Synaptica talks with Ian Galloway, Senior IT Management Analyst, Taxonomy and Search, Lowe’s Companies Inc. Based in Mooresville, North Carolina, Ian manages enterprise search and taxonomies across multiple platforms for all digital assets for the company. Lowe’s is a Fortune 500 company that operates a chain of retail home improvement and appliance stores in the USA, Canada, and Mexico with over 2,000 stores and employing over 290,000 people. Lowe’s is the second-largest hardware chain globally and in the USA.
Can you describe your organization?
Galloway: Lowes is a home improvement retail company, a conglomerate of companies. We provide your tools, lumber, windows. All the things you associate with home improvements. Our primary customers are contractors, professionals, as well as the public.
Across the US and Canada, we have close to 2000 stores with a few in Mexico. Acquisitions and mergers are part of our growth as well as developing new channels, online footprint, mobile footprint, and augmented reality (e.g., enabling people to view their home and new furniture through a smartphone app).
We are a very big organization and it’s a different culture to where I have worked previously. For the last few years, Lowe’s has been the largest appliance retailer in the USA. Whilst retail remains a challenging environment, we feel the home improvement sector is one of the exceptions. It’s a more positive space.
Tell us about your experiences in Taxonomy and Search.
Galloway: I joined Lowes in September 2016. Previously, I was with the American Psychology Association (known as the APA) in Washington, D.C. for about 9 years. This was a very different environment, academic based. My role was to manage their controlled vocabularies and thesaurus that was used for indexing scholarly articles in the APA research database. Volume was approximately over 5 million articles. I suspect this is more of the traditional use of taxonomy and thesaurus work. Compared to Lowe’s, it’s a very different world.
With the APA, I was in a building with 500 people. Today with Lowe’s, I am in a building of just over 5000 people. It’s a much larger organization which impacts on the scale of everything; technological capability, budgets, professional development. Here I am very much trying to serve the customers and associates internally to help them support customers.
At the APA we were supporting medical research diagnostic research and behaviour science topics. You are working with much softer concepts and issues that are much harder to point to and measure. In comparison at Lowe’s, a hammer is a hammer, a window is a window, object permanence is structured, straightforward.
The big priority here is how users search for an item, the language being used, the name of an item; the buzz word is metadata management. Hammers are simple but when you are talking about units of measure, or even standardizing different attributes, then it becomes less clear. Is something water repellent or water resistant, or is it waterproof? This ambiguity means we need to try and make the search successful for everybody.
Another major difference between organizations is the speed of change. At Lowe’s, things move quickly. Departments change, focuses and priorities evolve because you are responding to a very competitive market. The APA was the major player in their sector. If you wanted behavioural research of any kind that was the organization where you would go. Lowes has competition with other retailers, Ikea, Amazon, Home Depot, etc. This swiftness of pace means we need to manage big data and metadata reviewing quarterly rather than annually.
Can you describe your role with Lowe’s?
Galloway: I work with a couple of teams. I work with a few people in Bangalore who help on the taxonomy and search side. I am also responsible for the Enterprise Search application as well as Taxonomy Management. I also have a team who are doing the enterprise content taxonomy work and a team focused on product taxonomy work. Currently, we are migrating a lot of this data into Synaptica KMS. As part of my role, I also advise another team regarding online hierarchy. This is display taxonomy you normally see on your left navigation drilling down to a specific product on a website.
When I joined Lowe’s initially various people had been looking at these areas previously so existing work had been undertaken but it was clear I had a big task ahead. There was an impetus for filling a role like mine as taxonomy became a major priority in terms of strategy.
Which Synaptica products are you using and how?
Galloway: We use Synaptica KMS. I am not the only user; my team owns the application plus access. Other teams within the organization use it for support and training. Currently, we use KMS three-fold:
Managing metadata for digital asset management repositories. We control metadata values for any kind of marketing assets, document management, store layout, locations, a lot of authority lists, HR or legal documentation, training videos. One of my first tasks was setting up a good taxonomy metadata model in place for those things based on what already existed.
We also use it to manage dictionaries and synonym rings that help that feed to our enterprise search engine. This is for store associates when they need to look up anything from within the store. This helps with spelling replacement, “did you mean this kind”, or “see also” types of functionality. This internal framework has a lot of information within KMS.
Thirdly my most recent venture has been to be trying to shift our product taxonomy and product hierarchy into KMS. This has been a bit of a task due to the volume of products and the attributes involved; for each one we are looking at 100,000s. I am dealing with the data collection side and need to control values and hierarchies from the vendors who sell us the faucets, hammers, refrigerators. I need to control the attributes they assign to their products for when a customer is surfing online for a product. It’s a big project and it’s going to take awhile.
Galloway: I had used other applications previously with my other roles and my first involvement of Synaptica was on joining Lowe’s. I am no way an expert, but I know enough to get by. It has advantages over other applications I have used. Managing multiple projects is easier and I find reporting is very straightforward.
Another asset is linking between projects drawing maps between data collection point to the display side. Synaptica KMS will help us make a big difference with this work. For future updates, I would like to see improved collaborative reporting, and collaborative team’s updates would be useful.
Tell us more about your KMS preferred features.
Galloway: In comparison to the other tools I have used, the ability to separate projects into task views and manage vocabularies is great even if they are only loosely related. For example, in our current list of task views in our digital asset management system, we use vocabularies divided, broken down into profiles. You can have different types of assets for each profile which are linked by theme or data, delineated anyway you like. We delineate videos from images, product copy or strategy documents, or logo separate from images. These all appear as different profiles within our digital management system.
It made sense to me to manage the controlled vocabularies for each of those profiles separately as it allows for ambiguity. When you talk about packaging, it can mean something very different depending on who you are talking to at Lowe’s. For one team it’s about the images on the package or the text used. For another it’s what is the package made of; cardboard, paper, size and dimensions, weight and storage, how many come on a pallet. Delineating these terms since they don’t need to overlap in a searchable way is helpful. Within KMS I can create several different task views to achieve this.
Do you have any advice for others starting a Taxonomy Management project?
Galloway: I came to the world of taxonomy and vocabulary management from a trial by fire set of circumstances. My approach has always been pragmatic, you need to consider the data, think about the end user and build what works on those two priorities.
When starting a new taxonomy related project, the questions you need to answer are how big is the data? What type of data is it? Who needs to be using? Is it something that searchable by everybody online, or simply a few people, or your Marketing Department?
Taking this approach should inform your strategy and how you are going to handle creating a hierarchy. Is taxonomy the right solution? Do you need thesaurus, ontology or alternatively a list of metadata values?
What are the biggest challenges on the horizon for your industry?
Galloway: Data is getting bigger and bigger at an exponential rate. The data is becoming richer and coming from a variety of sources. We need to solve how to leverage this.
We need to compare with what our competitors are doing. Is the taxonomy helping us to get a competitive advantage to drive traffic just being able to handle the volume of data and the metadata that’s coming – that’s going to be a huge challenge. I am adapting to working at that scale.
At the APA we had a large thesaurus with just under 6,000 preferred terms, 4,000 non-preferred terms. When it comes to talking about customer data and product traffic location data there is way too much out there. We need to figure out how to be good stewards of this information. That’s going to take a lot of flexibility and creative thinking for both the retail space and for those working in knowledge management.
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