Saturday, July 28, 2012

The Accidental Taxonomy Consultant

It’s well known that most taxonomists become taxonomists by accident, as the title of my book attests.  As I look back on my career, I see this progression continuing one step further in accidentally becoming a taxonomy consultant.

Not all consultants are accidental, though. Bright college graduates in the social sciences with strong analytical skills are often attracted to entry level jobs at consulting firms.  They then pick up technical consulting skills by practice over time, and these could even involve taxonomy work.  As such, they are not accidental consultants, but they may become accidental taxonomy consultants.

Those who are already taxonomists, as myself, often end up as consultants, because that’s where they find the work. Full-time taxonomist jobs are still relatively rare and are often not in one’s geographical location. So, if an experienced taxonomist loses a job due to a layoff or relocation, and looks around and cannot find another conveniently located taxonomist job, consulting becomes an option. Employers of full-time taxonomists tend to be limited to either certain industries (publishing, media, ecommerce, etc.) or to very large companies in any industry with large internal content management needs, but then the taxonomist job is only at their headquarters location. However, companies of all industries and various medium to large sizes have taxonomy needs and can often afford a taxonomy consultant on a temporary project if not a full-time staff member. Thus, taxonomy consultants are in greater demand than are full-time employed taxonomists.

In seeking to contract a taxonomy consultant, you may wonder whether it is better to hire a consultant-turned-taxonomist or a taxonomist-turned-consultant. If you hire a skilled taxonomist who is less experienced in consulting, you ought to get a good taxonomy, although the process might not be that smooth. More likely, though, the experienced taxonomist who is inexperienced in consulting will not likely make as good a first impression and sell the services as well as professional consultant. The professional consultant-turned-taxonomist will provide a better project experience, although the end-result taxonomy may not be as good.  If you can plan and manage the project yourself, then it is the experienced taxonomist you want, but if you want the entire project managed by a consultant, you need a good consultant.

You might not have to compromise, though. A senior enough consultant could be sufficiently skilled in both consulting and taxonomies, that the career sequence does not matter.  If you can afford to hire a firm or partnership, or even a consultant with subcontractors, you may not need to make the choice of experience either, because you can hopefully get some of each on the consultant team serving you. That’s why you should look at the resumes of each member of a consulting team, to ensure that at least one member has very solid taxonomy experience, while at least another member has considerable consulting and project management experience.

Among the things I have learned about consulting is that it helps to have standard consulting processes and procedures, including standard questions that the consultant should ask the client at the very beginning of a project to clarify the scope and understand the context. Consulting firms may additionally have standard deliverables, reports, etc. But in the particular field of taxonomy consulting, the variables are too great, and standard deliverables rarely fit.

There are a lot of books on consulting, but none about taxonomy consulting. When I came across a potential title,
Information Consulting: Guide to Good PracticeI (Chandos Publishing, 2011), I found that even this book addressed consulting more generally, and when it occasionally discussed “information consulting” it was more about the work of independent research librarians. So, accidental taxonomy consultants lack written guidance that is just for them.

This is my story. I became a taxonomist by accident. Then after getting laid off, more than once, I became a taxonomy consultant by accident. Then I joined a consulting company of intentional consultants, some turned taxonomy-consultant by accident, but I did not feel I fit in with them or their choice of projects, since I was a taxonomist first. So, I recently chose to go on my own again as an independent consultant or partnering with another on a case-by-case basis.

Saturday, July 7, 2012

Deviating from Taxonomy Standards

In my last blog post, I suggested that enterprise taxonomies need not follow the standards for controlled vocabularies and thesuari (ANSI/NISO Z39.19 guidelines and ISO 25964-1) to the same extent as “traditional” discipline taxonomies and thesauri. I say this cautiously, though. Standards should not be ignored for any taxonomy, but rather followed in general, and any deviations made should be for good reason. Enterprise taxonomies (taxonomies custom-designed for the content and users of a specific enterprise, and for the entire enterprise) and also ecommerce taxonomies (taxonomies of products for sale) often have good reasons to deviate from standards in certain areas.

Hierarchical Relationships
An important part of the taxonomy standards are the criteria for creating hierarchical relationships. Hierarchical relationships should be one of three types: generic-specific, generic-instance, or whole-part. Any other relationship among posted/displayed terms is not hierarchical, but rather associaciative. A “good reason” to relate terms hierarchically even when they do not exactly meet the criteria, is when the pair of terms are clearly related, but the taxonomy does not include any associative terms. Enterprise and ecommerce taxonomies often are simple hierarchical taxonomies and do not support associative relationships common in standard thesauri. For example, the following two hierarchies are not correct by the standards, but the first may be acceptable in an enterprise taxonomy and the second in an ecommerce taxnoomy:

  Information Technology
   > Telecommunications
   > > Cell phones

  > Camera accessories

The standard is to use plural for terms that are countable nouns. The idea is is that when users select a term they will find multiple documents, records, or digital assets (in plural) indexed with or categorized by the term. Enterprise and ecommerce taxonomies, however, tend to be comprised of multiple taxonomy facets, whereby the user selects terms from a combination of facets. Taxonomy terms within facets then appear to user to be filters, scopes, aspects, or attributes, rather than simply a category of plural objects. For example, a document type facet might have terms in the singular describing the type of document: Article, Report, Form, Application, Interview, etc., all in the singular to answer the question “what kind of document.” The names of the facets themselves may also be in singular, rather than plural, so as to “limit by” a facet, such as: Document type, Location, Topic, Department, etc.

Compound Terms
The standards present criteria to consider in retaining or breaking apart compound terms. For example “A compound term should be split when its focus refers to a property or part, and its modifier represents the whole or possessor of that property or part.” (ANSI/NISO Z39.19-2005 section While such guidelines are useful and certainly within the scope of taxonomy design, the highly customized nature of enterprise or ecommerce taxonomies obviate following such guidelines for compound terms. ANSI/NISO gives the example of aircraft + engines rather than aircraft engines, but aircraft engines, or other such compound terms, would be perfectly acceptable in an enterprise or ecommerce taxonomy. It is worth noting that both the ANSI/NISO and ISO standards state that these criteria are just guidelines and do not have to be strictly followed.

An enterprise or ecommerce taxonomy can be a challenge to create. Just because adherence to taxonomy standards may be less strict for a corporate or retail taxonomy than it is for a subject/discipline taxonomy, should not suggest that it is easier to design or that non-trained taxonomists can design it. Only with a good understanding of the standards would one know when and where it is acceptable not to adhere to a specific guideline.