People need to decide when they are building their taxonomy if they have one point of origin or if they are interdisciplinary. Some firms start with a one-point path; it is that path and that path alone that drives the firm. They have a single point of origin. They will need to clearly state term relationships, which is not always done.

A taxonomy is a knowledge organization system, usually for a specific subject area. This, in itself, helps to disambiguate and define the terms. So, for instance, we generally don’t need to define plasma. In a medical vocabulary, plasma means one thing; in a physics vocabulary it means something else. But we don’t need to define what we mean by “plasma”, unless we are in biophysics.

Ironically, the same subject focus that makes definitions unnecessary for some terms in some taxonomies makes them vital when taxonomies are merged or mapped to each other to expand their scope. We have seen many, many instances where the same term in one of the taxonomies means something entirely different in the other taxonomy. Even when two taxonomies are about the same subject (but perhaps wander off into different side paths), the same thing can occur; this calls for very careful mapping, and strategies for resolving the inconsistencies.

Consistency and clarity of meaning are vital benefits of taxonomies; they give taxonomies the power to do what they do for knowledge management.

Marjorie M.K. Hlava
President, Access Innovations