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Making the Case: Explaining Taxonomy to Business People

For many information science professionals, it’s easy to become accustomed to common problems and their attendant solutions as basic or obvious.  This is a natural consequence of working closely with concepts and colleagues.  Taxonomists, on the other hand, must pay careful attention to the way that different people use language and are often reminded that those outside of the field consider much of our work to be hopelessly arcane, confusing and difficult.  Despite the unconscious usage of taxonomy as an organizational model in everyday life, people are suspicious of the T-word, and may be resistant to collaborating with the project team.  Though it may be strange to think of librarians in terms of charisma, a good taxonomist must also be a good salesman.

There are many ways to explain taxonomy to laypeople, but the best method is to connect it to ordinary tasks that your audience has likely performed hundreds or thousands of times.  This method helps in two ways: by phrasing the concepts with simple, familiar terminology and providing examples of organizational schema using concrete objects or real tasks.  Connecting the subject material to common usage will help “take the edge off” the concept of taxonomy and give your audience a working (if basic) understanding.

There are two stories that I’ve often used to “sell” the idea of taxonomy.  When I ask the participants to name items that could be found in my kitchen, they will respond with things like pots, pans, various appliances and other common kitchenware.  The very high level of accuracy they achieve without ever having set foot in my kitchen is the result of an unconscious ‘Taxonomy of Things that Belong in a Kitchen,” which illustrates that taxonomy is a common mental model that users innately understand.

The second story helps to describe the difference between taxonomy and ontology using the common example of their bedroom closet at home.  There are a number of different methods people could use to organize their closet based on physical attributes like size, material, color or type of clothing, which represent what the items are (“is-ness”).  Another way to successfully organize the closet would be based on characteristics like occasion, season or usage; the second method represents what the clothing is for (“about-ness”).

Helping the audience to understand the underlying concepts is one of the biggest challenges that taxonomists face.  Spending time up front to explain the concepts in clear, plain terms will go a long way towards socialization efforts, and successful socialization will drive adoption.  Building a strong taxonomy is an appropriate goal, but building consensus and mutual understanding is just as important.

Earley Information Science Team
Earley Information Science Team
We're passionate about enterprise data and love discussing industry knowledge, best practices, and insights. We look forward to hearing from you! Comment below to join the conversation.

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