When people launch search improvement or information organziation projects, one of the commonest mistakes is to be over-eager to “just get the content indexed or tagged” without spending enough time and thought on the structure of an index, what should be tagged, and how the tags themselves should be structured.

This typically happens for two reasons:
1. The project managers – often encouraged by service providers who just want to get their hands on the cheque – simply underestimate the amount of preparatory work involved, whether it is structuring and testing a taxonomy, setting up and checking automated concept extaction rules, or developing a comprehensive domain model and tag set, so they fail to include enough – if any – of a development and testing stage in the plan. This often happens when the project is led by people who do not work closely with the content itself. Projects led by marekting or IT departments often fall into this trap.

2. The project managers include development and testing, with iterative correction and improvement phases, but are put under pressure to cut corners, or to compress deadlines.  This tends to happen when external forces affect timescales – for example local government projects that have to spend the budget before the end of the financial year. It can also happen when stakeholder power is unevenly distributed – for example, the advice of information professionals is sought but then over-ruled by more powerful stakeholders who have a fixed deadline in mind – for example a launching a new website in time for the Christmas market.

Forewarned is forearmed

Prevention is better than cure in both these scenarios, but easier said than done. Your best defence is to understand organizational culture, politics, and history and to evangelize the role and importance of information work and your department. Find out which departments have initiated information projects in the past, which have the biggest budgets, which have the most proactive leadership teams, then actively seek allies in those departments. Find out if there are meetings on information issues you could attend, offer to help, or even do something like conduct a survey on information use and needs and ask for volunteers to be interviewed.  Simply by talking to people at any level in those departments you will start to find out what is going on, and you will remind people in those departments of your existence and areas of expertise.

On a more formal level, you can look at organizational structures and hierarchies and make sure that you have effective chains of communication that follow chains of command. This may mean supporting your boss in promoting the work of your department to their boss. This is especially important in organizations with lots of layers of middle management, as middle managers can get so caught up in day to day work that longer term strategy can get put on the back burner, so offer support.

If you find out about projects early enough, you have a chance of influencing the project planning stages to make sure information and content issues are given the attention they need, right from the start.

Shutting the stable door…

Sometimes despite our best efforts we end up in a project that is already tripping over itself. A common scenario is for tagging work to be presented as a fait accompli. This is particularly likely with fully automated tagging work, as processing can be done far faster than any manual tagging effort. However, it is highly unusual for any project to be undertaken without its being intended to offer some sort or service or solve some recognized problem.

Firstly, assess how well it achieves its intended goals. If you have only been called into the project at the late stage, is this because it is going off the rails and the team want a salvage solution, or is it because it works well in one context and the team want to see if it can be used more widely? If it is the latter, that’s great – you can enjoy coming up with lots of positive and creative proposals. However, the core business planning principles are pretty much the same whether you are proposing to extend a successful project or corralling one that is running out of control.

Once you know what the project was meant to achieve, assess how much budget and time you have left, as that will determine the scope to make changes and improvements. Work out what sort of changes are feasible. Can you get an additional set of tags applied for example? Can you get sets of tags deleted? Are you only able to make manual adjustments or can you re-run automated processes? How labour intensive are the adjustment processes? Is chronology a factor – in other words can you keep the first run for legacy content but evolve the processes for future content?

These assessments are especially valuable for projects that are at an intermediate stage as there is much more scope to alter their direction. In these cases it is vital to prioritize and focus on what can be changed in a pragmatic way. For example, if the team are working chronologically through a set of documents, you may have time to undertake planning and assessment work focused on the most recent and have that ready before they get to a logical break point. So, you prioritize developing a schema relevant to the current year, and make a clean break on a logical date, such as January 1. If they have been working topic by topic, is there a new search facet you could introduce and get a really good set for that run as a fresh iteration?

If there are no clean breakpoints or clear sets of changes to be made, focus on anything that is likely to cause user problems or confusion or serious information management problems in future. What are likely to cause real pain points? What are the worst of those?

Once you have identified the worst issues and clarified the resources you have for making the changes, you have the basis for working up the time and money you need to carry them out. This can form the basis of your business case and project plan either to improve a faltering project and pull it back on track or to add scope to a project that is going well.

…after the horse has bolted

If there is limited scope to make changes, and the project is presented as already complete, it is still worth assessing how well it meets its goals as this will help you work out how you can best use and present the work that has been done. For example, can it be offered as an “optional extra” to existing search systems?

It is also worth assessing the costs and resource involved in order to make changes you would recommend even if it seems there is no immediate prospect of getting that work done. It is likely that sooner or later someone will want to re-visit the work, especially if it is not meeting its goals. Then it will be useful to know whether it can be fixed with a small injection of resource or whether it requires a major re-working, or even abandoning and starting afresh. Such a prospect may seem daunting, but if you can learn lessons and avoid repeating mistakes the next time around, then that can be seen as a positive. If one of the problems with the project was the lack of input from the information team early on, then it is worth making sure for the sake of the information department and the organization as a whole that the same mistake does not happen again. If you demonstrate well enough how you would have done things differently, you might even get to be in charge next time!