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Traditional Approach to Information Architecture

Building architects must consider the paths that occupants will follow between a building’s functional areas. Information architects must do the same. When doing so, information architects must optimize a variety of different systems and data sources to satisfy their audience’s data retrieval and analysis needs:

The Information Architecture Institute defines Information Architecture as:

1. The structural design of shared information environments.

2. The art and science of organizing and labeling web sites, intranets, online communities and software to support usability and findability.

3. An emerging community of practice focused on bringing principles of design and architecture to the digital landscape.

Traditionally, information architects have been trained to focus on the information systems that they can impact directly. This natural consequence of available technologies led architects to focus their attention on distribution pathways within their organization. This made sense, as a distribution pathway centralizes the control and design of information entry/acquisition and information distribution. In a utopian world, such an approach allows the architect to design workflows, business processes and user interfaces to optimize for insight productivity.

This has led to the creation of a variety of systems in use by different user groups within a typical organization. For example, a CRM (Customer Relationship Management) system is a distribution pathway for information about an organization’s customers or clients. It enables users to edit and interact with the data stored about a given customer.

Users can view and edit individual records of customer data, as well as analyze pre-defined metrics through analytics systems. The information architect designs the use cases for such a distribution pathway, and while some flexibility is built into the system, users are expected to stay within the boundaries of those defined use cases.

Distribution pathways have traditionally been the only means of accessing most structured data: the formalized structure of relational databases naturally lends itself to designing centralized distribution pathways around it. But unstructured content (e.g. documents, e-mails, presentations, web pages, etc.) requires extensive work to access via centralized distribution pathways. This is due to:

• the sheer volume of unstructured content,

• the impossibility of standardization within unstructured content,

• the often indeterminable provenance or credibility of unstructured content.

Information architects have traditionally addressed the challenge of unstructured content dividing it into two large “buckets”:

Centrally-controlled Content – a limited set of “official” unstructured content, managed by content managers, copywriters and various personnel within the organization. This content – because it is under the direct control of a limited number of individuals – is often made available through distribution pathways such as a corporate portal.

Uncontrollable Content – all other unstructured content, which cannot economically be controlled but which may contain valuable information needed by people within the organization.

Centrally-controlled Content can be made available via a distribution pathway. Because a limited number of people control it, its volume, provenance, structure and credibility can be ascertained and taken into account when organizing its distribution (e.g. placing a document into the right section of a corporate portal).

Uncontrollable Content cannot easily be disseminated in this fashion. The only way for such content to be made usable via a distribution pathway is to transition it from uncontrollable to centrally controlled. This is analogous to the categorization work that Yahoo! centrally performed when building and managing its Internet directory in the late 1990’s.

As Yahoo found when categorizing the World Wide Web, organizations are finding that the sheer volume and complexity of their uncontrollable content makes it uneconomical to implement top-down content management across their entire repositories.

Therefore, to make this content accessible to information users, information architects have created a demand pathway using enterprise search. Users can express their needs to an enterprise search system, and the system will attempt to find relevant unstructured content from throughout the organization’s content repositories. This is analogous to how Google’s “bottom-up” approach to Internet search related to Yahoo!’s top-down categorization approach.

While traditional enterprise search systems can provide a viable demand pathway for uncontrollable descriptive structured data, they are unable to provide a demand pathway for uncontrollable analytical data. However, architects seeking to make necessary analytical data available can utilize a new set of tools to accomplish this goal: numerical data search engines.

Numerical data search technology integrates the ease-of-use of enterprise search with the data-manipulation capabilities of business intelligence platforms. The result is a search engine that can automatically access any data from databases, data repositories and operational data marts within your organization, find on-demand information relevant to any user within your organization, and return that data to the user in an accessible and easy-to-use format.

By implementing this type of technology, information architects are able to:

• Satisfy executive demands for insight productivity while still,

• Focusing their human resources on the highest-value initiatives, and;

• Encompassing the complex and varied data their organization must deal with.

Through a judicious combination of distribution pathways and demand pathways, information architects are able to build an IT foundation capable of supporting their organization’s transformation into an innovative, insight-driven competitive powerhouse.

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