August 11, 2023

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What is metadata, and why is it important?

Metadata is the foundation for working smarter, not harder.

Morgan Kent Molden

Morgan Kent Molden

Digital Content Marketing Specialist

The information systems we interact with each day are full of data and metadata. From our smartphones and cars to our email systems and enterprise content — it’s data, data everywhere in today’s information-rich world.

But are all those data points useful? Unless your organization can take actionable steps using the data or draw meaningful insights from putting the data into context, all your data isn’t helpful. To meet those parameters, whatever information system you’re using, you need metadata.

What is metadata?

Metadata, which is data about data, uses descriptors about your content or asset to group it into similar clusters. Metadata brings the context of your content into focus and allows you to find the content quickly.

Metadata turns information into an asset, according to Gartner, and it’s critical that metadata is managed consistently to capitalize on the value of the original content.

Classifying types of metadata

There are three types of metadata recognized by most institutions:

1. Administrative metadata: Helps manage the resource better and includes things like creation metadata and preservation metadata

2. Descriptive metadata: Helps users find the resource quickly and easily and includes things like title, author, version number, descriptions and abstracts

3. Structural metadata: Helps provide structure, such as page numbers or chapters

Why is metadata important?

Metadata is important because it gives context to your content, which allows organizations to take quick, high-quality action and draw meaningful insight from their assets.

With best-practice metadata protocols and execution, organizations get important benefits, including:

  • Immediate capture of content at the source of entry to your organization
  • Automated metadata assignments that use consistent naming taxonomies
  • Enhanced speed and accessibility in finding the right content when needed
  • Decreased waste of resources, from search time to recreating assets or content that already exists

Metadata is an increasingly important part of compliance in many industries. For example, the U.S. federal government, in its NARA M-23-07 mandate, stipulated that all federal agencies must “ensure that all federal records are created, retained and managed in electronic formats, with appropriate metadata.”

Metadata at an enterprise scale

Metadata is the connection that binds enterprise content to enterprise business intelligence. When a content management system has robust metadata capabilities, it can bring together data, content, processes and even the management of those processes.

5 ways metadata improves business processes

With flexible and thorough metadata capture processes, organizations can use their content for more than just supporting business processes — they can actually drive business processes.

With a metadata-powered content services platform (CSP), organizations can leverage the content and metadata in their system to represent, manage and even process units of work.

1. Metadata groups your related content

An invoice number is just one piece of metadata from the invoice. The invoice number can be used to locate the invoice, but when metadata is automatically assigned to the invoice and grouped in context with the invoice number, the invoice number can also help locate the purchase order, packing slip, payment, correspondence and other content associated with the transaction.

This enhanced smart findability allows users to see related records together. Shared metadata types can retrieve all the content associated with a transaction and group it in a user interface so people can examine each piece of information as they process the payment.

2. Metadata can help with workflow management

Transactional information, such as the person or role responsible for the status of an invoice, can be stored as metadata. Supervisors can use this metadata to monitor assignments and find where work is accumulating. Automated processing can also use it to distribute work and even load-balance by any number of criteria — all by reading and updating transactional metadata.

3. Metadata can be used for processing control

Let’s say invoices don’t require VP approval for amounts under $500 but do require it for larger amounts. An automated process can use the metadata type for “Amount” to evaluate this rule and route work to the appropriate people. Additionally, a “State” metadata type might be crucial for an insurance company’s processes because regulations vary among states.

4. Metadata can help with compliance

As metadata is created and updated, your CSP should create an audit trail that shows where the business transaction has been, when it arrived and who put it there. When an organization needs to design processes that support compliance with regulatory requirements (HIPAA, Sarbanes-Oxley and even the FDA), this audit trail becomes essential.

5. Metadata can generate and activate business intelligence

Reporting and business intelligence tools can query and summarize metadata, collecting information for analysis.

How many invoices were paid this month or sent out for a specific business unit? What was the total amount spent with a particular supplier? What is the growth against the same quarter for last year?

When the full range of metadata values is available for querying, this robust set of data can show you things about your business, processes and service that you only suspected — or didn’t suspect at all.

Examples of metadata in action

Metadata in our everyday life

An everyday example of metadata being used is email.

Your email application captures and stores details about the email (the data) you receive in your inbox — who sent it, on what date and time, whether there is an attachment — and stores those pieces of information about your data. This metadata about your email isn’t the content of your email but rather the data pieces about the email.

You can search your email for a specific communication that came from a specific person because the application has used metadata to group all emails from the same sender into an easily searchable group.

It’s an example of how metadata can help you function better by adding structure to your content beyond just storing the original data.

Metadata as part of an enterprise content management strategy

Organizations have way too much content to rely on manual scanning, as we do with email, to find the right piece of data.

To capture, preserve, secure, find and use the enterprise content we care about, leveraging a CSP solution that utilizes metadata can help bring usability and context to your data.

See this story of the 32 T-shirts: A holding company that manages several well-known clothing brands underwent an audit of its digital assets. The audit found that a lack of proper metadata collection and assignment had caused:

  • Multiple groups enterprise-wide to photograph the same basic white T-shirt
  • The same T-shirt being photographed multiple times a year
  • Imagery that already existed was being created over and over

The fix: The company started using artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) tools to extract information from images at the source and assign consistent metadata to all images. This reconstruction of its processes included a content services upgrade, which tore down silos across the enterprise.

Using metadata to give your enterprise content context

When making decisions about what metadata to capture, consider that data captured today could be used tomorrow in ways we might not think of now. As requirements and other systems change, different metadata will be available or needed for capture.

For future flexibility, you should:

  • Automatically capture as much metadata as possible when content is ingested
  • Make the metadata consistent for each type of content
  • Update the metadata when new data sources become available and/or relevant

The question is not if metadata configurations will change. The questions are how often, and what will it cost to change them.

Hyland offers leading metadata-powered content management

You should put your metadata — and your content — into context and into action, and we can help. Hyland is a leading provider of content services and offers several products to help customers like you.