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Taxonomies for Practical Information Management

Last Updated Jan 2009

By: John Lehman, NIE Enterprise Search - Issue 1 - April 25, 2003

No, a taxonomy is not the science of stuffing and mounting dead animals, but it has suffered a similar isolation from today’s organizational information handling. A Taxonomy is a subject roadmap to organization content; i.e., documents and records. Deployments of content management, portals, ERP/MRP, website and customer care applications must have a taxonomy to succeed.

A taxonomy should reflect the organization’s purpose or industry, the functions and responsibilities of the persons or groups who need to access the content, and the purposes/reasons for accessing the content. A time-worn taxonomy is the physical filing system, including labeled cabinets, drawers and file folders. To meet a wide range of content access needs and expectations, the physical filing system needed to include multiple copies of information items in different folders, or be limited to very gross organization, or be forced to distribute content widely to support and anticipate interested readers.

The taxonomy for digital content has the opportunity to remove the limitations of physical filing systems, as the "conductor" of information classification and retrieval applications.

As a communications and training device, the taxonomy provides history, expertise and inside information that assist every employee and customer/prospect. As a pure information access tool, the benefits of easily locating available information with an implemented taxonomy range from direct cost savings, in applications such as ERP/MRP spending analysis and customer service, to increased productivity for employees, and increased electronic ordering.

What makes a taxonomy effective, extendable and practical? The table below offers eight perspectives, or families of taxonomic elements, which apply to an organization, although non-business organizations would not require every perspective.

  1. Industry Segments is a Marketing / Positioning / Competitive Intelligence Perspective. Industry Segments may overlap with Products & Services.
  2. Organizational Functions - the organization breakdown of a business or organization by function or responsibility
  3. Business Relationships - the types of other companies or organizations a business deals with; including customers, vendors, regulators, associations, partners etc.
  4. Business Issues & Events - economic, legal, M&A, regulatory, environmental, labor, safety, other government interfaces, etc.
  5. Products & Services - products sold; MRO materials; indirect services, direct materials & services purchased.
  6. Technologies - applicable to the industry or industries in which the firm participates. Basic or applied sciences are also included as appropriate.
  7. Geography
  8. Document or Record Types - this perspective provides valuable reduction of results based upon the document’s purpose and its connection to the information need.

As a guide to content, the taxonomy has multiple entry points (such as business functions or product types), and will have the same element (lowest level class) in multiple locations. What characterizes useful elements of a taxonomy?

  • They are precise and do not overlap. The closer to proper named elements at the lowest level, the better.
  • They are independent of the type of content, and the organization structure (as distinguished from countries, cities etc.)
  • They reflect the access needs and expectations of every constituency inside or outside the organization.
  • They recognize and apply industry standards (such as UN/SPSC for products and services) whenever possible.

A taxonomy may be implemented on digital content in a variety of ways from manual to substantially automated. The implementation should result in the taxonomy exposed to all users, from the perspectives to the lowest level elements. Selection of one or more elements should produce the documents or records with the matching classifications, or guidance about where to find the information.

The organization infrastructure is taxonomy-enabled already. Taxonomies exist for virtually every organization or industry. The taxonomy is the information architecture and must be included in all IT plans.

[John Lehman is Co-Founder and President of HighClassify Inc., a provider of taxonomy and content classification services and solutions. He previously founded Verity, Inc. and Sageware, Inc.]