posted 3 Nov 2003 in Volume 7 Issue 3
Think globally, act locally
As a global leader in three distinct business segments – insurance brokerage, consulting and insurance underwriting – Aon has a worldwide network of 600 offices in 125 countries. Appointed as project leader to develop a global taxonomy for the company, Annie Wang explains how she has created a common corporate language that enables employees to share business information around the world.
Aon’s fast-paced growth began in 1982 when the Ryan Insurance Group merged with Combined International Corporation. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, strategic acquisitions and organic growth fuelled Aon’s expansion in the global insurance
marketplace. Although Aon has successfully consolidated some of those acquisitions, the battles of streamlining the business among various business segments and countries continues to challenge the corporation.
How it all began
In 2001, the spirit of ‘oneness' in Aon was higher than ever before. The major business units were undergoing the transformation to streamline their business functions. The global practice groups were created to bring deep expertise and knowledge by specific industry and product to clients across organisational boundaries. The corporate knowledge management group, led by Mary Jo Morrison, director of knowledge management, seized these opportunities and identified some major drivers to Aon’s knowledge management:
- The blurring of Aon’s organisational boundaries enables knowledge and
- information sharing across Aon operating organisations;
- Globalisation enables knowledge and information sharing across geographic regions;
- A shift from insurance broking to risk consulting enables knowledge and information sharing across business groups.
With clear and strong business drivers, a series of new knowledge-management initiatives were brought to the front line, including Aon’s global taxonomy development and enterprise-content management. The positions of information architect and director of content management were created to support the KM strategy. Shortly after joining the Aon knowledge group in November 2001, I was appointed as the project leader for the global taxonomy development. With full support from management, I was able to hit the runway immediately.
Where we were to start
The Global Knowledge Exchange is Aon’s global intranet site, buy there are also dozen or more country or business-specific intranet sites, as well as many business applications and databases. In other words, Aon’s corporate information and knowledge exists in many forms. There is no easy way to retrieve content across applications and intranets. Aon corporate information and knowledge has multiple country presentations with multiple languages and distinctive terminologies.
To prepare for the taxonomy project, we conducted a comprehensive analysis of the usage of terminology in the 25 most visible Aon intranets and business applications. The findings indicate that no two sites shared common terminology, though their similarities are obvious. The lack of common terminology in Aon directly undermines the productivity of our employees and the quality of our client services. Some of these negative impacts are:
- Employees spend extra time and effort to locate business-critical information;
- One business group cannot efficiently leverage other groups’ product and industry expertise;
- The company is unable to serve our global clients in a unified way;
- The company reinvents the wheel in the creation of intellectual capital.
It was time for change and it was felt that the creation of a common corporate language was business critical. It was a feasible task because the information delivered by each site shared many commonalities.
Creating Aon’s global taxonomy
Step one: Assign a project team
The project started as a corporate initiative, however it was known that it could not succeed without the buy-in from the businesses. Much of this buy-in would need to come from their knowledge managers and site managers, since they would be the ones most likely to apply the global taxonomy to the websites and other business applications.
After successfully presenting the project idea and preliminary approaches during an Aon intranet workshop in February 2002, a global project team was assembled with help from the knowledge managers and the website managers. The project team had two components: an advisory committee and an expert panel. The advisory committee consists of knowledge managers, web managers and the business sponsors who represent the major business groups. The roles of the advisory committee included:
- Sponsoring the project;
- Communicating the project to, and get buy-in from, business units;
- Helping to set the project scope and direction;
- Identifying members for the expert panel.
The expert panel consisted of the internal experts in the information science, business process and insurance industry. This group was the core team that was responsible for developing the taxonomy. Since team members were scattered in 12 cities and countries, meetings were conducted mainly via conference calls and online discussions.
Step two: Define a scope
In the beginning, because the project team members exhibited strong diversity in terms of the business and the culture, there were many ideas regarding which taxonomy ought to be created. The project grew so large it became clear that phasing the project and setting a realistic scope with a deadline was the most prudent approach.
To define the scope, the group started by understanding the business priorities. Employees who interacted with web content were interviewed to gain knowledge on how they sought the information and how they would use that information. Site managers were interviewed and the Aon intranet sites were surveyed to discover what were the most frequently used meta tags and segmentations. Taxonomy use cases were developed. The last part of the analysis was to determine the readiness of the business to adopt common terminology.
All of this knowledge and data helped the team come to a consensus. A taxonomy framework was created to illustrate the development plan and the global strategy.
The global taxonomy strategy: Develop and maintain a set of preferred terms that grows continually with the business, connects local variations via a thesaurus and provides standardised terminology to facilitate navigation of, and access to, the intellectual capital of Aon Corporation.
The framework outlines the plan for phase one of the project, which is to develop a six-faceted global taxonomy including local preferred terms in a thesaurus. The main use of the taxonomy is to facilitate navigation of Aon’s intellectual capital.
Step three: Develop and refine the taxonomy
Now that a plan had been formulated, the challenge was how to get started. Reviewing the different facets of taxonomy it was agreed that ‘geography' and ‘client industry' should not be Aon specific and that it was best to adopt and leverage the industry standard since it reflect the way in which average users seek information. After some research, the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) was selected as the base for the ‘client industry' component of the taxonomy. The complete NAICS has six levels. Since Aon’s use of the taxonomy does not require such depth of detail, we decided to use only four levels. Using the thesaurus approach, we mapped our internal terms to the NAICS terms so that our employees could seek information using either set.
Unlike ‘client industry', the ‘products/services' taxonomy is much more Aon specific and has to be homegrown. With the surveys and analysis of the existing terminology during the planning stage, a good picture of which product/service names were being used in the Aon world was determined. After talking to product experts, the team had a solid list as the starting point, which was discussed and agreed upon. After consolidating the list, the preferred terms were added to the synonym/variants as well as the hierarchy. When a draft was in place, team members brought the taxonomy back to their business areas to review with the respective business experts. When feedback was returned the team re-grouped and made modifications accordingly. Continued refinement was needed until the team was comfortable with the final result.
Seven months later in September 2002, the six-faceted global taxonomy was delivered as planned. This project took a full-time project leader and about eight hours per month for each of the additional 16 members of our expert panel. This has truly been a global team effort.
Step four: Developing a taxonomy repository
In order to provide multiple views, easy access, and search and browse capabilities of the newly created Aon global taxonomy, a taxonomy-management tool became critical. Aside from providing views and access to the taxonomies, Aon needed the tool to provide administration functionality for managing and updating the taxonomy and serve as the taxonomy data warehouse.
At that time, business teams felt they weren’t ready to commit to an expensive technology solution. With budget constraints, a quick solution within the Lotus Notes application was developed.
The Notes Taxonomy Repository served the needs well for the moment. On the front-end, it satisfies intranet users with a powerful search and an easily browsed view of the taxonomy. On the back end, a flexible administrative function was built to support ongoing taxonomy change management. As business needs progressed, a dynamic feed was added to allow various web applications that use the global taxonomy to pull what was needed.
Many lessons have been learnt during Aon’s journey. Below are a few to highlight:
Form a truly global project team – Assemble a team with representatives from key regions and key business units of the organisation. If it is a global company, ensure the team includes plenty of members with international exposure. The culture perspectives they bring will be enormously useful. The team should mix people who are either product and industry experts or information professionals. Don’t forget to designate a full-time, committed project leader;
- Have a well defined project scope and realistic timelines – Begin the design process with an understanding of the business priorities and decide which taxonomy should be built first based on business readiness. Set your project scope with realistic goals;
- Don’t try to create the taxonomy from scratch – Don’t build if you can buy or borrow. Before building a new taxonomy, conduct detailed analysis of the existing metadata and their usage and use those as the starting point.
- Build flexibility into your taxonomy – Start small, but build a process that allows growth and change. Don’t try to develop an exhaustive, definitive, finished taxonomy – you can never do it. A multi-faceted taxonomy gives you flexibility. Don’t try to mix all subjects in one list. When you need to accommodate local business-specific requirements in a global taxonomy, a thesaurus is the magic word.
Applying a global taxonomy
A taxonomy has no use to a business until it has been used to index organisational information and knowledge, and has been applied in information and knowledge retrieval. Immediately after development, the team began to communicate, educate and promote the global taxonomy. Some of the web applications are beginning to apply the global taxonomy. Among them, the Aon Solution Library and the UK intranet are two overwhelmingly successful cases.
The solutions library is an online tool used by Aon’s sales force to locate information about the products and services that meet specific client needs. The library provides contact information for the appropriate product experts and several sample documents to create presentations that provide the most current and accurate information about the broad spectrum of solutions Aon offers. The library contains searchable product information, as well as supporting documents that the sales force may use when determining which solutions are best for their clients.
The strategy for the solutions library is to have one repository for all Aon solutions that can be viewed at either a regional or global level. Sales executives around the world are able to access product and services information either by client industry, product groups or business units. It is nearly impossible to deliver those business requirements without a common, corporate language. The global taxonomy makes this a reality.
Content entry forms for the UK and the US may look very different, but the content is stored in one repository. The taxonomy terms used in two forms may vary, but the central global taxonomy makes them come together.
The global taxonomy enabled the unified access to global products and services, prevented the duplication of data, and successfully facilitated the navigation of business-critical information across the geographical and business boundaries. End users can view the information in their local terminology.
Aon Limited (the UK subsidiary) is headquartered in London and delivers global services filtered to suit the local market. As well as being the centre for a wide range of specialist services. The UK knowledge-management group, led by John Keeble, director of knowledge management, understands the importance of knowledge sharing worldwide. Working closely with the corporate KM team, this group is always active in global KM initiatives, including the global taxonomy development. Earlier this year, the UK KM team re-designed and re-vamped its intranet, UK Knowledge Exchange. This was an opportunity to move its intranet to a new platform with a commercial content-management system, a metadata-management solution and search engine.
With the urgency to improve its site search and provide timely, accurate retrieval of business critical information, the UK team recognised the value and importance of having a common language across the organisation. While they wanted to adopt the global taxonomy as much as possible, they also needed supplemental elements to reflect the local culture and market.
After reviewing the business requirements, Aon UK and the corporate team decided on a hybrid solution for the intranet, which includes concepts of the global taxonomy, a UK view of the global taxonomy and a UK specific taxonomy.
The global versions of ‘geography and content type' taxonomy were suitable as they were. However, ‘client industry' and ‘products and services' taxonomy needed modifying for the UK specific audience. There are also needs outside of the global taxonomy, such as ‘client issue' that should be created as a local taxonomy independent of the rest. The local specific taxonomy will be managed solely by the UK team.
The subsidiary is Aon’s first business group to implement the metadata solution. The product is based on XML software that streamlines and automates the process of applying the taxonomy. It is hoped that the power of this tool will encourage more business groups to start metatagging and applying the taxonomy.
Lessons learnt from applying the taxonomy
Global taxonomy master vs. local views of global taxonomy – Establish a global taxonomy master but allow the region and business group to have a customised view of the global taxonomy. Use the global UID (unique identifier) as a key to connect all local preferred terms with the global preferred term;
A central taxonomy repository is a must – All the applications that use the taxonomy should be fed by a single source - a central taxonomy repository. Otherwise the ongoing change management and maintenance will be next to impossible;
Taxonomy is a live product; change management is therefore critical – Corporate must continue to refine its taxonomy through testing in live applications, setting a business process and regular schedule for future additions, deletions and any other changes to the taxonomy. It is best to implement a new term submission form to encourage feedback and comments.
Keys to a successful taxonomy project
- Communicate the importance of a global taxonomy to management. Make taxonomy development a priority on the project members’ objectives list. This
- will help shorten your taxonomy development time;
- Have your content-management system architecture in place before committing to a taxonomy-management system. This will prevent the complexity and extra efforts required by the system integration;
- Utilise more commercially available taxonomies, unless the taxonomy is very organisation or business specific, such as ‘products and services'. Developing a corporate taxonomy from scratch is time consuming and expensive, and ongoing maintenance is no small task.
Annie Wang is information architect within Aon Corporation’s knowledge-management group. She can be contacted at email@example.com