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“Taxonomy Tuesday” Part 2: Do We Still Need Taxonomies?

It’s a question many of us are asking with increasing frequency.  In these days of simply putting a few words into a search box, is it really worth all the time, effort, and resources that have been put into constructing (sometimes elaborate) controlled vocabularies, taxonomies, and metadata?  Are we really providing added value to our users?  It’s true that information professionals, especially in some disciplines (like medicine), rely on controlled vocabularies to aid search, but most end users don’t know how to use them.  A panel led by Susanne BeDell, Vice President of ProQuest and General Manager of Dialog, looked into this issue.

Suzanne BeDell

(L-R) Tim Mohler, Jabe Wilson, Tyron Stadig

In her introduction to the session, Suzanne BeDell noted that entity extraction is used by publishers to add functionality to articles.  For example, Nature Publishing Group uses TEMIS’s software to identify chemicals.  Analytics and data mining add another layer of capability to the traditional industry structure of primary journals, abstracting & indexing services,  and search and aggregation.   Analytics are used to identify knowledge buried in unstructured content, and they are usually based on statistical analysis of content or natural language processing.

Jabe Wilson, Sr. Solutions Manager at Elsevier agreed, suggesting that taxonomies are more important today than they have ever been and, because they are based on words, they underlie developments of new technologies.   He defined the difference between a dictionary, taxonomy, and an ontology  The relations between each are shown in the following map.

Language Relationships

Tim Mohler, Vice President, Operations, Lexalytics Inc. reviewed human indexing, noting that although it makes navigation easier for users, the drawback is that it is expensive because indexers are scarce, and indexing entails considerable effort.  Because users tend not to use complex taxonomies, many information producers simply index their content by machine.  However, machine indexing depends on developing rules based on the content, and Mohler wondered if a model could be built to guide the machine, based on a taxonomy.  This is still an unanswered question.

Tyron Stadig, CTO and Founder of Innography, echoed a similar theme, saying that analytics as applied to business intelligence can be used to predict future trends, uncover behavioral patterns, link seemingly unrelated behavior, and identify outliers.  Structured data helps people make decisions; taxonomies can provide additional attributes of the text to enhance decision making.  Multiple taxonomies can be used in a process called “fingerprinting”, and they can also create additional links between data sources, so that you can find information that would otherwise not be evident.  Structured information is necessary for analytics; simple keywords aren’t enough.  Taxonomies provide additional features to unstructured text and identify its useful attributes.

So are taxonomies worth the effort necessary to construct them?  Based on the examples given by the speakers, the answer is, “Indeed, they are!”

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blogger

“Taxonomy Tuesday” Part 1: Taxonomies and Knowledge Management

Many of Tuesday’s sessions deal with taxonomies, and it is disappointing that, unless you have perfected the ability to be in two places simultaneously, it is impossible to attend them all.  The first one I chose dealt with how taxonomy work can contribute to knowledge management in an organization.

Patrick Lambe

Patrick Lambe, Founder of Straits Knowledge, a Singapore-based consulting firm, and author of Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness (which received four 5-star reviews on Amazon) was the speaker and noted that his talk was on “taxonomy work”, not the taxonomies themselves.  Taxonomies are not solely about organizing content.  A number of disciplines, including information and library science, contribute to their development, and their applications include content management, document management, and metadata.  Taxonomists are often frustrated and challenged by a general lack of understanding of their work, technology limitations, and unrealistic expectations by users.

Challenges for Taxonomy Work

To be effective, organizations must follow four principles, many of which can be affected by taxonomy work:

  1. All organizations must deal with risk and diagnose it.
  2. They must reduce cost and manage cash flow, which inolves managing information about internal processes.
  3. They must add value for customers and markets. What do customers want? This requires pushing information out to the customer and informing them about available products. An organization with many products must segment the customers, which is a taxonomy. For example, calls coming into a center can be organized into a taxonomy.
  4. Create a new reality and innovation by mixing and matching categories. Some people say taxonomies cannot describe innovation because they describe history, but many innovation initiatives start by describing the present, which istaxonomy work.

Coordination, learning, and remembering are three key knowledge-related activities in which organizations can engage and taxonomy work can play a leading part in all of them.  For example,

  • Coordination: Taxonomy work helps people coordinate and use the same terms when describing something, decision making, and setting objectives.
  • Remembering:  Taxonomies can help in categorizing history, linking and tracking how different terms have changed over time, and in reusing knowledge.
  • Learning:  Taxonomies track how descriptions change and can lead users to the correct term to use in educational activities, thus acquiring and spreading the right expertise.

In his work, Lambe has used Cynefin Diagrams to help people how to decide what to do in different situations.  The photo below shows how they might apply to taxonomy work.

Cynefin Diagram

Taxonomies mainly operate in the area of what is known, but they can also be used to help detect patterns about what is happening.  For example, in the areas of structure and organizing and establishing common ground (lower right of the above diagram), taxonomies might help design smoother workflows and provide for better reuse of information and knowledge.   Boundary spanning refers to coordination and better use of information assets across disparate workgroups in an organization and a reduction of duplication of effort.  And finally, sense-making and discovery will lead to greater confidence in decision making and communication among teams.  Lambe also noted that sometimes it is useful to construct a “disposable taxonomy” to create a concept map of how domains relate to each other and which ones should be further explored, and then discard it at the end of a project.

Lambe’s presentation was a fascinating look at the potential of taxonomies and provided an insight into this highly technical subject.  I thought I knew quite a bit about taxonomies, but I learned a lot from this session.

Don Hawkins
Columnist, Information Today and Conference Circuit Blogger