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Ten taxonomy myths
Taxonomies have recently emerged from the quiet backwaters of biology, book indexing, and library science into the corporate limelight. They are supposed to be the silver bullets that will help users find the needle in the intranet haystack, reduce "friction" in electronic commerce, facilitate scientific research, and promote global collaboration. But before this can happen, practitioners need to dispel the myths and confusion, created in part by the multi-disciplinary nature of the task and the hype surrounding content management technologies.
What is a "taxonomy?"
In our view, the "things" (objects) to be organized can be biological organisms, abstract concepts, products and services, geographic regions, and even people. The "groups" (categories) can be expressed as A - Z indexes, thesauri, topic hierarchies, tables of contents, advanced search forms, and other navigation tools.
1. Business processes. Geographic taxonomies often conform to sales territories. Product taxonomies originate in manufacturing processes.
2. Budgeting and managing. Budget categories reflect how the company intends to invest its resources. Organization categories reflect deployment of human and physical resources.
3. Strategic planning. Categories for concepts relating to future challenges and opportunities reflect the company's world view -- what business are we in, who are our current and future competitors, what technologies hold the most opportunity, who are our most profitable customers?
The implication is that business taxonomies are often parochial (designed for a single task or process) and overlapping. A taxonomy for the sales function in one company is unlikely to work in another company even in the same industry.
These constraints are neither necessary nor desirable in a taxonomy application, where it is often necessary to accommodate the needs of multiple user groups or, at minimum, the different information-seeking behaviors of people in a single user group.
1. As fields and values in a general purpose relational database.
2. As parameters in a proprietary application program.
3. As metadata in published reports, manuals, or presentations.
In all cases, but especially in published documents, important taxonomic data can be missing or incorrect because the data entry clerk or the author was sloppy, poorly trained, or both.
Unfortunately, most corporate taxonomy development projects begin at the wrong end of the information lifecycle. Instead of tackling the problem at its source -- content creation -- the effort is invested in classifying documents in an existing repository with all its warts. The result is classified mush -- search results with no titles, erroneous publication dates, gibberish descriptions, and too many matching items.
But how can taxonomies be used to help find experts? Three common approaches are:
1. Categorize e-mail. Use an auto-categorization program to scan e-mail messages and discussion list postings.
2. Expertise database. Develop an expertise database where employees enter a profile of their skills and experience.
3. Documents as "information artifacts." Publish and categorize key documents prepared by departmental experts. Attach relevant metadata to each document -- author contact information, content owner (departmental publisher), publication date, topics.
The third strategy is probably the most cost-effective as long as you're willing to invest in creating quality information in the first place. Not only does the document help identify the expert, but it provides key details that help other employees evaluate his (her) suitability for a task.
If human beings are the primary taxonomy users, integration can be "loose," consisting of web-like structures where links point to a variety of resource types (including people). Technical compatibility (i.e. same hardware/software platform) is not necessary, and ambiguity is tolerated to promote discovery. Examples are online magazines and journals, which include links to authors, related articles, topical collections, cited sources, and often an annual A - Z index.
A better approach involves the following alternatives:
1. Use a hybrid budgeting approach that re-allocates resources to the department or division level. Invest centrally in standards, infrastructure, thesauri, and training materials. Invest locally in content creation and selection, specialized taxonomies, training, and application development.
2. Focus on improving the quality of content -- more meaningful titles, better structured documents, accurate metadata, and links to contact information.
3. Use editors and subject matter experts to select the highest quality and most relevant articles for external audiences (i.e. readers outside the department) to minimize the total number of documents available.
4. Include "informal" communication formats such as e-mail, interviews, and discussion groups in the content corpus.
5. To minimize costs associated with changing vendors, use a general purpose relational database such as Oracle, SQL Server, or Filemaker to store the taxonomy structure.
Cost effective taxonomy development requires the active participation of many specialties, including IT staff, corporate librarians, departmental publishers, commercial information providers, and international standards bodies. The myths represent conceptual and communication gaps that can impede effective collaboration.Created on l Updated on January 7, 2012