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4564Re: [TaxoCoP] Taxonomy Disaster Stories

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  • Patrick Lambe
    Mar 31, 2013
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      Here's another anonymous contribution - a lesson in the importance of preserving team continuity on a large and complex project

      Taxonomy in Xanadu

      The project was vast in scale, ambitious, with many stakeholders who
      had many grand visions. Taxonomy was only a small part of the overall
      plan. I joined the project ten years after the project was first
      conceived, which should have served as a warning, but because much of
      those ten years had been spent in proof-of-concept experiments and
      requirements gatherings, and given the vast size of the organisation
      and its democratic culture prone to committees and lengthy debating,
      this did not seem entirely surprising. However, rather like the Greeks
      at Troy, the ten years of planning and minor skirmishes had begun to
      take a political toll. One major attempt to deliver had been scaled
      back at the last minute, many of the original project team had left,
      and I joined at the point of a re-grouping, re-budgeting, and
      re-prioritisation exercise. My role was to find a way of integrating
      existing taxonomies and thesauruses with the new enterprise
      architecture, but I had no direct control over the project budgets and
      no direct voice in any of the overall architectural decisions.

      Nevertheless, at first, all seemed to go well as there was much
      enthusiasm amongst the technical team and the user interface design
      team to create a state of the art search and navigation system. The
      lead technical architect understood taxonomies and taxonomy management
      software and was experienced in delivering intergrated search
      solutions. We worked together on software procurement and data
      migration planning. All went well, the software was acquired and the
      data migrated successfully into the new taxonomy management
      application. All that remained was to link it up to the new search
      engine. However, by this point, other areas of the project were not
      doing so well and the total time and money spent on the overall
      project had become of increasing concern to the key stakeholders, who
      began to question the original vision. Then the technical architect
      left - strike one.

      It was decided that in order to save money, the technical architect
      would not be replaced. The role was passed like a hot potato amongst
      various people who had other full time roles and little experience of
      delivering search systems and eventually was simply left unfilled.
      Meanwhile, a major crisis in an unrelated area of the project had come
      to light and so all resources were diverted away from the search part
      of the system, in order to fight that particular fire. The decision by
      the key stakeholders that search was a lower priority than other
      aspects of the project became politically impossible to reverse -
      strike two.

      The interruption to the work on search led to huge knowledge loss. In
      a downward spiral of diminishing resources and stakeholder pressure to
      cut costs, the data analysts and most of the business analysts who had
      overseen the data migration into the search and taxonomy system left.
      Almost all of the UI design team left. Most of the technical team,
      including the programmers, left. Only once the other aspects of the
      project had been brought under control were we able to return to the
      completion of the search system. However, by this time the loss of
      staff had been so great that not only was there no-one on the
      technical team who knew what they needed to do to deliver a complete
      search system, but no-one was left who could understand the code that
      had already been written nor the scant documentation that had been
      left behind. There was no money remaining in the budget to re-hire any
      of the original technical team or bring in any new search and taxonomy
      technicians - strike three.

      I hope that we can find the money and the technical knowledge to
      complete the project, as so much of the work that has already been
      done was sound. However, I fear that once the “Person from Porlock”
      breaks the flow of such a project, the vision and the knowledge
      disappear like a dream forever.

      The End

      Patrick Lambe
      Tel: +65 62210383

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