Organising Knowledge was a challenging book to write, because it is the first book I know of on taxonomy development that is explicitly aimed at practising knowledge managers. Much of the really good work out there comes out of library science or information studies referring to a much more generalised setting than those encountered by the knowledge manager – who typically works in organisations that are seeking pragmatic solutions to their information and knowledge needs centering on work-oriented documents, not publications. So there were no real precedents to rely on.
In writing the book, my intention was to frame the role of taxonomy work inside the larger knowledge management agenda. Hence, as far as I know, this is also the first taxonomy book that combines a practical guide to taxonomy development with a broader explanation of how taxonomy work contributes to knowledge management in a variety of ways.
As I worked on the book, I also realised increasingly that taxonomy work is not just useful in supporting information retrieval (which is the popular starting point for taxonomy projects), but as a key tool for supporting organisation effectiveness, expecially in supporting coordination across organisation boundaries.
I have tried hard to communicate a tricky subject in a clear, accessible style, and have been fortunate in people’s willingness to contribute detailed case studies to support the arguments I make here. A final chapter looks at where taxonomies sit in relation to folksonomies and ontologies. In this book, I hope, taxonomy work finally enters the knowledge management mainstream. If you buy the book, let me know what you think!
See inside the book:
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Defining our terms
Chapter 2: Taxonomies can take many forms
Chapter 3: Taxonomies and infrastructure for organisation effectiveness
Chapter 4: Taxonomies and activities for organisation effectiveness
Chapter 5: Taxonomies and knowledge management
Chapter 6: What do we want our taxonomies to do?
Chapter 7: Preparing for a taxonomy project
Chapter 8: Designing your taxonomy
Chapter 9: Implementing your taxonomy
Chapter 10: The future of taxonomy work
Visit the publisher’s website (Chandos UK)
RESPONSES AND REVIEWS
Lots have people have reviewed and commented on the book, Here’s my favourite, from Kim Sbarcea: “Patrick has brought sexy back to taxonomies!”
For more reviewers’ comments, you’ll find a compilation here.
Piggy Flu - What’s in a Name?
A witty, sharp and very timely article by Anjana Ahuja in the Times Online about the tussle between politics and precision in the naming and taxonomy of things, and how very high precision (especially in science) almost always comes at the cost of general understanding.
Where Have all the Taxonomists Gone?
Taxonomy professionals in the information sciences often look to their forebears in biological taxonomy as role models in a pantheon of correctness. They are held up as the paradigms of descriptive truth and pure taxonomic principles. Scratch beneath the surface of what’s happening in the world of biological taxonomy, however, and you will find cabals, cliques, methodological debates and heresies, and a great deal of stress and uncertainty about the discipline of taxonomy itself.
A year ago I blogged a report from Australia about the endangered status of (biological) taxonomists in Australia. It seems from a recent article by Bob Grant in The Scientist magazine that the problem is widespread. That turns out to be a problem not just for taxonomists but also for the whole biological sustainability movement, because tracking and ameliorating the collapse of ecosystems requires the ability to accurately describe and study organisms and their roles in the ecosystems. Taxonomy plays a cornerstone role in this. The problem is:
”...there are fewer and fewer biologists who practice traditional taxonomy, or the collection, description, naming and categorization of organisms through intense study of their physical attributes. In general, the field of taxonomy, or systematics as it is often called, has been leaning towards the molecular end of the spectrum since genetic technology matured in the late 1970s and 1980s, and traditional taxonomic skills have been dwindling as older taxonomic experts retire. Many taxonomists blend traditional methods, such as morphological and behavioral study, with modern molecular techniques, such as DNA sequencing, to fully characterize their pet taxa. But taxonomists like Cognato and Hulcr, who rely on fieldwork and morphological study as core aspects of their taxonomic work, appear to be slowly going extinct.”
Biological taxonomy as a discipline is under severe stress because traditional descriptive (morphological) methods of discriminating species and creating family trees has been largely supplanted by the quick-fix “barcoding” method of reading sample sections of DNA sequences and coming up with a unique identification “genetic barcode”. Who needs to locate an organism in a taxonomic classification when you have the equivalent of a book ISBN? Well duh. Why do books need to be classified as well as having a barcode? Taxonomies put objects into relation with each other (as the Scientist article graphically illustrates) as well as providing identification data. Barcodes don’t.
There are other problems with genetic barcoding, such as the problem that there is substantial genetic variation within species as well, so any given DNA barcode sequence is an averaged approximation across several specimens. You can’t actually be confident about whether you are averaging the right set without a taxonomist to tell you whether on other morphological, behavioural and geographic factors, you do indeed have specimens from the same species. Taxonomy is an approximate, multi-factoral art of pragmatic judgment, whether it be in biology or in knowledge management. It’s all about whether you can function better having one, not about how quickly you can slap a label on something.
For those of you curious about the ructions and stresses in the world of scientific taxonomy, Quentin Wheeler’s recent edited collection of articles gives an excellent survey.
From Lists to Ontologies
Over at the Taxonomy Blog, Marlene has blogged a progressive list of taxonomy forms (she calls them “taxonomy types”, I’m more comfortable with “forms” or “instances” ). She starts with lists (which I tend to see as building blocks for taxonomies), and helpfully links them to picklists and authority files, then moves on to synonym lists (she’s deepening a sense of taxonomy functionality here), and then hierarchies. She puts facets and thesauri together, which I would separate because they are formally so different, and then deals with ontologies. Despite my quibbles, it’s a useful perspective in terms of showing how increasing complexity deals with greater demands on functionality.
Taxonomy Work and Activity Mapping Gets Beyond the Politics of Science Research
This remarkable image (original here) shows the actual passages of scientists and researchers as they move between articles in scholarly journals. A team at the Los Alamos National laboratory got the idea that mapping scientific research via citation links might be a tad awry because (shock horror) citations have political correctness built into them. So they procured clickstream data covering almost a billion transactions on scholarly journal portals over two years, and produced this elegant map, showing that social sciences and some humanities sit at the densely connected centre of a cartwheel of suspiciously silo-looking scientific disciplines.
Oh, and the original suspicion about citation mapping? The JCR citation database gives a heavy bias towards natural sciences (92.8%) and a passing nod to social sciences (7.2%). What scholars actually read? Natural sciences 41%, social sciences 47%, humanities 8%, interdisciplinary fields 3%.
Thanks to Jack Vinson for this lead.
The Technicians are Taking Over the Taxonomy Asylum
Over at VocabControl Fran has made the perceptive comment that there seems to be a bit of a gap opening up between the taxonomists and the people who implement taxonomies. This would certainly help to explain some of the serious difference of opinion myself and Theresa Regli are having at the moment, and also why her arguments seem to be moving towards annexation of traditional taxonomist territory by the metadata-ists.
Lois Tilton has a nice potted history of the development of taxonomy theory from Aristotle to Linnaeus. She’s just focused on the biological application of taxonomy but it’s a nicely summarised overview with some useful references.
What Are We?
Just before Christmas CMS Watch threw a little firecracker into the taxonomy community (which we didn’t notice till New Year) when they threw out the following gleeful prediction for 2009:
“Taxonomies are dead. Long live metadata!
With social computing coming to the fore, it’s never been more obvious that everyone does not, and will never, categorize things in the same way. It doesn’t even matter what’s correct anymore (well, it does to me, but I’m not about to spend my days stopping people from tagging a map of Botswana with the word “Ohio.” ) While I’ll never agree with David Weinberger’s assertion that “everything is miscellaneous” (a taxonomist’s least-favorite word), I will assert that the days of the traditional, definitive, and single-hierarchy taxonomy are long behind us. Enter the varied and multi-faceted application of metadata, experienced as people would like to experience it.”
A couple of people rightly spotted the rhetohypical distortions of facts here: the assumption (only held among those deeply ignorant of post 19th century taxonomy practice – shame on you CMS Watch you should know better) that taxonomies are purely defined by single hierarchy structures; the failure to acknowledge that a taxonomist invented facets; and the careless neglect of the need for hierarchies of some kind once any controlled vocabulary list contained as metadata needs to be navigated by humans. Metadata without relationships doesn’t spin any wheels, and many of the relationships that metadata needs to capture will look suspiciously hierarchy-like.
This is bad and shallow journalism from people who should know better.
But apart from some sensible words from Stephanie and Seth, what’s more curious and to some extent more worrying is the flurry of worried self-examination this set up among the members of the Taxonomy Community of Practice.
“Should we stop calling ourselves taxonomists, and if so what shall we call ourselves?” people asked. This seems tremendously ironic to me because it implies that (a) taxonomists, deep down, desperately want to be accepted by the rest of humanity, which is not a thought that had occurred to me before and (b) that such a flippant and poorly-reasoned piece of flim-flam could get us in such a tizzy about what to call ourselves. Taxonomy is partly the science of names, after all. If we taxonomists can’t name ourselves and stick to our guns, what chance have we got with other people’s metadata?
Or perhaps we think that if we amuse ourselves for long enough with alternate names, the propensity of people to make silly predictions about our profession will somehow disappear.
Where Should Taxonomy be in the Taxonomy?
“Word Herder” takes issue with the Library of Congress’ allocation of the DDC classification 658.4038 to my book Organising Knowledge (ie Information Management, deeply buried behind Technology (Applied Sciences). It doesn’t seem like a very happy place to be, but then again, I’m not sure where in Dewey – or any single-tree hierarchical scheme – my book, or any general book on taxonomy work, would fit. We need facets.
New Taxonomy Websites
Two recently established taxonomy websites worth tracking and adding to your blog feeds:
Dow Jones Synaptica has been running a team blog called Synaptica Central since August and is building up a nice regular pattern of posts with some good material and resource links – including some very nice posts from Taxonomy Bootcamp.
Mark Schneider has been blogging on Sharepoint implementations and taxonomy since July this year. Given (a) the pervasiveness of Sharepoint and (b) the non-straightforwardness of using taxonomies with Sharepoint, this is a blog to follow!
Taxonomies for Knowledge Management
Back in February I posted on a very nice, clear handout for the stages in the taxonomy development process from Boeing Company librarians Kathryn Breininger and Mary Whittaker. Here’s a fuller write-up from the same authors with some useful narrative around the different stages, as presented at IFLA this year.
The title of the paper is “Taxonomy Development for Knowledge Management” but there’s precious little about KM or KM objectives in the paper. And the approach is a very librarian-ish approach, with a focus on the content and on establishing general rules and principles quite early in the process, which is where I might differ with them in the execution of this process. But the overview and explanation of what’s involved a tricky enterprise is excellent in its clarity.
Thanks to Synaptica Central for this link.