Organising Knowledge
Organising Knowledge was a challenging book to write, because it is the first book I know of on taxonomy development that is explicitly aimed at practising knowledge managers. Much of the really good work out there comes out of library science or information studies referring to a much more generalised setting than those encountered by the knowledge manager – who typically works in organisations that are seeking pragmatic solutions to their information and knowledge needs centering on work-oriented documents, not publications. So there were no real precedents to rely on.

In writing the book, my intention was to frame the role of taxonomy work inside the larger knowledge management agenda. Hence, as far as I know, this is also the first taxonomy book that combines a practical guide to taxonomy development with a broader explanation of how taxonomy work contributes to knowledge management in a variety of ways.

As I worked on the book, I also realised increasingly that taxonomy work is not just useful in supporting information retrieval (which is the popular starting point for taxonomy projects), but as a key tool for supporting organisation effectiveness, expecially in supporting coordination across organisation boundaries.

I have tried hard to communicate a tricky subject in a clear, accessible style, and have been fortunate in people’s willingness to contribute detailed case studies to support the arguments I make here. A final chapter looks at where taxonomies sit in relation to folksonomies and ontologies. In this book, I hope, taxonomy work finally enters the knowledge management mainstream. If you buy the book, let me know what you think!

See inside the book:

Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Defining our terms
Chapter 2: Taxonomies can take many forms
Chapter 3: Taxonomies and infrastructure for organisation effectiveness
Chapter 4: Taxonomies and activities for organisation effectiveness
Chapter 5: Taxonomies and knowledge management
Chapter 6: What do we want our taxonomies to do?
Chapter 7: Preparing for a taxonomy project
Chapter 8: Designing your taxonomy
Chapter 9: Implementing your taxonomy
Chapter 10: The future of taxonomy work

Buy the book

Visit the publisher’s website (Chandos UK)


Lots have people have reviewed and commented on the book, Here’s my favourite, from Kim Sbarcea: “Patrick has brought sexy back to taxonomies!”

For more reviewers’ comments, you’ll find a compilation here.

Aug 30

Cross Post: Letting Facets Fly

In her novel The Four Gated City, Doris Lessing recounts a story about the Mullah Nasruddin, who bought a hawk in the marketplace, his only previous experience of birds being sparrows. When he got home, he became dissatisfied with the look of the bird, and trimmed its beak, talons and feathers. “That’s better; now you look more like a bird” he said.

We have that problem in taxonomy and information architecture work all the time. We design a faceted taxonomy and metadata framework to meet user and organisational sharing needs, we build information architecture specifications, and hand them over to the systems integrator (SI), who immediately trims them back to what they are familiar with – single hierarchy document library/ folder structures – especially frustrating when we know that the systems they use are capable of exploiting our designs. The systems can’t fly as designed, so they hop along disappointingly, objectives are not met, and all the work has gone to waste. Limited mental models in the people you rely on for implementation can be powerful obstacles.

We are evolving a few ways of dealing with this. Eg, we are getting much more closely involved in the specification of the systems, helping our clients evaluate vendor proposals (we are fiercely vendor neutral), working alongside the SIs in the implementation, and evaluating the implementation.

May 17

Cross-Post: Google Finally Comes Out of the Closet on Taxonomies

So for the longest while, Google has been the boogie bear of taxonomists, with senior executives lying in wait to pounce on innocent taxonomy projects with the battle cry “why do we need a taxonomy, let’s just get Google!”.

We’ve known for years that Google uses classification in its search algorithms and in its ancillary services but today Google finally came clean with its new Knowledge Graph service “With the Knowledge Graph, Google can better understand your query, so we can summarize relevant content around that topic, including key facts you’re likely to need for that particular thing. For example, if you’re looking for Marie Curie, you’ll see when she was born and died, but you’ll also get details on her education and scientific discoveries.” Is that taxonomy work or is that taxonomy work?

Sitting behind Knowledge Graph is a 500 million entity ontology, with 3.5 billion defined relationships and attributes – though the words ontology or taxonomy are never used. Exciting in itself, as it evidently exploits the growing maturity of the semantic web and linked data, and the intelligence you can extract from billions of search patterns, to enhance taxonomy work in unprecedented ways. But also a major vindication for the faithful few who have remained steadfast in their belief in taxonomy over magic. BTW, I’m hoping to explore some of these “taxonomy beyond the enterprise” themes in a keynote at Taxonomy Bootcamp later this year. The times they are a changing!

Nov 07

Cross Post: Empirical Approaches to Taxonomy Development

Last week I presented a session at Taxonomy Bootcamp in Washington DC on “Empirical Approaches to Taxonomy Development” – the session grew out of a realisation that taxonomy developers are often held hostage to multiple (often conflicting) opinions without any evidence base, or are forced to call on experts when this is not appropriate, or simply defend themselves by withdrawing into an opaque process to avoid being interfered with. My session described a rigourous, transparent process based on evidence from users and content bases, testing against realistic scenarios, and consultation on gaps and accuracy, NOT opinion! Here’s the slide deck.


Feb 25

Blog: Data, Knowledge Organisation and Scientific Knowledge

Back in November I participated in a workshop sponsored by the White House’s Office of Science and Technology Policy on “Changing the Conduct of Science in the Information Age”. My input (contained as an annex to the downloadable report) was on the role of knowledge organisation systems in making scientific knowledge accessible, and in enabling the sensemaking that results in the building of new knowledge.

The February 11 issue of Science Magazine has a report on the STAR Metrics programme, a fascinating approach to getting visibility into scientific knowledge and one of the inspirations for the workshop (I’m delighted to be cited) – but the whole issue itself has a lot of rich material on the current state of data visualisation, science metaknowledge, what happens to sensemaking, participation in science, and event the conduct of scientific approaches, when you open up data to the crowd and much much more. The main articles in this issue are currently free content, for additional material (eg the STAR metrics report) you’ll need to register/subscribe.

Feb 21

Blog: Witnessing the Birth of a Taxonomy

Here’s a workshop in Washington DC I’d love to be at (I’ll be doing my own taxonomy workshop in Sydney at the time unfortunately-fortunately). It’s on the potential for creating a new way of classifying diseases based on molecular mechanism rather than phenotype or symptom pattern. I’d love to be there because it’s not often you get to see a fundamental rethink happen live around how an embedded taxonomy should be organised. It must be a bit like witnessing the birth of a galaxy for an astronomer. This is an area with many powerful (and I’m sure passionate) stakeholders so I am convinced the process of expert involvement and public consultation will also be fascinating to watch. Alas, I’ll miss it.

Feb 09

Video on Taxonomy Fairy Tales

Matt Moore and I had a bit of a video rant the other day about common taxonomy fairy tales. I particularly liked Matt’s characterisation of taxonomy work as “a messy, dirty but necessary business.”

If you like this video, do consider attending our taxonomy workshop in Sydney 3-4 March, or in Singapore May 26-27!

Oct 07

Taxonomy Workshop in Sydney March 2011

For all you Australians out there, I’ll be bringing my taxonomy workshop to Sydney 3-4 March 2011, courtesy of Matt Moore of Innotecture. Matt’s been running a survey of taxonomy professionals in Australia, and we’ve fed some of the insights from that survey into the workshop design. There’s a $100 discount if you register before 12 November, and participants get a free copy of my book! More details here.

Oct 05

Error Cascades in Semantic Classification

Here’s an interesting piece from the New York Times on the effort to develop intelligent machine categorisation. Most interesting is the way that early mistakes in the computer’s interpretation of content leads to mistake “avalanches” because prior learning is used to make inferences about future learning.

“When Dr. Mitchell scanned the “baked goods” category recently, he noticed a clear pattern. NELL was at first quite accurate, easily identifying all kinds of pies, breads, cakes and cookies as baked goods. But things went awry after NELL’s noun-phrase classifier decided “Internet cookies” was a baked good. (Its database related to baked goods or the Internet apparently lacked the knowledge to correct the mistake.) NELL had read the sentence “I deleted my Internet cookies.” So when it read “I deleted my files,” it decided “files” was probably a baked good, too. “It started this whole avalanche of mistakes,” Dr. Mitchell said. He corrected the Internet cookies error and restarted NELL’s bakery education.”

Sep 29

When is a Toy Not a Toy?

When it comes under onerous safety legislation, it seems. For those who believe that taxonomies describe the nature of things in themselves, and that taxonomies of things are the easiest things to create because of their observable, objective characteristics, this story from the New York Times illustrates how political shifts in the human system can drive previously uncontroversial categories and criteria for classification into headlong disarray. New safety legislation enacted in the USA places such an onerous burden on toymakers that previous classification criteria such as size, packaging, intended use or ultimate use are all up for grabs as toymakers redefine who uses their products and why.

Jul 07

Misclassification as an Act of Power

It’s one thing to get the taxonomy right. It’s quite another to ensure that it is applied correctly, and that content is classified as intended. In my book I talk about classification as an act of power. It can be used on people (as the apartheid regime in South Africa taught us) to exclude them from equal benefits, to impose sanctions, or to find excuses for genocide. In this story, Fedex has been found guilty of wrongly classifying workers as independent contractors to avoid paying them benefits. An Illinois court agreed that: “FedEx controlled the drivers work to such an extent that all the drivers were and are employees”. This classification error could cost Fedex up to $1 billion in back-payment of lost benefits. Thanks to Maish for the heads up on this one!