Sunday, February 26, 2012

Business Taxonomies

It’s difficult enough for professionals to come to a consensus on the definition of “taxonomy.” As for “business taxonomy,” it’s even worse. There are varying ideas of taxonomy, varying ideas of “business,” and varying ideas on what the connection should be, in addition to the scope and purpose. Is it a taxonomy used by a for-profit enterprise? Is it a taxonomy of business processes for use in any enterprise? Is it the same as an “enterprise taxonomy”?

Just as the term “taxonomy” has both a specific and generalized meaning, so does the term “business taxonomy.” The specific meaning of a taxonomy is a controlled vocabulary of concepts (terms) that are organized into a hierarchy, based on hierarchical relationships (broader/narrower, parent/child, group/member, superordinate/subordinate) between the terms.  The generalized meaning of taxonomy is any kind of controlled vocabulary or sets of controlled vocabularies (whether structured as lists, hierarchies, facets, thesauri, etc.) to support the organization and findability of content. The specific meaning of a business taxonomy, is a taxonomy that is specific for business use by dealing with business functions and processes. The generalized meaning of a business taxonomy is any taxonomy used by a business/enterprise, as opposed to a scientific discipline, to organize and manage its content.

I would caution that a taxonomy designed to define and describe business process and functions may not have the same objectives as the more common taxonomies whose purpose is to support the organization and findability of indexed content (documents, files, digital assets, etc.).  In fact, even the term “taxonomy” in its purest sense does not mean that it has to be used for content management. The original taxonomies, such as the Linnean taxonomy of animals, plants and other organisms, were not designed for indexing and searching content associated with each concept in the taxonomy. Similarly Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational concepts is not for indexing educational content but rather to define the scope of educational objectives. Thus, a taxonomy could be just for classifying its term/concepts/members for sake of better understanding of its members and their relationships. In this way, a business taxonomy, in its more specific meaning, with the focus on functions and processes, could serve the purpose creating a better structure of an organization and improving business processes. The users of this kind of business taxonomy are the officers and managers of an organization with a goal of improving overall management, rather than all content users.

Furthermore, the business functions/process taxonomy can be more generic, and the same taxonomy, such as a Sales, General & Administrative (SG&A) taxonomy, with modifications, could be used by different organizations. In contrast, a taxonomy for content management and retrieval, especially when it is product/service-focused, should be custom-designed and developed to reflect the nature of the content and the goals of its users. The larger an enterprise is, the more unique its particular business mix and content is. That’s why the largest enterprises tend to have taxonomists on staff.

Yes, the more generic “business taxonomy” and “enterprise taxonomy” are terms often used interchangeably. However, I prefer it when the term “enterprise taxonomy” is used to mean specifically a taxonomy (or set of inter-related taxonomies) that is intended for use enterprise-wide. This is an important designation, because within an enterprise, taxonomies are often siloed. Integrating them and designing a unified taxonomy that cuts across all departments to support the broadest sharing of content across the enterprise is an important goal of an “enterprise taxonomy.”

The term “taxonomy” might sound too technical, scientific for business owners and managers who don’t understand exactly what it is or what it can do. Calling it a “business taxonomy” is sometimes a sort of marketing technique of taxonomy consultants to suggest that a taxonomy is something standard for businesses and something the business needs. It often works, but ultimately the term “business taxonomy” has resulted in confusion as well.

Friday, February 3, 2012

Taxonomy Training Workshops

I give a workshop in creating taxonomies in two formats, full-day in person and online.  The question sometimes comes up from prospective participants as to the differences. Since a full-day onsite workshop is coming up soon, this would be a good time to address the similarities and differences.

Both workshops cover essentially the same content with a similar outline. Some of the examples are the same, and the participant exercises are the same, too.  The workshops address the same diverse audience, comprising the range from quick-learning beginner who has at least a background in information science to someone already experienced in creating taxonomies but within a limited context and seeks to broaden those skills to more applications. In both kinds of workshops, the audience is also diverse in its professional backgrounds: librarians, corporate content managers and knowledge managers, indexers, web usability professionals and information architects; from industry, academia, nonprofits, and independent professionals. With such a wide diversity of backgrounds, the online workshop seems to resonate a little better with participants, none of whom then feels like a minority in a classroom of other types.

There is an organizational difference, whereby the outline of the onsite PowerPoint-based workshop has 10 topics, and online workshop comprises 5 weekly lessons: (1) an introduction of examples and applications, (2) software for creating taxonomies, (3) hierarchical and associative relationships, (4) preferred term wording and nonpreferred terms, and (5) miscellaneous topics of project processes, governance, folksonomies, and taxonomy jobs. Two onsite workshop topics may be covered in one weekly online lesson, although the onsite workshop does have the additional topics of the sources for terms and the comparison hierarchical taxonomies with alphabetical indexes (when presented as a pre-conference workshop for the American Society for Indexing). The order of topics is also different. The online workshop introduces software earlier on, so students have the option of using trial software to apply principles learned in later lessons.

The use of software is a significant difference in both workshops. In the onsite workshop, I give demos of Synaptica and Data Harmony Thesaurus Master, both web-based, and the PC software MultiTes. In the online workshop, participants access the demo software themselves, with the additional option to download the trial Mac software of Cognatrix (which I don’t demonstrate in my onsite workshop, since I don’t use a Mac.) Obviously, you can learn more when you try out the software yourself. Trial versions of MultiTes and Cognatrix are available to the public, but trials to Synaptica and Data Harmony are not and are made available by special arrangement for students of the workshop.

Q&A is more dynamic and engaging in the classroom setting. Although the online workshop has discussion forums, there is no simultaneous chat. Although the technology is there, the problem is that for a continuing education workshop this is in addition to everyone’s full time job and personal life. Spread out over different time zones too, it would be too difficult to get an agreeable time of day to chat. In the classroom it’s easier and less inhibiting to raise a question or make a comment. Online, it’s in writing, permanent for the duration of the course, and your name is attached to it. Thus, the online discussion of the workshop has usually been less than optimal.

Then there are the obvious differences.  Some people learn better by listening to a speaker, and some people learn better by reading texts on their own. Convenience of location and timing will also make a difference. The onsite workshop is usually offered only once a year (although a customized corporate onsite version is an option), whereas the online workshop is offered every other month and is accessible by Internet globally. However, the latter tends to fill up 2-3 months in advance, and the onsite workshop usually has room for same-day registrations (at a higher cost).