What is Taxonomy…and how to do it well…

by Adam Wilkins, Director of Strategic Consulting


In my recent blog posts, I’ve mentioned the word *taxonomy*, and even prescribed some ideas on how they should look, but Gabrielle from our office has backed me into a corner and asked me to specifically address the question, “what is a taxonomy?”, so what better place to start than checking in with Wikipedia?


“Taxonomy (general): The practice and science (study) of classification of things or concepts, including the principles that underlie such classification.”


Ok, that kind of makes sense, but for most of us, it doesn’t really explain the practical application of taxonomy as it relates to content management in our businesses or why we should care. Taxonomists, leave the room now. The next paragraphs are intended for the un-initiated.


Let’s start with a pragmatic definition. A taxonomy is a way of classifying content so that it can be found when needed. For example, the “C: drive” on your computer (Mac and UNIX users draw your own equivalents). At the root of your drive taxonomy is “C:” under which are any number of folders to which you can add more. Within each of these folders you can also add sub folders with any name you wish, (let’s call the folder name a “term”). These sub folders can have other sub folders to any depth you desire. My drive might look something like C:\My Documents\Invoices\2013\Legal into which I would put all my legal documents. I have essentially created a hierarchical taxonomy that makes sense to me when I need to find something.


This is how technology systems have been designed since IT was born. The design team, and sometimes the users, get together and figure out how things should be filed away and then build the system. For example, Records Managers responsible for important corporate documents will go through an exercise that builds a hierarchical taxonomy, that they call a File Plan, that gives them a single place to store any item the company deems important enough. This works well when you only have one of something and need to know where it is.


But in this content rich society we’ve created, taxonomies no longer need to be hierarchical.


Since by my definition, they are a means of classifying content for retrieval, computers can be configured to allow a single piece of content to appear in more than one place at the same time. This more complex relationship is often referred to as an Ontology, and the best example of that is the World Wide Web. Online, any piece of content can link to any other piece of content and at any time that content can be viewed by any number of people. There are also “folksonomies” which are self-defining taxonomies based on how people perceive the content.


How To Do It

Confused? You’re not alone. Enterprises have tried, and mostly failed, to build a taxonomy that works for everyone in their company. For the same reason that you can’t find what you need on somebody else’s C: drive, often no one system works for all. The same piece of content may mean something different to different readers, and as such, each would file it in a different way. To build an enterprise taxonomy requires special skills to design, and tools to manage, the thesaurus of terms and their relationships. But almost universally, when designing ECM systems, hierarchical taxonomies are the most rigid and difficult to retrofit as business evolves. This is why I don’t like using folders in an ECM deployment. A better approach is to make sure your systems follow a more Ontological approach that embraces the addition of terms, metadata and navigation in the future. In ECM you do this through clever metadata configuration that allows any one piece of content to be surfaced in different places. For example, the same contract could be set up to be seen by:


• Management in the approval workflow system
• Engineers in the Project Management system
• Records Managers in the File Plan
• Accounts Payable in the ERP system
• Staff on the Intranet


I hope this helps, but given the complexity of the topic, I fear it will create more questions than it answers. Gabrielle, please don’t ask me about folksonomy, thesaurus or term relationships. I need time to recover from this blog post first.

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.