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Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies Matter!
on March 18, 2008
If I follow the writing principle of bottom line and idea first then I would have to say Patrick Lambe's "Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness" is a five-star publication. Using the four-point scale Study, Read, Skim, Bin as a guide to the effort that might be invested, this book definitely warrants a Study rating. So what's so good about the book?
Well judging by my margin scribbles and underlining lots! First it is an entertaining, coherent and easy read. Patrick's assertion that - "If taxonomies classify, describe and map knowledge domains, then taxonomy work is made up of the things we must do to achieve that outcome: listing, creating and modifying categories, standardising, mapping, representing, discovering native vocabularies and categories, negotiating common terms" (p. 11) - resonates with me and is an example of the practical flavour of the book. Similarly I found Patrick's taxonomy forms - lists, trees, hierarchies, poly-hierarchies, matrices, facets, and system maps - to be a useful classification and a guide to why some taxonomies fail and others succeed.
I must admit that I had never considered in any detail how our reasoning patterns impact on our taxonomies. Most of us reason by beginning in the middle and generalising upwards and differentiating downwards. It's an interesting insight which explains why so many tree structures don't work. I suspect we like tree structures because they are easy to understand and they at first impose order onto chaos.
I do think one or two longbows are drawn with some of the examples in the book - the Victoria Climbie child abuse discussion being a case in point. The archetype typology - a special type of taxonomy - is another. Despite this the examples serve to show in a practical way how a well designed taxonomy can help in knowledge discovery and knowledge articulation.
Perhaps one of the most interesting insights in the book is the notion of taxonomies as boundary objects. A well designed taxonomy can allow different groups of people to find common ground and therefore communicate. One example is communication between amateur ornithologists and professional zoologists. Another is communication between economists and health professionals through the International Classification of Diseases taxonomy.
Patrick signed my copy on the 14th of August 2007, and wrote the following comment on the front page - "For Graham in the hope you will find this useful!" Well I've skimmed the book more times than I can remember, I've studied it twice, and read it twice (both in a single sitting)! The book is very useful and should be on the shelf of anyone who professes to be a knowledge management practitioner. In my view it should also be mandatory reading for students of library science, knowledge management and information management. I'm certainly convinced that taxonomies matter!