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Your Employees Need a Common Vocabulary — A Good Taxonomy Helps

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Before teams across your company begin simultaneously to come up with competing classification systems, do yourself a favor by developing a taxonomy first. It can go a long way in becoming a reliable reference. [Carol Yepes / Getty Images]

What terms should your company use and how do you classify them? A taxonomy helps your team get on the same page with product messaging, customer outreach, and more.

In a recent conversation with my retired cousin, I noticed she still referred to tech companies as “dot-coms.” It’s a common perception, but the industry has moved beyond websites to apps, devices, the cloud, and more. The umbrella term has moved to “tech,” short for technology. She hasn’t used “dot-com” since. 

While my cousin quickly adjusted and added “tech” to her lexicon, I noticed how many of us on Salesforce’s marketing and sales teams aren’t as nimble. Some of us use the terms “tech” or “technology” and some use “high tech.” And that’s just in two divisions of a company with 75,000 employees. 

How you speak internally dictates how you speak about yourselves to customers. We never want to send mixed messages, and using a common language helps prevent that. But it goes deeper.

Imagine your company has individual departments that generate content around sales, support, technical documentation, training, and pricing. Now imagine if each department used a different name for industries or products at the company. Sometimes it could be a difference as slight as “Media and Communications” versus “Media & Communications.” It sounds almost identical, but that ampersand really makes a difference when you’re trying to find content or data in different systems. 

What is a taxonomy?

Our Taxonomy team guides groups across the company on which terms to use and how to use them when classifying their content. That classification system is called a taxonomy, or in some applications, a controlled vocabulary. Taxonomy terms are considered metadata. In other words, they aren’t visible publicly but work behind the scenes to organize content.

This article, for example, has the taxonomy term of “data culture” applied to it because we are talking about data. If you want to find more blog articles around data culture, just select the button atop this article that says “Data Culture.”

What is a corporate taxonomy?

A taxonomy is a collection of terms or tags to organize information. A business uses a taxonomy to classify its content. This makes it much easier to search for the right documents and files.

How a common language benefits companies

Establishing classification systems is a luxury for many companies. I often meet fellow employees who had established their own taxonomies out of necessity before learning that our taxonomy team addressed this exact pain point. The downside to creating classification systems in a vacuum, however, is the bespoke systems suit their needs only. When you’re a growing company, it can be hard to apply the brakes and implement a methodical way to classify data. And while we have great governance for our customer data, there is still much work to be done elsewhere. 

Before teams across your company begin simultaneously to come up with similar classification systems, do yourself a favor by developing a taxonomy first. 

Deciding between “high tech” and “technology” might seem like splitting hairs, but it’s more important than one might think and it needs to happen. In the more than eight years I’ve been at Salesforce, the company has grown from 17,000 to 75,000 employees. Imagine if employees had no official point of reference for the most commonly used terms. It would be like having no interpreters at the United Nations.  

Before teams across your company begin simultaneously to come up with competing classification systems, do yourself a favor by developing a taxonomy first. It can go a long way in becoming a reliable reference. While we work closely with our data governance teams, our Taxonomy team has really helped move the needle in getting our company to speak the same language.

How to get started developing your taxonomy

Here are some steps you can take to implement a taxonomy system across your company:

Get executive support: Our chief marketing officer understands the benefit of having one taxonomy for content across the company. She asks our content creators to apply a core set of terms to their content for use in our digital experience. We’ve worked hard to agree on uniformly classifying our products, industries, business sizes, roles, and topics.

Enforce guidelines: People will want to add to or change your taxonomy from day one, so make sure you have a policy that ensures changes are for the greater good. I’ve learned that changing the taxonomy for individual cases quickly makes things unwieldy. Many coworkers want their taxonomy to do what metadata should. A taxonomy can’t be everything to everybody, that’s where data governance comes into play.

Understand your colleagues’ classification systems: My colleagues often create their classification categories in a vacuum because they need to. But it’s important to adapt to our company-wide system, and they’re usually relieved to discover another team has already done the work for them.

Use outside lists wherever possible: There are many industry-accepted standards, such as ISO Country Codes and SIC Industry Codes. Why reinvent the wheel? Straying from sources like this is just making more work for yourself.

Broadcast loudly and frequently: Many colleagues come to us through word of mouth, but the responsibility to evangelize belongs to our team. We have a series of short videos that explain what a taxonomy is and does. We demonstrate how it is used for our digital experience, and show how other teams use it.

Get to the kernel: Find the right experts for your classification categories. They may be in multiple departments so you might have to knock on a few doors. Make sure that the buck stops with that person/group and they are the authority on that subject.

Don’t wait until it’s too late to create a taxonomy system. Otherwise, you’ll have a lot of catching up to do. But remember that a taxonomy is a living document and will change as your company does. That’s a good thing.

See taxonomies in action

A taxonomy is the most successful way for companies to tailor messages and recommendations for, among others, products to buy or movies you might want to watch.

Arthur Patterson Director Global Taxonomy

Arthur is Salesforce's lead taxonomist. His team works with stakeholders across the company to better classify their content so it can be discovered and used in multiple destinations.

More by Arthur

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