomies.

Governmental- and Association-Developed Taxonomies

Governmental- and association-developed taxonomies are classification schemes that were developed for the benefit of the general public or a specific industry. They are generally intended to support the analysis of business activity within an industry and other commercial functions, are generally available to users at a low or no cost. Examples of such taxonomies include the following:

Commercial Taxonomies

Commercial taxonomies are classification schemes that were developed for use by a specific business. Often proprietary, these taxonomies may be considered by their owners to be trade secrets. Commercial taxonomies vary in cost; certain owners may allow free use of certain portions or all of their scheme, while others may prohibit any use. Many research platforms and similar products have developed such taxonomies, including LexisNexis, Thomson Reuters, Bloomberg, and Deal Point Data, among others.

Internal Taxonomies

Most legal organizations maintain their own custom-developed taxonomies. Often such organizational schemes are developed for narrow business purposes without reference to any external taxonomy; however, best practice is to develop custom schemes based on one or more external taxonomies. When commencing an experience management project, all such internal taxonomies should be reviewed to see how an organization has historically organized the work that it does and the clients it represents. When reviewing an existing internal structure, it is best practice to seek a path to harmonize such structure with external taxonomies. The more custom taxonomies are aligned with external taxonomies, the easier it will be to automate data mapping. However, care should be taken to ensure that any newly harmonized structure remains in alignment with an organization’s culture and definitions.

The Challenge

How do you balance the need to standardize your firm taxonomies with the current state of your firm and where you want to be in five years? Depending on the size, complexity and existing usage of a certain taxonomy will drive the best practice – for this example let’s take Industry – a concept used by many across a firm and often has a different definition based on with whom you speak.

  • Understand the Stakeholders. Who uses industry taxonomy and how do they use it?
    1. Marketing defines Industry as how they go to Market.
    2. Accounting defines Industry as the industry the client is in.
    3. Practicing Lawyers define Industry as the industry the matter is involved in.
  • Find Common Ground. By understanding the use cases you can begin to see a way to answer all stakeholders with a balance solution. So, if you define the CLIENT industry as the industry the client is in (defined by 3rd party sources) and then create the flexibility to capture a matter industry (defined by those working on the matter) you can satisfy the needs of the three stakeholders identified above.
  • Design a Structure. Look at the external taxonomy sources. What are similarities between the existing taxonomies and external taxonomies, and what changes can you make to bring these structures together.
  • Clean Existing Data. Once you have established your structure, then decide how you will bring the existing data into the new structure.
  • Communicate and Train. Communicate to all stakeholders the new structure, when and what data will be updated, provide training and documentation of what the values mean and the shared definitions.
  • Establish Reviews. The world around us evolves quickly, so how often will you regroup to review your structure? How will you handle requests to add or modify new values?


The Benefits

So why go through with this labor of love? Ultimately, it is to improve reporting across key data sets. All of your internal teams are now on the same page when searching, exporting and reviewing data points.  It will save time having to map industry codes internally and remove any confusion on industry data for those areas not mapped or mapped improperly. Having a firm-wide taxonomy scheme allows for more accurate tagging of data, too. And in some cases, automated tagging can be established with the assurance that each system is working from the same set of data points.

Further, it improves integration with 3rd party sources. Mapping to a 3rd party system is much less complicated when you do not have to first compare variations of data points internally before connecting externally. Who wouldn’t want to simplify an integration project.

The bottom line - standardizing taxonomies improves efficiency in data collection and builds confidence and accuracy in data reporting.