Building Information Neighbourhoods

Yesterday I sat in a meeting where an IT manager was outlining his organisation’s strategy for overcoming information confusion. They have a proliferation of repositories, including hundreds of Lotus Notes databases, not to mention document management systems, document supported workflow applications, intranets and other databases. They want to provide common access to all of this, by putting an enterprise content management system on top of it, with a common metadata framework, taxonomy, search engine, indexing, probably an auto-tagging engine to minimise the effort in accessing all this liberated treasure. His diagram looked something like this.

I’ve seen it lots of times before, sometimes dashed out on whiteboards by IT managers in a state of near religious ecstasy, sometimes on the powerpoint slides of ECM/DMS system vendor salepersons. It’s called ECM Heaven.

Although we do quite a lot of work up in that “universal access engine” box (the ECM space with taxonomy and metadata and other heavenly instruments) somehow it doesn’t quite wash. Just the day before I’d been reading Maish Nichani’s new article Taming your “target” content (disclosure: I commented on his early drafts), and his opening words struck home:

“When it comes to the design of intranets and large websites, the limelight is firmly on issues of taxonomy and navigation (info-seeking) and not so much on the final use (info-using) of the content, known as the target content. The focus is still on the library card catalogue and not on the book. In a book world, this is a non-issue; the book is a well-defined, structured entity. But in a web world, we have to deal with open-ended, heterogeneous content, which if not designed for use can be as detrimental to the user experience as weak info-seeking structures.”

Simply put, taxonomies and metadata simply provide the scaffolding and structure to start managing our content in meaningful ways, but they are not, as we too often assume, the end of our journey towards usefulness. The ECM Heaven we described above might well return a whole bunch of hitherto inaccessible results on a search, but in the highly task-driven environment of the enterprise, we need to find content which is organised for use, in a usable context, with associated stuff within easy reach.

Intranet searches are not like internet searches, much as our clients may call for a Google-like magic search engine. Open-ended “discovery” searches are more common on the internet than on the intranet; here we simply need to find the stuff that enables us to get our work done. In an intranet we’re much more specific, and we’re usually much more time-driven. Let’s rewind that, and pick out our operating phrase for emphasis: “Organised for use”.


Maish’s article makes some very simple and incredibly useful distinctions. The most useful for our purposes is his analysis of how “target” content gets organised for use. “Target” content is simply content collected and organised according to common working needs. Maish discriminates between stuff that is Pertinent (the direct focus of a visitor’s need when they arrive on a page), Relevant (other associated material that supports or amplifies or extends the Pertinent content) and Action-oriented (stuff that you might want to do next, given your target content). Here’s an example drawn from his article.

Maish is describing the principles for what I’ve been calling “information neighbourhoods”, and it goes to fundamentally human ways of organising and navigating our world. If we go back to ECM Heaven, all we’ve really done is created a vast virtual warehouse of information. Our taxonomy and metadata give us the instruments to locate any item, and compile an inventory. But in the midst of a working day, who wants to browse a warehouse or read an inventory?

Maish is describing page structures organised around “target” content that much more resemble department stores than wholesalers’ warehouses. Go to any part of the store, and you’ll find associated content and ideas for other purchases. Go looking for a fishing rod, and you’ll find fishing lines, and maybe a couple of instruction guides on fresh water fishing. You might even find a knowledgeable salesperson who explains the differences between different rods and lines, depending on what kind of fishing you want to do. The department store contextualises its content for use, and suggests other useful content to you. The warehouse does not.

Maish gives some very clear ideas about how to go about building your target content pages, so I won’t go into them here. In brief, though, once you know what needs you want to serve on any given intranet information page, the “Pertinent” content should not be too difficult to identify and organise.

Much less clear is how you identify useful “Relevant” content – the information neighbourhood of your prime reason for being on the page. In short, the contexts of use. So here are a few suggestions for identifying relevant content and building your information neighbourhoods (based partly on facet analysis principles, so taxonomy work can help here too!).


This doesn’t mean you have to find associated content that matches all of these categories. I’m merely suggesting that this might make a useful checklist to help identify useful “Relevant” content to put around your “Pertinent” content. This is not a mechanical, metadata-driven task, though metadata should help (especially if you have a facetted taxonomy behind it). Our “TREASURE” acronym is partly based on a facet analysis and has some good taxonomic principles behind it.

Let’s go back to the department store analogy: for each department, you need an expert “buyer”, who plans out the neighbourhood according to her understanding of the typical or desired user needs. This is where your information architect, user experience designers or even knowledge managers come in.

So here’s the checklist:

TEMPORAL EXTENSION: Might visitors want to scroll backwards through the history of this domain, check previous versions, archives, or timelines associated with the pertinent content? Might they want to scroll forward, and anticipate future events or draw up plans? Eg calendars, templates, planning documents.

REPRESENTATION EXTENSION: What alternative ways or representing this content help you access, understand and use this comment? Are there associated images, photographs, video or audio files that would help represent or amplify the content? Are there different points of view on the same domain that need to be represented?

EXPERTISE EXTENSION: Does this domain (or part of it) have more detailed specialist knowledge associated with it that should be linked here, so that visitors can drill deeper if they need to? Eg research papers, expertise directories, external specialist sites or subscription databases.

AGENT EXTENSION: What else might your visitors want to know about any people, groups or organisations represented in your pertinent content? Eg profiles, directories, lists.

SPATIAL EXTENSION: What else might your visitors want to know about any places and locations mentioned in your pertinent content? Might they want to look at adjacent locations or expand to a regional focus? Eg maps, location profiles, directories.

USAGE EXTENSION: In what ways might visitors want to use your pertinent information? What might they want to do next? What actions can you facilitate? Eg ranking, voting, commenting, making an application, beginning a workflow.

RELATEDNESS EXTENSION: What taxonomic categories will be associated with your pertinent content in the visitor’s mind? What are likely related topics that they might be interested in? Ifd your taxonomy doesn’t tell you, analysis of search and browse patterns of visitors will start to suggest ideas for this.

ENTITY EXTENSION: What else might your visitors want to know about the objects or things or parts of things that may be mentioned in your pertinent content? Eg machines and machine parts, different types of the same thing, things that can be done with the objects, or how they can be used.

The approach advocated by Maish takes us a long way from the information factory/warehouse pictures painted in the ECM Heaven image we started with. For a start, it requires a fairly intimate understanding of the knowledge and information needs and uses of our various constituencies. It requires an ability to identify and prioritise primary uses and contexts of use for information in our organisations, for us to be able to plan and build neighbourhoods that work. It doesn’t mean that all the enterprise architects are wrong, or the work of taxonomy and metadata specialists goes to waste. This is the infrastructure that our neighbourhood designers will require to locate and draw down the information assets they need to populate their respective domains. Heaven is not the warehouse, however. Heaven is in the neighbourhood where information gets applied.

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