How to Kill a Knowledge Environment with a Taxonomy

We frequently encounter clients who are eager to apply their taxonomy structures to a variety of uses, including navigation structures in websites, general search and browsing in an intranet, and application to specialised content repositories. The taxonomy becomes a standard vocabulary to which all applications must conform. They have, after all, invested considerable effort in developing their taxonomy, and now they want to get as much value out of it as possible.

Now while there is considerable benefit to be gained from developing consistency and standards in vocabulary and categories across an organization (because it underpins knowledge sharing and coordination), too much standardization can be a very destructive thing. It is, in fact, the Linnaean trap of assuming that a single system can support all knowledge needs.

Knowledge and information infrastructure is much more like a complex ecosystem than a designed environment, and it has to be so because it needs to cater for a wide variety of uses and activities, past, present and future. It must support not just a diversity of tasks, but a diversity of interests and knowledge domain specialisations, not to mention the ability to reconstruct historical events, generate new applications and innovations, and reflect and support work types that change at different velocities. Financial procedures tend to change slowly for example, while manufacturing or technology-related work may change rapidly. Infrastructure must support all of these different purposes, paces and people.

In this respect, an information and knowledge environment such as a portal or intranet, should ideally resemble a city in the way that it works, as it is described in Jane Jacobs’ masterpiece, The death and life of great American cities (Jacobs 1992).

“One principle emerges so ubiquitously, and in so many and such complex different forms, that [it] becomes the heart of my argument. This ubiquitous principle is the need of cities for a most intricate and close-grained diversity of uses that give each other mutual support, both economically and socially” (Jacobs 1992:14)

Healthy knowledge environments are like healthy cities: they support a range of primary work activities across an organization, together with secondary activities that spin off from, or are afforded by these primary activities. These are our knowledge neighbourhoods, arranged for different uses. They also support a diverse range of different knowledge activities, from storing and retrieving personal information clouds, to collaboration and coordination activity, communications and knowledge sharing, idea creation, serendipitous knowledge discovery and innovation. Their ability to support such a wide variety of use creates a constant and varied traffic, and this traffic leaves its mark in more intensive and valuable knowledge and information transactions and residues.

It is simply not possible for a single vocabulary and category set to deliver consistent value for all those needs. Inevitably just as in a city, over-standardisation may bring efficiency, but it suppresses diversity of use, and in consequence the knowledge environment must privilege a few key activities over others. So therefore it becomes a destination for hit and run raids, and a limited range of functional transactions (Jacobs 1992:212-3). It becomes a dead space rather than a living space. Unfortunately, this is more often true than false once we move from the raunchy variety of the internet to the static, over-designed and homogenized spaces of corporate intranets.

Moreover, the over-homogenization of language and categories can severely prejudice the diversity of specialization and perspective that is necessary across a community for learning, innovation and the recognition of new risks.

The task of the taxonomist or information architect is not to provide absolute consistency and standardization, maximum tidiness, and complete information efficiency. Optimizing efficiency in a complex system, as Jacobs noted in regard to cities, destroys the resilience of that system and its capacity to adapt to new circumstances. So the task of the taxonomist or information architect is not to optimize efficiency, but to optimize effectiveness, and that always means sub-optimal efficiency. Consistency and standardization must be sufficient for effectiveness and the meeting or your goals and no more than sufficient.

To remain resilient and adaptive, a knowledge environment must always also be hospitable to alternate mechanisms of knowledge organization, access and use – which to a degree will compete for attention with the formally privileged mechanisms such as taxonomies.

Folksonomies are a case in point. It is not especially healthy just to try to bend folksonomies to the needs of taxonomies as vocabulary harvesting devices as several organizations have done, and leave it at that. If the conditions are right to support healthy folksonomies, then the organization will get far greater value by actively exploiting their potential for providing rich serendipity as well. [I’ll talk about folksonomies and rich serendipity in another post]. They can by all means be used to harvest vocabularies, but this is just icing on the cake, not the substance of the cake.

So how much consistency and standardization is the right amount? We might answer with Jane Jacobs (and with Abraham Lincoln before her):
“The answer to this is something like the answer Lincoln gave to the question, ‘How long should a man’s legs be?’ Long enough to reach the ground, Lincoln said. Just so [the correct answers must be] a matter of performance. They cannot be based on abstractions…” (Jacobs 1992:208).

The degree of consistency imposed by a taxonomy versus the degree of competition among different taxonomies or alternate knowledge organization tools must be determined by the overall performance objectives of an organization, where it wants to go, what it wants to achieve, and how it defines its effectiveness.

The balance will be more on the side of the dominant boundary spanning, standardizing taxonomy when it is striving to overcome stagnant knowledge silos and improve cross-organization coordination. It will be more on the side of diverse knowledge organization mechanisms when it is trying to break down groupthink and create greater innovation capabilities.

In all circumstances, competing mechanisms should always be allowed to co-exist with a taxonomy, and should never be allowed to die out completely, because that will kill the value that a taxonomy brings. A taxonomy thrives on the bed of the Babel Instinct, and dies once it is cut off from that source of new insight, new perspectives, and new ways of looking at things. The whole essence of taxonomy work is to constantly repair the fragmentation caused by the Babel Instinct, and to weave the social fabric that allows collectives of people to work together effectively, to organize and exploit their knowledge for common use, and to discover new things. The taxonomy, ironically, is the servant of Babel, not the master of it, and it cannot survive the complete death of Babel’s diversity. An effective taxonomy sits between Chaos and Order and mediates the two; it does not, as it so often assumes, represent the domain of Order unequivocally.

To see an example of this plethora of competition between knowledge organization devices we need go no farther than online bookseller Amazon. Look at any Amazon page for a given book, and you will find a taxonomy (represented by formal subject categories), user-contributed tags, links to other books bought by other people who bought this book, booklists compiled by users on related topics, suggestions for other books based on a complex algorithm combining your past behaviours and those of others, and so on. All of these mechanisms for purposefully finding – or serendipitously discovering – books, co-exist, and compete. You can bet that Amazon watches the intensity of use of each of these mechanisms, and as any single instrument gets used more or less intensively, Amazon will adjust its investment in supporting it accordingly. As Amazon has grown, so has the number of ways of locating and suggesting books. Taxonomies form only part of this complex web, and rightly so.

If we neglect this principle and insist on complete standardization and totalitarian taxonomy rule, then Jane Jacobs’ savage indictment of city planning in her time will come back to haunt our intranets, portals and document management systems – ineed, in many cases, it has done so already:

“It follows that the exuberant variety inherent in great numbers of people, tightly concentrated, should be played down, hidden, hammered into a semblance of the thinner, more tractable variety or the outright homogeneity often represented in thinner populations. It follows that these confusing creatures – so many people gathered together – should be sorted out and stashed away as decently and quietly as possible, like chickens on a modern egg-factory farm.” (Jacobs 1992:220)

This is an extract from my forthcoming book Organizing Knowledge: Taxonomies Knowledge and Organization Effectiveness (Chandos: January, 2007)

4 Comments so far

Harold Jarche

Looking forward to the book grin

Posted on October 14, 2006 at 07:49 AM | Comment permalink


Me too! :D

Posted on October 16, 2006 at 09:42 AM | Comment permalink


A really excellent article, and so much more eloquent than the item I posted on my blog yesterday on ‘Tags, folksonomies and file structures (see link above). If it’s ok with you I’d like to reference this article from my blog - please advise.

I too look forward to getting hold of the book!

Posted on October 19, 2006 at 07:07 PM | Comment permalink


Thanks Steve, and nice post. Yes, feel free to reference it, I hope it’s useful in your endeavours!

Posted on October 19, 2006 at 07:30 PM | Comment permalink

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