Now Is The Time: Perspectives on the challenges and value of metadata

This is part one in a three-piece blog series CCC is producing with a primary focus around metadata strategy, management and implementation.  We will examine the value of metadata to an organization, some common pitfalls that challenge metadata management efforts, and then wrap up with a look at some of the implications for metadata that the future may bring. In this first piece, we focus on understanding the value of metadata to a well-functioning publishing house.

There is a popular, although perhaps apocryphal, Chinese proverb about success and growth in the future that says “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second-best time is now.”  If we in the digital publishing industry are effectively the arborists of metadata, the caretakers and those that are planting the seeds that grow into the generation of knowledge in the digital age, the time is now to stop, reflect and improve our entire relationship with metadata management. The parties affected by metadata strategy execution (or lack thereof) span a number of roles – or, as we now see them sometimes referred to, “personas” – at contemporary publishing organizations.  Three primary examples of those personas among those not traditionally considered “techie”:  Product management staff should be able to rely on quality metadata assets to improve functionalities and gain valuable user behavior information. Editorial leaders should have a key role in defining their organization’s data model and governance in order to support streamlining operational workflows and maximizing efficiency.  And OA managers need a flexible and reliable data strategy to respond to new mandates such as those entailed in Plan S.  Considered in the aggregate, the disparate needs of these publishing personnel require designated colleagues and industry expertise to provide effective data strategy and stewardship.  The result is implementing an overall metadata roadmap and strategy, with goals to ensure both current and future company-wide endeavors are supported in a planful, efficient manner that creates new business value.

Recently we’ve seen significant cooperative efforts to bring together voices and perspectives from over 100 organizations across the publishing ecosphere.  Among them consensus exists that the benefits of proper metadata management are clear:

  • Increased user experience, discovery, use and re-use
  • Maximization of existing content and assets to bring new products to market faster
  • Faster development of product features resulting in new paths to revenue
  • Preparedness for future endeavors and product enhancement
  • Data Model flexibility to capture unanticipated opportunity
  • Optimization of workflows and greater internal business intelligence
  • Interoperability of metadata with 3rd party services and products

What has led to this renewed focus on the value of metadata? 

Looking back over previous decades, there has been a persistent misalignment of goals and priorities around metadata strategy in many publishing houses.  Poor data strategy as well as inconsistent, inaccurate or unusable metadata have had significant negative implications on the discoverability, impact, and enrichment of content.  Ineffective metadata practices often prevented those organizations from making data-driven decisions, hid opportunities from decision-makers, and challenged product feature development —all leading to a negatively impacted user experience.

In those times, identifying, organizing and managing metadata as a company asset separate from the content it describes was often seen by proponents as a “hard sell” when positioned as a long-term investment. Typically seen as ancillary to core services and products, decisions about metadata were often tactical rather than being based on a core set of principles, metadata strategy and proper management.  Many times in the past, in response to significant metadata quality concerns, monolithic projects to “clean the metadata” were often seen as extraneous and costly activities or pushed off into the future as secondary to what appeared to be more pressing business needs.  In contrast, contemporary organizations seeking a competitive advantage are now thinking about their metadata practices differently and with a fresh perspective.

In my view, metadata will be core to overall success in a publisher’s efforts to address challenging questions such as:

  • How will products and content need to be semantically enriched to deliver maximum value?
  • How can existing assets be better leveraged by using metadata to increase business insight and develop product roadmaps?
  • How can I deliver content that is adaptable to technology changes and discoverable beyond keyword search to ensure maximum reach across all digital channels?
  • What strategic metadata planning should we undertake to better set ourselves up for future success?
  • What metadata should be captured to support better decisions about the direction a product or service could take?
  • How should metadata be governed and managed within an organization?
  • How can one prepare to support industry movements such as funding mandates for OA which will rely on licensing metadata?

In this first blog, we have looked at some high-level concepts around an increased weight on the value and management of metadata.  Without clearly considering the quality and management of underlying metadata, it becomes increasingly difficult to improve an enterprise’s internal performance on business intelligence, workflows and team collaboration. At the same time, the enterprise’s customer performance will also suffer:  steep challenges will arise in the ability to improve user experiences, content discoverability, accessibility and reuse. Or (and perhaps worse from a competitive perspective) a publisher’s legacy procedures will be rapidly outpaced by its competitors’ more agile metadata-forward product designs.  In our next posting, we’ll dive into some common pitfalls in metadata strategy and management, their repercussions and examples of how proper metadata strategy can answer some of the core questions asked above.


Author: David Schott

David Schott is the Senior Manager of Data Engineering at Copyright Clearance Center and has been working with bibliographic metadata for over 15 years. He has held roles related to building data systems supporting transformation, normalization and large-scale data augmentation. During his career, David has also led many business efforts in analyzing how emerging publishing industry trends manifest in technical workflows, data formats and bibliographic standards.
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