Why Microsoft should turn the SharePoint Term Store into the next killer Office application
Microsoft has been progressive in supporting taxonomy and metadata in SharePoint. The Managed Metadata Service was first released as part of SharePoint 2010 and was a dramatic improvement over existing metadata capabilities. For the first time, companies could deploy defined hierarchies of terms with which to tag, filter, and search content. Today, the Managed Metadata Service continues as part of SharePoint 2013, SharePoint 2016 and SharePoint Online. Taxonomy and structured metadata add tremendous value in many Microsoft applications including SharePoint, OneDrive, Delve, Microsoft Teams, Yammer, and Flow.
Despite best attempts over the years to leverage AI and machine learning to organize content, companies are investing in building their own taxonomy and corporate vocabularies more than ever before. Incorporating taxonomy is simply a best practice for information governance.
Has the time come where Managed Metadata has outgrown SharePoint? I'd say yes - it's time for Microsoft to break out the Managed Metadata Service and make it a standalone Office application.
A standalone Managed Metadata Service would enable powerful features across the Office Suite
Separating the Managed Metadata Service from SharePoint would increase the prominence of metadata and taxonomy and make it clear how important metadata is for organizing enterprise information. Separating it would also open the door to do specific metadata integrations with other applications besides SharePoint.
Office 365 is an ecosystem of valuable productivity and collaboration applications. Managed Metadata and taxonomy can be a common thread woven throughout the ecosystem.
For example, an Excel drop down list could be powered by a Term Set in the standalone Managed Metadata Service. This would allow for consistent pick lists across various sheets.
Many WAND customers who are developing an enterprise taxonomy are worried about how they will enforce tagging. Currently the choice is between just manual tagging upon check-in and investing in a third party automatic tagging engine. There is a middle way, I believe. The middle way is a tag suggest feature - I'll call it "Intelligent Tag Suggest". A user creating a Word document could type a term in the body of the document that also appears in the Term Store. Word could then prompt the user that this occurred and ask them if they would like to tag the document with the term. Term descriptions and alternate descriptions could be used to power this "Intelligent Tag Suggest" feature, and the Term Store could be enhanced to allow softer clue terms to be added to each taxonomy concept. "Suggest as Tag" could be a configurable option for each Term Set or each individual term.
Microsoft is already starting to recreate taxonomy management capabilities elsewhere.
Last year, Microsoft released the Azure Data Catalog to general availability. Azure Data Catalog has a Business Glossary feature which replicates many of the features of the Term Store (Read more about Azure Data Catalog at https://docs.microsoft.com/en-us/azure/data-catalog/data-catalog-how-to-business-glossary).
A single Microsoft application that could manage vocabularies across applications makes more sense and would encourage the appropriate re-use of vocabularies across an organization.
Expand the capabilities of the Term Store to make it a more complete taxonomy solution
A few basic features I would advocate for a standalone Term Store would include:
Add support for relationship types between concepts besides Broader Term/Narrower Term
Ontology and taxonomy auditing and governance features - expand the foundation in place with Term Groups.
Connections where appropriate to individual Office applications and settings to support taxonomy within those applications.
Improved import and export support, including support for common XML formats, advanced relationship types, and synonyms.
Metadata Graph: help admins visualize where various concepts and terms sets from the term store are used across the enterprise. This is something that could be added just in SharePoint to add a huge amount of value and help admins map out their metadata models.
A standalone Managed Metadata Service would be a strategic advantage for Microsoft
Besides adding tremendous value to users, a standalone term store with more robust taxonomy and ontology management capabilities would be a huge strategic differentiation and put Microsoft in the driver's seat for expanding its footprint within existing clients. Simply put, taxonomy is a foundation component to a wide variety of enterprise applications.
Taxonomy is sticky. The more deeply taxonomy and Managed Metadata is integrated within the complete Office Suite, the more entrenched Microsoft will be inside an organization. There is no other enterprise software provider with the level of support for taxonomy that Microsoft already has in SharePoint. Companies which have invested in taxonomy won't readily be able to duplicate this if they try to migrate out of Office 365. Any other metadata fields can generally be handled elsewhere but Managed Metadata cannot easily be migrated.
Taxonomy support can and should extend outside of the core Office suite of applications. Business intelligence, big data analytics, search, and ERP applications (Accounting - account ledger categories; Procurement - spend analysis categories and buyer catalog), data catalogs, etc all significantly benefit from taxonomy. With a standalone Managed Metadata Service, users would naturally come to Microsoft's suite of applications because taxonomy would be ready to go. Internal Microsoft development across its suite would no longer need to re-build the wheel and could simply hook into the standalone Managed Metadata Service for each application.
Microsoft should devote resources to adding features to the term store to transform it from a taxonomy management environment to a complete taxonomy and ontology management tool. This investment would drive metadata and tagging throughout and beyond the Office Suite and would facilitate taxonomy re-use for Microsoft's clients.