posted 18 Mar 2002 in Volume 5 Issue 6
Real-world taxonomy development
Creating a taxonomy that makes sense to your employees
Corporate taxonomies aim to empower employees by allowing them to access the knowledge they need to overcome the problems they face in their day-to-day work, yet many implementations fail to even consider the needs of their end-users. Bonnie Cheuk draws on Brenda Dervin’s Sense-Making methodology in describing an approach to taxonomy development that takes into account real-world business needs.
The Sense-Making methodology and knowledge management
This article is theoretically informed by Dervin’s Sense-Making methodology as a means to understanding knowledge management. The Sense-Making methodology incorporates meta-theoretic assumptions, a foundation of methodological guidance, specific research methods (both for data collection and for question framing and analysis), and a set of communication practices. All of these elements are generated from a philosophical perspective that regards information as a human tool designed for making sense of a reality that is both chaotic and orderly.
Sense-Making is based on the central metaphor of a person walking through time-space, facing a gap, bridging the gap to make sense and moving on to the next moment in time-space. This metaphor is referred to as the Sense-Making Triangle. Its central meta-theoretic concepts include: time, space, horizon, movement, gap and power. Its central operational concepts include: situation, history, gap, barrier, constraint, force, bridge, sense-making strategies, outcomes, helps and hurts.
Sense-Making makes no distinction between knowledge and information. Knowledge is the sense made at a particular point in time-space by an individual. As Dervin says, sometimes it is shared and codified; sometimes a number of people agree upon it; sometimes it is entered into a formalised discourse and gets published; sometimes it gets tested in other times and spaces and takes on the status of facts; sometimes it is fleeting and unexpressed; sometimes it is hidden and suppressed; sometimes it gets imprimatured and becomes unjust law; sometimes it takes on the status of dogma.
Sense-Making challenges the assumption that knowledge is only a commodity that can be captured, stored, retrieved and used in achieving effective outcomes. No-one would argue that the formation, retrieval and application of facts (what Sense-Making refers to as ‘factizing’) is not a worthwhile goal for knowledge management. But the belief that effectiveness is embodied in information/knowledge rests on the idea that it can be transferred from person to person and time-space to time-space (as water can be poured from one bucket to another) without interrogation and interpretation.
When applying Sense-Making to understand knowledge management in the context of the workplace, it is helpful to use the metaphor of employees (eg, consultants or engineers) walking down a road. At some point in time, they enter a Sense-Making situation: they encounter a gap (eg, a client reports an unusual problem). To continue the journey, the employees have to get help to bridge the gap in order for them to continue their journey towards their destination. It is critical that they are able to seek out answers to their questions (whether in the form of best practices, previous reports, past experiences or by talking to an expert) that allow them to move on with their work.
While the Sense-Making methodology is framed so it applies to purposeful and accidental, as well as helpful and obstructive, knowledge seeking, this article focuses on the purposeful and helpful instances. Knowledge management, viewed from this perspective, can therefore be regarded as any form of assistance that allows employees to make sense in situations where they encounter a gap, ultimately leading to new understanding or ways of working, the solution of problems and innovation.
The role of taxonomies in bridging the gap
In a corporate environment, different individuals and departments purchase, collect and create knowledge in the process of doing their daily work. For example, experts are hired and technical problems are solved. Yet employees usually do not know what their colleagues already know, and as a result, resources are spent to re-invent the wheel or even to repeat the past mistakes.
Even if we assume that employees know exactly what knowledge exists within the firm, they generally find that they have to spend an enormous amount of time just trying to locate the information (or expert) rather than adding value from existing knowledge.
When people encounter a ‘gap’ and face a Sense-Making situation, they tend to turn to existing documentation, surf the internet/intranet and talk to colleagues. They will typically address the gap they face by asking these questions: what documents are available? Where do I locate them? Who are the experts? Where are they now?
If an organisation is to develop the ability to leverage its corporate memory, it must both capture the knowledge that exists and, more importantly, organise it so that employees can locate it as and when they need it. A knowledge taxonomy, which is generally defined as a structure or classification scheme that helps an enterprise to organise its knowledge within a logical framework, can be invaluable in helping to achieve that goal.
A knowledge taxonomy uses enterprise-specific terminology and controlled vocabulary as metadata to catalogue and retrieve knowledge. A well-designed taxonomy allows employees to locate the documents or people they are looking for. On a higher level, it also presents users with an understanding of the breadth and depth of the organisation knowledge resources. In addition, the structure of the taxonomy reveals the relationships between different topics and allows users to drill down into specific subject areas.
A partial solution
Imagine a library that has a collection of over a million titles. If the books are placed randomly on the shelves, how are visitors to locate the items they are interested in? Librarians have long understood the importance of developing universal subject classification schemes, and employ professional cataloguers to file each title according to a controlled vocabulary (ie, predefined subject headings). Library materials are arranged on the shelves according to their subject ‘aboutness’. Visitors are able to browse the library subject headings to locate the materials they need. This allows them to locate a particular title and also to browse the books ‘before’ and ‘after’ their specific topic of interest.
However, ask any library user whether it is easy to locate the materials they need, and most will concede it is rarely a straightforward task. Reference librarians will argue that people do not use the ‘right’ terminology when posing a question at the reference desk, or that they type in an inappropriate keyword or phase in the search query text box. But library users typically find it difficult to ask the right question, primarily because they do not know what they don’t know. As a result, they are often unable to obtain exactly what they require and leave the library unsatisfied.
The reason library users so often find library catalogues difficult to use is that they are designed from a system perspective. Materials are organised so that the librarians themselves know exactly where to locate the information they are looking for. Self-service users, however, have difficulty, particularly if they are unfamiliar with the classification scheme. To them, the Dewey classification system can seem like a foreign language. It is not surprising that information and library science professionals have been calling for a more user-centric approach to organising information since the 1970s.
Moving beyond the traditional library classification model
In the 1990s, executives in need of finding ways to organise corporate knowledge quickly borrowed best practices from the traditional library setting in their attempts to build a taxonomy. Many achieved a certain level of success; at the very least, content became more organised. However, their efforts also served to transfer some of the traditional problems with classification schemes to the corporate setting.
Most corporate taxonomies are developed using a system-approach. This may reflect the organisation chart, the official structure of a company or the manager’s mental model of where corporate knowledge lies. Yet employees are often left facing the same problem: because the taxonomy is not naturally intuitive to the users, employees are unable to find what they are looking for.
Is there a way to improve user experience? By applying the Sense-Making methodology to taxonomy development, we are better able to understand the role of the taxonomy in helping users to bridge the gaps they encounter in their work. Taxonomy development should take into account the situations that lead employees to look for information, the outcome they are hoping for, how they want to achieve this and the external forces they are subjected to. Taxonomy plays a larger role than simply organising content in a systematic way.
Developing a taxonomy that makes sense to your employees
Informed by Sense-Making methodology to understand knowledge management and user behaviour, it is possible to develop an alternative approach to taxonomic development. The key points to remember are:
- A taxonomy should organise information into categories that reflect the way in which employees intuitively look for information, rather than the way in which the information is created (or the way information is understood from the knowledge manager’s perspective). It is important to consider the different types of situations that lead employees to seek and use information, the gaps employees say they are facing and the type of help they require to do their jobs;
- A taxonomy should make use of the language employees use naturally at work, rather than including only official terminology. The employees’ choice of preferred terms will emerge naturally if they are asked to share the real Sense-Making situations they face at work;
- A taxonomy must change over time to reflect evolving business needs and changing communication patterns within an organisation;
- Some of the terms used in a taxonomy may be ambiguous. This is a limitation of language itself. Different people use different terms to refer to the same subjects. If necessary, a note (or glossary) should be readily accessible to allow associations between related concepts to emerge. A system with a built-in synonyms and acronyms table can help.
A highly simplified example is used below to illustrate an approach to developing a taxonomy that makes sense to the employees. Taxonomy A is an example of a system-oriented corporate taxonomy designed to organise the knowledge residing within a management consulting firm. In this case, the knowledge manager has carefully audited all the available resources and has organised them in a systematic way.
- Case studies;
- Marketing brochures;
- Press releases;
- White papers.
- Skills database;
- External research database A;
- External research database B.
However, according to a piece of in-house research conducted by a professional service firm in May 2001, consultants do not think in terms of these resource types in the course of selling and delivering consultancy work. Rather, consultants see themselves as facing Sense-Making situations that include the need to develop marketing materials, write a proposal, deliver client work, conduct industry research, and so on. When asked what kind of help they needed relative to each Sense-Making situation, the consultants mentioned the need to locate experts to help them better understand a problem, access externals news to identify a client’s business environment and anticipate their needs, find past documentation relating to the client, etc. As such, if the taxonomy were to take into account the actual situations the employees face and the type of help they require, it could be re-designed in a very different structure incorporating different terminology (as shown in taxonomy B).
Developing marketing materials:
- Case studies;
- Marketing brochures;
- Press releases;
- White papers.
- Past proposals;
- Skills database.
Developing client deliverables:
Conducting external research:
- External research database A;
- External research database B.
This example does not prove that taxonomy B is definitely better than taxonomy A; the effectiveness of a taxonomy of course depends on who the users are and what kind of assistance they require to make sense of certain situations. But whereas professional librarians, researchers or knowledge managers may find taxonomy A sufficient, if the objective of the taxonomy is to offer self-service help to management consultants, taxonomy B should certainly be more user-friendly and, ultimately, more effective.
It is unreasonable to expect all employees to exhibit the skills possessed by professional librarians or researchers. If your taxonomy is to add real value to your business, it is must be intuitive to those who use it. To achieve this objective, a user-centred approach should be taken from the start of the development process. In particular, it is important to develop a good understanding of employees’ real-life Sense-Making situations, and of how they seek and use information to bridge the gaps they face in their day-to-day work. After all, knowledge management is, or should be, about empowering employees by allowing them to access the knowledge they require, as and when they need it.
1. Further information on Sense-Making and on how Sense-Making can be applied to knowledge management can be found in:
Dervin, B., ‘Sense-Making theory and practice: An overview of user interests in knowledge seeking and use’ in The Journal of Knowledge Management (Vol. 2, Iss. 2, December, 1998)
Dervin, B., ‘On studying information seeking and use methodologically: The implications of connecting metatheory to method’ in Information Processing and Management (1999)
Dervin, B. & Frenette, M., ‘Applying Sense-Making methodology: Communicating communicatively with campaign audiences’ in Rice, R. & Atkin, C. K., (Eds.), Public Communication Campaigns (3rd Ed., Thousand Oaks, 2001)
2. It is important to emphasise that the Sense-Making Triangle is a highly abstract meta-theoretic tool and is not to be regarded as a picture of reality. For more information, refer to the above sources.
Bonnie Cheuk is part of a team that drives the global knowledge management initiatives for an industry group within Andersen. She can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org