Metadata: The Backbone of Your Document Management

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Brian Ocfemia
Brian Ocfemia, Engineering Manager

“Metadata” is an intimidating word, often sounding very technical and from the complex world of search engines. Quite simply, metadata is data about data. Let’s say books are data. How would you describe and order groups of books? Probably by genre, by author (A to Z), and maybe even by “most popular” or “bestsellers.” Those categories of genre, author, and “most popular” are metadata, and that metadata helps you navigate through a bookstore – instead of just sifting through a giant pile of books.

In a document management system, you probably know the feeling of sifting through information when it is poorly labeled and organized. You search over and over for something, you get too many search results in return, and it seems like keyword searches just don’t work right. Those kinds of document management systems often have poor metadata.

So where you do start if you’re a metadata novice? While we recommend also talking to someone technically conversant with your document management system (and if you’re a large city, you might want to have an information architecture expert in the mix), we focus here on some metadata basics that we notice when we help cities with their document management systems.

  1. Look for pain points with your city staff. The first place to start is with the existing experience city staff has when they search for documents. How do they search? What do they search for? What results come up? For example, do users get frustrated looking for accounting documents when they can’t separate out accounting from all other city documents? City staff will often tell you through their actions how they need the information to be labeled and organized, and what terms they think of when they search for documents.
  2. Involve different groups when deciding what metadata you need. When you sit down to discuss how you want to describe and categorize your documents, make sure you involve multiple groups to assess their needs. Your finance department may have stricter metadata needs than parks and recreation, for example. At the same time, you don’t want to make your categorization so complex that basic users can’t easily upload and label documents. By discussing your needs together, you will arrive at a good categorization system that works for everyone.
  3. Create custom views for different departments. One of the biggest pain points with document management metadata is separating out views at the highest level, such as finance, public safety, information technology, or parks and recreation. When users have to sift through documents across all city departments for every search, it prevents them from easily finding what they need. But when metadata clearly indicates different departments, projects, or organizations, then users can go to the area that exactly meets their needs.
  4. Make users enter basic metadata. When users upload documents, work with your document management vendor and IT department to make users enter basic metadata. There should be minimum requirements for what users need to fill in such as a title, author, department, description, keywords, etc. If you’re not enforcing metadata capture, then your document management categorization and search capabilities go to waste. After a while (and some grumbling), filling out metadata will become habit for users and your document management categorization will become much more rich and thorough.
  5. Manage and audit your metadata. If no one is overseeing your document management system’s data, which includes your metadata, then it’s easy for people to lose the habit and go astray. Also, over time your data needs might change, or your data might become unruly and chaotic. If your needs grow more complex, such as with new financial requirements or a piece of legislation, you can push down new metadata requirements to users. If you find that users are not helped by either simplistic metadata (such as too many documents with the same category) or overly complex metadata, you can balance it out by adjusting top-level requirements for users based on feedback.

Our advice in this article focuses primarily on the business side of metadata, and less on the technical side. For most cities we work with, they just need to be using metadata on a basic level so that users can more easily find documents. With larger cities, document management and metadata grow much more complex, and we recommend bringing in more technical expertise at that level. Otherwise, as long as you can get your users labeling and categorizing documents consistently, and in a way that makes them easy to find, then you’re on the right track.

To discuss document management and metadata in more detail, please reach to us through the form below.

Original Date: 2/22/2013