Our first Insights interview for 2019 features Gary Carlson, founding partner of Factor based in Seattle. Gary has worked extensively on major enterprise taxonomy, information architecture, and knowledge management projects for over 20 years. He focuses on helping enterprise-level companies boost revenue, increase customer satisfaction, and improve efficiency through well-executed information and knowledge management initiatives.
Gary Carlson has provided solutions for some of the world’s most recognizable brands, including Adobe, Intel, Crate & Barrel, Disney, IBM, Microsoft, REI, Sears and many others. Gary is a frequent speaker at conferences and universities. Gary and the Factor team are working Synaptica KMS to develop an enterprise taxonomy for a multinational Fortune 50 company in the manufacturing sector.
Tell us about you and your experiences?
GC: I joined the information management industry in the mid-90s. Before this, my first working roles were in banking during the 80s and spent a short period based in London. I remember I started a support role on the day of the big stock market crash in 1987. Since 1999, I have pretty much been focused on knowledge management, taxonomies, ontologies and content management working with large enterprises in a variety of forms. I also worked as a product manager and chief taxonomist for a company called SchemaLogic.
For a long time, I have been deep in this space and my experience is shaped by watching companies not just build taxonomies but try and implement them across an enterprise, and the complexities required to make something like this work in those intricate environments. It’s a much different challenge than just building a taxonomy for one system. One of the great things about using Synaptica KMS for a recent major enterprise project is the modelling capabilities which allow us to create something that is going to have the flexibility needed to support major multifaceted environments with many different enterprise systems.
Tell us me more about Factor?
GC: Factor took my experience and expertise in taxonomies and information architecture and combined it with the other founding partner Bram Wessel. Bram had a similar view on solving enterprise problems but from a user experience perspective. We had been working together for a couple of years before we formed Factor. It became clear to both of us that I was able to do much better taxonomy work with the improved understanding of the user’s needs. Bram was also able to deliver a user experience knowing that we were able to design the information that users needed on the backend.
We spend a fair amount of time supporting our key customers directly, working closely with knowledge sharing and supporting our taxonomists and analysts, helping them on their projects. We have about 12 of us on the team and work with a collection of consultants if we need additional expertise and knowledge.
We work for a variety of clients varying from ecommerce work to intranet portal work. We have also project managed in the health care sector. What we find is that there are always unique components for each industry but the general problem always remains the same. The general set of skills that we have and the capabilities that a product like KMS provides is really like this baseline which is valuable across the board.
I also speak at events and conferences to get the word out; talking, meeting and working with clients ensuring we understand what they need and help scope projects for them which are going to get the job done effectively.
Is collaboration important to Factor?
GC: We definitely work with partners and consultants, and workflow goes up and down. Within a small consultancy environment you need a core team to deliver most of our needs plus the agility to expand and retract when needed. Our mix of information architecture and user experience is a big focus for us and a unique capability. Users are interacting and engaging with brands online which means they are not holding products and not touching them physically. We can’t design the information to support these users unless we understand their needs and their goals.
We have definitely worked with partners in the past, and we are very keen to work with the Synaptica team further in the future. For user experience work we have worked closely with some of the major consulting companies. They brought us in to unpick the thorny information architecture challenges they have run into.
Tell us about your experience with Synaptica KMS.
GC: One of our clients, a major manufacturing data centre, was already using Synaptica KMS. The marketing department wanted to know how marketing campaigns were performing digitally. Executives needed to effectively report on data which was hidden. The client recognised they needed to improve how they organize, manage and share information from disparate sources. There were different and varying taxonomies describing the same concepts across multiple systems. The client had more than 19 distinct taxonomies across its 26 marketing systems. We were brought in to assess, plan and solve the challenge and we used KMS to achieve this.
This was exciting. I had been wanting to work with Synaptica and use their products for some time. We had known Dave Clarke for a while and actively looking for the right opportunity to collaborate together on a project. The timing worked out really well. We have been able to really utilize the whole suite of Synaptica KMS capabilities and get to know it comprehensively. As part of this we are working closely with Dave and Jim Sweeney – it’s been a really great working relationship.
With a background as a product manager, I just always love it when I have the opportunity to dig into a product like this and work with the Synaptica team. I have known most of them for a long time. We work with many vendors but our fit with Synaptica works culturally.
The project had some specific challenges, can you explain further?
GC: The project was definitely not straight forward – with multiple marketing systems with taxonomies we had to consider when we were designing the solution. Not all of those systems were connected with Synaptica KMS initially. They were managing things directly with tools without any real oversight at least from an enterprise perspective.
We really needed to understand what the governance needs were going to be and the type of tactical integration needed. We looked at all the taxonomies from all the systems and we rationalized them so we had one master list which we managed within KMS. Once we had the master set up, we then went back to each of those systems and onboarded them. Using the KMS report functionality, to create sub-domains, or versions of each taxonomy, we were able to provide each system with a customized version of the master taxonomy. As a team we really got to push the report capability in KMS. This was a key component of us being able to do what we needed to do for the client.
How long did this rationalization take?
GC: We have been working on the project for almost 2 years now. It took over a year before we were able to push taxonomies back into the source systems. It took about a year to come up with the full model, assessing and rationalizing it all.
One of the great things about the project is we are still working on it. It’s expanded beyond its original scope, and we are bringing on additional systems and web sites. Another outcome has been is that people have been adopting the work we have done without even talking to us. They have seen the taxonomies and said, “we are going to use this in our system”. The work has a life of its own. Synaptica KMS has been significant because it gives us the flexibility that meets all the needs of multiple systems.
Your case study talks about “taxonomy as a service” could you elaborate more about what this means?
GC: There are a couple of parts to it. One of which is just the mindset. We wanted our mutual client to think about the taxonomy as an entity in itself. Provide a service that needed to be managed and maintained just like other services the organization might have. From a technical perspective we want it to be available in multiple formats. People can access via a portal page, downloads, connect via the API – a variety of different ways
People using the taxonomy might not realize there is a system behind it called KMS. Their experience is see the location and view the glossary terms. They don’t have to know or care about the tool they just know that they get their business done quickly and professionally.
You can read the full Factor case study online.
What were your favourite features of KMS?
GC: The flexibility has a number of different components. The first was the powerful modelling environment. We were able to model complex taxonomies. Combine this with the valuable reporting environment drives the flexibility further. We also had the ability to create different views of taxonomies and different subsets based on how it’s been modelled.
This flexibility sets how things move forward in the future. The primary goal for the first round of work was to support real time analytics, ensure the marketing systems were using the same terms and same IDs. When executives had questions, they needed answers quickly. With the tool they were able to do that in real time. Finally, the flexibility of the system means it’s been very easy to incorporate content management in the classification services and meet other needs.
Did anything emerge that was unexpected during the project?
GC: What was great was having a strong project lead to work with. This became an essential part of the process and not something we always have. We had a Senior VP who has been directly involved throughout, watching how we progressed and acting as a project champion.
They made sure that the business case was crystal clear. They ensured the executive team understood everything we were trying to achieve. The client was spending $2billion annually on marketing and needed to see real time solid data on how effective these marketing campgns were.
They didn’t care how we solved the problem – it could have been taxonomies or carrier pigeons. They needed to get access that information. It became clear the taxonomies glue these multiple systems together. Until the project development there was no way to do it.
Going forward the industry needs to share more – how is it that these taxonomies are going to directly support enterprise analytics, omnichannel, digital transformation.
Going forward the industry needs to share more – how is it that these taxonomies are going to directly support enterprise analytics, omnichannel, digital transformation – these elements are a necessary part of it. We are building and designing the information layer for our customers. It’s this information layer that is often forgotten. Customers come to us with a problem. They might need a new system or we need to refresh the website. It’s how the UX needs sit within the multiple systems and their touchpoints. There needs to be an information layer in the middle and that’s exactly what we do as a consultancy and what KMS supports as a tool. We build that information layer.
What do you think makes a good taxonomist?
GC: Someone who has a deep understanding of the practice of taxonomy while at the same time is open to all of the needs that a taxonomy needs to support. For example, we have a 2 day workshop we provide. We go through the whole process of gathering requirements for a taxonomy including the technical, governance, the user goals, user experience, the business goals, and compliance issues. We have a whole suite of assessments we do before we even start designing anything. We need to take into account all of those requirements to build a successful taxonomy.
You also need to understand how the taxonomy project is going to make a difference is it going to help make money or reduce costs. Will the project impact the company’s brand? If you can link between your taxonomy and one of those three things – you are going to have a much better chance of capturing the attention and the imagination of the decision makers.
We spend a lot of time thinking about taxonomy and understanding how concepts are related to each other and different to each other. This perspective provides a pretty unique view on how we categorize things in the world. There is a whole practice and thought process of trying to think a what is a what. There is a paper I am working on the whole ethical component of what we do. As taxonomists we need to be very aware of the ethical decisions we are making when we are describing and categorizing. This is one of the reasons we have developed a rigorous set of assessments to allow us to have more data to make decisions.
What do you think are the major challenges for the sector in the future?
GC: Staying ahead of the wave. When I look at how we discussed taxonomy 15 years ago to now – we couldn’t get anyone’s attention and now we have senior people understanding the value of it. The taxonomy field is going to have to up its game and be able to talk at that executive level whilst also being able to do the heads down technical work that is required. We need to learn to do both.
Realistically taxonomy is normally two or three steps away from the money. We need to draw that line between the work we are doing and the making and saving of money and brand promise.
Who or what inspires you?
GC: The community. I have always been impressed how open and supportive the knowledge management community is. No one takes their work too seriously. This drives me through and keeps me in this field. There are lots of us approaching the work and resolving the problems.
Synaptica Insights is our regular series of case studies sharing stories, news and learning from our customers, partners, influencers and colleagues.