While many people may think taxonomies are mostly the topic of a boring 11th grade biology class lecture in which they dozed off, they're missing out on something that can bring great value to the business. Just ask The Hartford, which recently underwent a major initiative to modernize and unify their document repositories, but recognized that in order to maximize its benefit to the business, taxonomies needed to be incorporated into the plan.

According to Seth Earley, president of Earley & Associates Inc., which the Hartford, Conn.-based insurer contracted to assist with its plan, an enterprise taxonomy is a system for organizing and classifying information that can be applied to content management systems, document management systems, workflow systems, transaction processing and business process management applications, among others. The creation of a taxonomy is especially important when it comes to integrating information, as it provides a common language for describing information and consistent organizing principles.

"Taxonomy also is, to me, an understanding of information, a documentation of that understanding and then the application of that information," says Seth Maislin, taxonomist for the Concord, Mass. consultant. "Having a taxonomy means that you understand content, the context of how it's used, the relationships, the language; and it can be applied to documents and document sharing, search, the Web and processes."

Where taxonomy really comes into play for carriers is in the areas of findability, and making information more useful to individuals. "There's all kinds of improvements around Web site applications," Earley adds. "Insurance companies also can improve claims processing with the aid of taxonomy, as a claims processor can more quickly find answers, or a policy, procedure or guideline for customer service reps to process a claim when customers call. In this case, it improves the customer experience as well."


The original plan for The Hartford was to move about 200 million documents into a new Documentum repository from EMC Corp., Hopkinton, Mass, but the insurer quickly realized after initial discussions that the transition was a prime opportunity to not just shift the existing metadata structure to a new place, but also to rethink how those documents were classified and organized.

"Everybody agreed the creation of an enterprisewide taxonomy would be the right thing to do, and we sold that to senior management," says Jeff Auker, AVP, eCommerce for The Hartford, Personal Lines, and the point person for the project. "They were sold on building a structure for the long run that showed a real commitment to doing things from a more shared-service, enterprise point of view."

After determining that taxonomy creation wasn't something that could be done in-house, The Hartford issued a quick, wide-ranging RFP that eventually led Auker to Earley & Associates.

Auker says he charged the consulting firm with two tasks: First, to set up a broad, universal taxonomic framework with about a dozen facets that would be applicable to any document The Hartford would use in its property/casualty business. The next was to assume control of the document migrations already in-flight, and apply that broad taxonomy to a particular set of documents-basically, do a deep-dive to refine the associated categories and metadata, which would help develop the search and access interfaces.

In order to construct the universal taxonomy, Earley & Associates conducted interviews with everyone from the executives who owned the processes (to define what is it they wanted to do with the documents) to the actual users in the field (to describe what is actually done with the documents). From there, the document bases were scanned to extract the metadata, and that information was used to create and manage the taxonomy.


One of the major challenges at the time, Maislin says, was in dealing with the documents the underwriters needed to create/receive in order to activate/maintain a policy.

The Hartford's original system used the terms "template" (meaning all outgoing documents) and "attachment" (meaning all incoming documents) to classify its underwriting documents, but of those 18 million documents, 14 million were just lumped in a folder labeled "other."

"Over time, people got away from using the existing classification system, and just threw everything into a big bucket, so no organization took place," Maislin explains. "When it came time to identify what something was, you'd have to talk to the underwriters and customer service, who had to review a huge number of documents on a policy in order find something relevant - they looked at docs by their dates, hoping they could guess, based when the document was written, if it was the right one. So to remedy this, we created a structure to map the documents that would make sense based on what the underwriters needed."

Maislin and Auker collaborated to devise a system that created a set of different categories to deal with the "templates." The system was primarily crafted around the various stages of the underwriting process, which they felt made the most sense as a way to organize the content. The "attachments" were, in turn, categorized as soon as they arrived.

"To create the guidelines just for the movement of documents took about three months," Maislin says. "This also was challenging because we were creating the taxonomy at the same time the documents were being moved. In an ideal world, this would be started much sooner. We were trying to do everything at once."

Auker says the initial collaboration was a 12-week engagement, where he saw the first cut of the broad taxonomy after about four weeks. The refined taxonomy was the last thing delivered, and went through various iterations along the way.

Additional engagements were contracted for other document migrations. The Hartford also hired Maislin to provide consulting services for almost a year. During that time, Maislin spread the word about taxonomy through the company, set up a governance council and tried to create rules for an enterprisewide taxonomy before a full-time taxonomist was hired.

In the year or so since Maislin's departure and the hiring of its own taxonomist, The Hartford has pondered purchasing a comprehensive taxonomy management tool that would control the relationships, categories and language of the metadata.

This technology would further enhance their realization of the benefits of their taxonomy, but pending further discussion, it is simply managed in a Microsoft Excel file.


While Auker says the company hasn't tried to specifically categorize the virtues of its taxonomy work (management sees it as foundational), it definitely has improved document accessibility and searchability for all the documents shifted into Documentum.

"It's also allowed us to talk more seriously about enterprise search," he says, "because we now have the foundation in place."

Maislin finds that once The Hartford had the taxonomy set up, they could speed tasks, such as underwriting, because the documents can be quickly organized and analyzed. This, he says, accounts for why he began his work with the underwriting documents, as it was taking too long to underwrite policies, and the underwriters couldn't navigate the maze of unclassified documents.

So, while the ROI may not be as easily classifiable as the terms tagged in the taxonomy, both Earley & Associates and Auker believe that the time saved in searches, improvements to user interfaces and general understanding and dissemination of information make it of great value to the organization.

(c) 2008 Insurance Networking News and SourceMedia, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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