Whose Language is it Anyway?

The TaxoCoP community on Yahoo Groups had a hilarious discussion recently (neatly summarised by Stephanie Lemieux) about vendors hijacking hot terms (like taxonomy, ontology) when they don’t really understand what they mean, and then proceeding to build shelfware around them (shelfware because they’ll be completely unusable and remain on the shelf).

More insidious is the way such hijacking sinks into professional discourse and takes on a whole new invented meaning. Take “ontology”. When I studied philosophy “ontology” was the study of things, being-ness. Now, in IT parlance, it means the description of relationships between things. No harm in that, if only they would add disclaimers and at least show some decent awareness of pre-existing meanings of the term.

A case in point: according to the impressive-sounding Global Taxonomy Initiative “What is Taxonomy? Taxonomy is the science of naming, describing and classifying organisms. Unfortunately, taxonomic knowledge is far from complete.” Well I can agree with the last sentiment, but hey… didn’t the ancient Greeks invent the term “taxonomy” before the biologists hijacked it? (Thanks Marti for the reference). And when was the last time you classified a living organism in your organisation? (Experts do not count).

I’m sure biologists feel as proprietary towards their language as we corporate taxonomists do, but do we have to behave like we’re alien species? Here’s another hilarious post (who would have thought taxonomy work could be such fun?) from TaxoCop founder Seth Earley: “We just had our first plant taxonomist subscribe to the group. After I pointed out that we focused on business taxonomies, they politely opted out.” Are we steadily evolving homonyms here (words that look the same, sound the same, but have completely different meanings) or should we acknowledge their common ancestry and acknowledge each other’s existence?

Well I did an experiment to find out. I took a paragraph describing the need for (biological) taxonomies from this Global Taxonomy Initiative webpage and changed all the biology-specific words to organisation-specific words (I’ve indicated the changed words in bold). Here it is:

“Taxonomy is essential to implementation of KM. Taxonomic knowledge is a key input in the management of all types of organisations, from SMEs to multinationals to public sector. It is also a key to effectively addressing new types of knowledge, access to information and benefit-sharing, and the many other cross-cutting issues under KM. Each organisation, in addressing this wide range of knowledge diversity issues, has different needs and priorities regarding taxonomic support. Understanding those needs and priorities is the important first step on the path to overcoming the taxonomic impediment. Consequently, it is no surprise that the COP, at its eighth meeting in March 2006, urged organisations that have not done so to undertake or complete or update, as a matter of priority, organisational taxonomic needs assessments, including related technical, technological and capacity needs, and to establish priorities for taxonomic work that take into account organisation-specific circumstances, with particular regard to user needs and priorities.”

Now that not only works grammatically, but it actually sounds like the jargon we spew! We do have something in common after all.

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