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Taxonomy or Classification?: Part 1: Which is it to be, and.... Does it bring chaos to order?

As an IM consultant of some decades, (my grey hairs did not come easily,) I have often been asked what is meant by a 'taxonomy' or the more worrying question, 'Could you define and implement a taxonomy for the company/organisation?'. The literal description of Taxonomy in Wikipedia is "Taxonomy (from Ancient Greek [phrase omitted] (taxis), meaning 'arrangement1, and -[text not reproducible] (-nomia), meaning 'method') is the science of defining and naming groups of biological organisms on the basis of shared characteristics. Organisms are grouped together into taxa (singular: taxon) and these groups are given a taxonomic rank; groups of a given rank can be aggregated to form a super-group of higher rank, thus creating a taxonomic hierarchy. The principal ranks in modern use are domain, kingdom, phylum (division is sometimes used in botany in place of phylum), class, order, family, genus and species. The Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus is regarded as the father of taxonomy, as he developed a system known as Linnaean taxonomy for categorization of organisms and binomial nomenclature for naming organisms." So there we have it, and this description relating to biological organisms is precisely why I hate the use of the word taxonomy in a business context. The last time I looked, content was a passive, non-sentient, nonbiological entity.

Much better in my view is the term 'classification' which, as a noun, is the action or process of classifying something. This is more aligned with library and therefore document and content filing practice, where you need to classify something to define where it should go within the filing system. Paper systems may well have originated as trees and eventually been converted to paper, but I feel that filing paper or digital files using a biological classification and the true meaning of the word taxonomy, is a bit of a stretch. Electronic systems are no different to analogue content collections, although I will say that a terminal digit indexing system such as the Dewey Decimal System is more suited to books than (say) management reports or the electrical diagrams for a power station.

My rant over, can a classification system work for you and will it truly bring order back to your filing--electronic of analogue? The answer is 'Yes--but!' Yes--because having any sort of filing system, even a rough sort, is better than nothing at all. But--some thought needs to be given to the classification system currently used, or to be used in the future, and this system needs to be defined, documented, signed off, (but not entirely cast in stone,) and all of this done before you even begin indexing or re-indexing of content. (The implications of not having the classification tiers and structures agreed up-front are as far-reaching as they are serious. Making changes to existing content and/or once the classification has already begun, is extremely difficult and can end up being a very costly exercise. This is usually because although you may have a single item of content in front of you such as the aforementioned power station electrical diagram, that single drawing relates to many other drawings and documents, and to change all references, in all locations, and not omit something or just get it plain wrong, could well become a health and safety issue.)

Begin with what you have. Let's for now assume you are an information manager wanting to classify electronic-based content for a large multi-national power company. (Think EDF.) You should therefore already have a directory structure within which the content resides. Here is your first area of concern in terms of:

1. Do you allow users to hold working documents on their local PC or laptop drives?

Yes--Well shame on you. Having a company rule in place which (theoretically at least, as users will be users,) forces them to only store company data on the network shared drives is a much safer option. (Backup, DR, security, etc.)

If this is a Yes, you need to purge the PCs because otherwise, valuable and possibly key company information may well be being stored outside of corporate reach, uncontrolled, and not backed up.

If this is a No, then good for you, your IT department is probably on the ball.

2. Do users all store documents within a directory hierarchy on their allocated shared drive?

Yes--again, good for you. This does raise a further question which is 'Do users all call the same document the same thing and if coded (e.g. PRO = Process Document) are all of the codes current and approved. (Be aware that this type of anomaly is normally unearthed only during system analysis, especially if there are numerous systems in use which can author, (and/or release,) key controlled documents. E.g. A maintenance management system such as Maximo may well carry different validation values to a document control system such as Assai, which may again be different to a document management system such as Documentum. The previous Process Document may well be being held against the validation abbreviations PRO, PRD, or something else.)

No--Why not? Where or how DO they store content?

You can begin to see here that consistency is the name of the storage game, and this is before we even get to touch upon the actual structure within any classification. Getting all of the data in one place is not going to be easy, so only you can decide what needs to placed where. Using a document management system such as Documentum is a good start but remember that not all content needs managed in the controlled document sense of the word. Take seismic data files, geological survey data, video, and the plethora of other content that does not need a document number as an example. Collectively, this all forms an important part of your organisations IP, so needs to be held responsibly, securely, be discoverable, auditable and ultimately--someone needs to be accountable for it.

John Baker has consulted on many projects of varying sizes, including an 8 million row database migration and classification 'reboot' for a USA nuclear power company.

Next time, we lift the lid off the hierarchy you are currently using, assess its structure, and see how that might compare to a new and redefined company-wide classification system.

[Please note: Some non-Latin characters were omitted from this article.] By John Baker, Managing Director, Intelligen Ltd
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Author:Baker, John
Publication:IDMi (Information & Document Management International)
Date:Dec 1, 2018
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