How to Develop a Metadata Strategy
Jesse Wilkins

By: Jesse Wilkins on March 11th, 2021

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How to Develop a Metadata Strategy


What’s the Importance of a Metadata Strategy?

Many organizations use metadata in ways that provide significant business value. Every system uses metadata to store and retrieve data. But in too many organizations, every system uses similar but different metadata, with the result that different data structures and approaches make information harder to find and manage, not easier. Take a simple example of an employee name:

In one system, it’s “first name last name.”

In another, it’s “last name, (comma) first name.”

And in still another, it’s two fields: “First name” and “Last name.”

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To avoid this, organizations should develop a metadata strategy. The goal of this strategy is to identify and define how metadata will be defined, captured, and managed across systems and processes, such that for any given concept, the metadata used to describe it is used consistently throughout the organization. This will improve findability and the ability to manage content over time; it also helps with emergent processes for discovery and automated management of information using analytics.

How to Identify Metadata

Ideally, the metadata design for an organization is based on a structured methodology and approach. However, to get a better idea of how to identify metadata, here are a few high-level guidelines.

  • Different information about a document is available as a document moves through a business process. Based on the content types already identified, determine what is, or should be, available to users to help them find that content. In other words, what do people know at each step of the work process when they retrieve documents?

  • Retrieval of the same content type may be different at different points. For example, you may retrieve a client document based on a client identification number early on but prefer to use the client’s name when you become more familiar with the client.

  • An “ideal” scenario might include different requirements compared to an “as-is” scenario. Don’t just recreate the current way information is retrieved. Create an “ideal” scenario. You may know how to retrieve information based on how the current folder system is set up, but that does not mean that is always the best way.

In general, when you create content, you will think about what you created rather than how someone else will want to retrieve it in the future. It’s important to keep both needs in mind in order to avoid costly rework later.

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Three Steps to Determine Metadata

  • Step 1: Identify Retrieval Requirements Shared Among Departments: Identify documents and metadata that are shared among workgroups or departments. Make lists and content types consistent as much as possible. A record used in payroll – for example, an expense report – may be shared with human resources or accounting. But each department may have unique needs or ways to retrieve that record. It can be tempting to make sure all possible scenarios and exceptions are covered when designing metadata. Some exceptions can occur so infrequently that spending time entering properties for the column may not add value.

    Pay attention to the time it will take you to enter metadata values. If there are too many properties to fill in, your users may try to circumvent the data entry step, or store the documents elsewhere. If you don’t want to fill in the data, no one else will either, so consider prioritizing and reducing what metadata is required to what is essential.

  • Step 2: Analyze Existing Filing Structures: Paper documents in file cabinets, existing databases, etc. – since these likely have worked for you in the past.

  • Step 3: Align with Enterprise Data Dictionary (If Necessary): Identify metadata types and formats, such as date, number, or text, and align with an enterprise data dictionary. An enterprise data dictionary is a definition of data, formats, and data relationships within the organization.

Include metadata requirements that may result from system needs as well human needs, such as workflow or integration with other line of business applications.

Putting it All Together

Now that we know why metadata is important to our business, how to identify it, and what steps we need to take to determine it. What’s next? From here, you’ll want to develop your metadata model.

If you’re now asking, “Wait, what’s a metadata model?” – stay tuned. We’ll cover that in our next post.

In the meantime, I’ll leave you with this to ponder about metadata models. Remember our “name” example from earlier in this post where each system had a different format? The inconsistency of the fields gets in the way of realizing the true value of this information.

The metadata model will address this issue by providing the consistency needed to fully leverage metadata and your business information.

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