Don’t Know Much About Taxonomy

Use the time-honored techniques of science to build your business.Today’s knowledge management specialists must manage a rapidly expanding pool of knowledge. Without a well-designed organizational structure, gross inefficiencies will attend retrieving and amending that knowledge base, wasting time, money and opportunities. To meet this challenge, many businesses have taken a page from their old biology textbook. Their knowledge management strategies incorporate the development of a business taxonomy.

Taxonomy is defined as “The practice and science of classification of things or concepts, and the principles that underlie such classification.” It most often describes biological taxonomy, classifying the many thousands of different extant and extinct organisms in a logical hierarchy according to their natural relationships, as first laid out by Carl Linnaeus in his groundbreaking Systema Naturae in 1735.

Biological Taxonomy

Systema Naturae stands, along with Newton’s Principia Mathematica and Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, as one of the most influential science texts of all time. The ideas expressed have grown and expanded dramatically in the subsequent centuries, and continue to do so today, but the underlying principles remain. The essential operation in creating a taxonomy is dividing a very large number of items into a manageable number of smaller groups, each of which is defined by rigorously outlined criteria.  Each of those groups is divided into sub-groups, which are in turn divided into even smaller sub-groups, and so forth.

Biological taxonomy starts with large groups, including animals and plants. Animals can be divided into vertebrates and invertebrates, plants into flowering and non-flowering plants. Vertebrate animals can be further divided into mammals, reptiles, birds, mammals, fish and amphibians. Mammals include numerous sub-groups, including primates, and these, in turn, contain even more extensively defined sub-groups, including our own homo sapiens. When Linnaeus began his classification system, there were only about 6,000 species of plants and fewer than 5,000 species of animals identified. Today there are close to two million identified species, all classified in accordance within the well-defined framework of modern biological taxonomy.

Useful Distinctions

The informational resources of modern-day knowledge managers in any business can benefit from organization in a similar hierarchical structure. The most important element in designing a useful taxonomy is understanding the relevant distinctions between the individual items being organized. What information is similar enough that it should be grouped together? What distinctions are important enough that they should be used to discriminate between different content items, relegating some to one group, and otherwise similar content to a different group? For a biologist, dividing all animals into vertebrates and invertebrates is a logical and useful way to cleave the set of thousands of animals into two neat subgroups. For a business, the most logical distinction between the thousands of individual knowledge resources might be customer-facing versus internal content, for example.

Rigorous Definition

Another key to designing a successful business taxonomy is ensuring very careful and rigorous definitions of the various groups. If the definitions are clear and unambiguous, everything will fall naturally into its proper place. If the definitions lack rigor, and interpretation becomes subjective, different individuals might classify the same piece of content in a very different way. If you were creating a sub-division of content that applied specifically to “small businesses,” it’s important to spell out exactly what defines a small business. You might use any of a variety of criteria, including total volume of sales, profits or structure of incorporation. Which criteria you decide upon depends on what distinctions are most useful to make. But wherever you decide that the lines are drawn, it’s important that the distinctions are clearly and objectively defined.

Trial and Error

In Linnaeus’s first edition of Systema Naturae,  whales were classified as fishes. Today, of course they share with us humans the mammalian class. Linnaeus himself corrected this in his 1758 revision.  His first edition, in 1735, comprised only 11 pages. By the 12th edition, in 1768, it had grown to 2,400 pages. Vigilance and attention to detail are essential to developing and maintaining an effective business taxonomy. Your first best guess as to what differentiation criteria and definitions will be most appropriate might not turn out to be as useful in practice as they did in theory. Successful knowledge management specialists start with a flexible framework encompassing the big picture, refining the process and filling in the details based on experience and careful observation.

Knowledge Management Solutions

Developing a business taxonomy for organizing informational content is an increasingly popular knowledge management solution for many of today’s successful companies. If you run a business and find that your knowledge base has become unmanageably extensive and complex, consider partnering with a knowledge management company with experience in taxonomy development and implementation to organize that chaotic content into an ordered hierarchy. Do it right, and you can be an A student, baby. Even if you don’t know much about your science book.

Andrew Breslin is the author of two novels, Mother’s Milk, published in 2005 by ENC Press, and Practical Applications of Game Theory, currently being published in serial form at Imaginaire, the Journal of Mathematical Fiction. He blogs and reviews books at Goodreads. Some of his short fiction can be found on his website. When he isn’t writing he enjoys playing the banjo, chess, idolizing his cat, and thinking about math.

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