posted 12 Apr 2007 in Volume 10 Issue 7
Author: Patrick Lambe
Publisher: Chandos Publishing
It was Jan Wylie who persuaded Inside Knowledge to rush out a review of Organizing Knowledge, the moment our review copy arrived. “It’s excellent background for non-specialists. Full of insights and useful tips. You really must read it,” he insisted.
And who can ignore such an emphatic recommendation, especially from someone as knowledgeable in the field of taxonomies as Jan Wylie?
While it is aimed at knowledge managers and people planning a taxonomy implementation, Lambe’s style is easy to follow, starting from first principles: can we organise knowledge? Good question and one that Lambe deftly and succinctly answers.
“Many would say that knowledge cannot be organised because it resides in people’s minds and abilities. What can be organised is information, which resides in documents on other artefacts,” writes Lambe. People do, however, often confuse knowledge with information – an error compounded by over-simplifications of the definitions of tacit and explicit knowledge, he believes.
Nevertheless, the organisation of information forms an important part of KM and many knowledge managers’ roles. “Knowledge organisation is a fundamental pre-condition for managing knowledge effectively,” Lambe concludes.
Lambe emphasises that taxonomies can be implemented in a variety of forms, depending on the application, and examines each in turn: lists, trees, hierarchies, polyhierarchies, matrices, facets and system maps.
There are subtle differences between these approaches that can make a genuine difference. “Take the Indian caste system, for example. Hierarchy is best represented as a pyramid or a list rather than as a tree, because a hierarchical tree would mistakenly suggest that Brahmanic power over Dalits is mediated exclusively through the other cases, or that Dalits are a part of Brahmana or are a variety of Shudra and so on,” writes Lambe.
Of course, in most organisations (especially outside the scientific world, for example) the value of taxonomies is not in terms of the way in which they help organise information, but in the role they play in facilitating access to information. That is to say, it is not the categorisation per se that counts, but how easily people can retrieve information using them.
“Inexperienced taxonomists, brought up in the tradition of scientific taxonomic correctness, still believe that there can only be one correct place for any item, and agonise for hours over the correct place for the item to go. Don’t. It’s not worth it. Put it where it’s most likely to be found and used.”
And Lambe makes a persuasive case for taxonomies, too, as a means of helping to unite and channel the right information to the right people at the right time. At the same time, however, he also warns of the dangers of being misled, citing as an example the initial response to the outbreak of the SARS virus.
Standard medical treatment of known illnesses and conditions is globally taxonomised in order to provide doctors with a best-practice treatment pathway. So when SARS first struck in Hong Kong, doctors naturally consulted the appropriate taxonomies to try and work out how to treat this new illness.
Initially, it was treated as a form of viral pneumonia because that was the known disease whose symptoms it most closely resembled. In such diseases, the lungs fill with fluid until the victim can no longer breath. The standard treatment when that happens, therefore, is to perform a tracheotomy – to cut a hole in the patient’s windpipe – in order to drain the fluids from the lungs.
However, doctors and nurses who had been treating SARS patients started to fall ill, despite the belief that a virus of that nature could not survive for long outside the body – at least according to the classifications that healthcare workers had been following.
But in Vietnam – the first country to contain its SARS outbreak, according to the World Health Organisation – authorities dealing with SARS did not follow the official taxonomy, figuring that the cause of transmission to healthcare workers must have been the tracheotomy, which tends to spray fluid far and wide when it is performed.
Instead, they pumped the victims full of antibiotics and hoped for the best. While the antibiotics would have made no difference, the death rate from SARS in Vietnam was nevertheless half that of Hong Kong. The account underscores both the importance of the correct classification, as well as the dangers of relying exclusively on it.
Such examples not only illustrate the wide-ranging uses of taxonomies, grounding the subject in the real world and helping to demonstrate their relevance, but help to make for a most readable book on an otherwise dry subject – and that’s quite an achievement.
However, the book is not without its imperfections. “It’s weaknesses, ironically, are in the organisation of its subject matter and the almost complete lack of attention to the technological context, such as the semantic web and the software automation side of the taxonomy story,” says Wylie.
As such, he adds, it makes a perfect complement to Ark Group’s own more comprehensive and technology savvy Taxonomies: Frameworks for corporate knowledge. But perhaps the writer of Ark Group’s, best-selling report would say that…
Review by Graeme Burton.