Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, Knowledge and Organisational Effectiveness

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I have now finished reading this splendid book by Patrick Lambe. It is one of those books that is really hard to take notes from because you just want to write so much of it down. It is extremely readable and combines clear explanations of theory with sound practical advice and insights from real world experience. I particularly appreciated definitions of concepts like the Babel instinct, boundary objects, salience, and archetypes.

Is there a language problem with quantum physics?

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Estimated reading time 2–2 minutes

Is there a language problem with quantum physics? – fundamentals – 05 January 2008 – New Scientist is a fascinating proposition. David Peat is a theoretical physicist who points out that European languages are bound up with notions of Newtonian physics and classical categorisation. He and the US physicists David Bohm held a meeting in 1992 with the elders of the Blackfoot, Micmac and Ojibwa tribes, who speak Algonquian langauages. The speakers of these languages don’t tend to divide the world into categories of objects but talk about things in terms of processes. They describe things and people as being in a constant state of change, appearing and sinking back into a flowing cosmos. Algonquian speakers even have rituals designed to stop objects from being reabsorbed back into the universe. The physicists were amazed at how close the elders’ way of thinking seemed to mirror quantum processes. Peat suggests that such languages and ways of thought could be what western physicists need to help them create a better framework for discussing problems in quantum physics that might lead to solutions to current problems.

This resonated with my wonderings about where categories come from and how language, culture, and society affect the way we organise our thougths and our things. (I have just started reading Women, Fire, and Dangerous Things: What catergories reveal about the mind by George Lakoff) but it also reminded me of something Patrick Lambe discusses in his excellent book Organising Knowledge: Taxonomies, knowledge and organisational effectiveness where he talks about taxonomies as processes and how they need to flow with changes in organisations and the wider world.

The Essentials of Metadata and Taxonomy

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The Essentials of Metadata and Taxonomy

Conference in London on March 10th. Join a host of leading experts as they discuss how your business can manage and maintain a successful taxonomy and metadata strategies, essential for managing both internal and external data.

This looks good. I plan to be there! I have also been in touch with the organisers who will give me a discount for a group booking. If anyone is interested, please leave me a comment.

Search for synergy

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Estimated reading time 1–2 minutes

I’ve now spoken to two more taxonomy consultants who both expressed the opinion that folksonomies should be embraced, but only where they really work, and that they can’t always substitute for formal systems. Would anyone entrust their child’s health to the opinions of a random crowd, rather than a thorough examination by a trained and qualified expert? On a different theme, if you want a comprehensive stock control inventory so that you know how many items to order from your wholesaler, you want to know exactly how many widgets you have in your warehouse, not how many widgets, plus doodahs, plus gizmos, you have and hope when you’ve added them up you have the right number. You want to know that whenever a shipment has arrived, it has been logged on the system as a box of widgets, and not as whatever whoever happened to log the delivery felt like calling it at the time. On the other hand, you want your customers to be able to search for widgets using any term that springs to mind, and if it helps them to add a tag to your website labelling widgets “grandma’s buttons” so they can find and order them easily another time, then let them do it!

Knowledge organisation

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A good and detailed introduction to some key Knowledge organisation concepts and a few handy links by a learned chemist (interesting how so many “classifiers” are chemists!). I’m not sure I agree with the distinction between the role of the encylopedist and the information professional (having been both) – it seems to me that there is a lot of overlap! I am also not convinced that it is useful to talk about notions of only being able to categorise a topic successfully once it has ceased to grow. That seems to be calling upon a Platonic ideal where all that can ever be known is known. It seems to drive you down the same philosophical hole of deciding that you can’t prove or know anything anyway. In the real world, the notion of “successful” isn’t a Platonic ideal. A categorisation can be both successful and require updating. There are hardly any real world examples of a topic that has ceased to grow, except maybe very specific practical contexts, e.g. a service company that generated no physical products and has gone out of business (until the social historians start studying it). I find it hard to think of any truly “dead” topic in an abstract sense (alchemy? ancient Aramaic? – but people do still study them).

Taxonomies in business

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I’ve just finished Taxonomies for business: Access and Connectivity in a Wired World a very detailed survey, based on 20 case studies, of taxonomies in business contexts. Lots of good basic taxonomy theory, backed up by practical examples. Pretty dense, but very informative.