Setting up a knowledge management system across an organization may sometimes seem like an impossible goal. Trying to systematically organize knowledge, whether documented or tacit, within a company calls for structuring of information that seems to cover anything that the company can potentially touch upon. This in turn calls for extensive meta-knowledge about the organization.
A surprisingly simple yet effective approach for helping meet this need for meta-knowledge are organizational taxonomies. See Box 1 for "What is a taxonomy?" Taxonomies have been used in many fields for a long time. For example, in botany, taxonomies are used for plant classification. Here the complexity may be in the shear number of entities that need to be considered rather than the need for sophisticated constructs. There are many species of plant, but the ontology is based on a relatively small number of groupings such as phylum, class, family, etc, with typeof used as a relationship.
Taxonomies are the basis of classfication schemes and indexing systems in information management such as the Dewey Decimal System. Taxonomies are even more wide spread with applications including post codes (zip codes) used by postal services, and job categories used by tax collection agencies. With the advent of the internet, there has been increased interest in using taxonomies for structuring information for easier management and retrieval.
One of the first big ebusiness organizations to harness taxonomies was Yahoo (www.yahoo.com). To help users navigate the web, they developed a broad and deep structuring of topics covered on the web. Starting from a general topic, users can navigate to desired topics of interest at an appropriate granularity. Whilst this is a large taxonomy, it is not a sophisticated in terms of the underlying formalisation. Yet it is an approach that is being pushed by further organizations such as Wordmap (www.wordmap.co.uk) who have added some context-sensitive disambiguation of search terms.
To illustrate the taxonomy used in Wordmap, typing in the search term Lotus will result in fragments of the taxonomy being returned that end in Lotus. Some of these fragment include Shopping > Vehicles > Cars > Lotus , Computers > Software > Groupware > Lotus Notes , Society > Religion > Yoga > Postures > Lotus position , and Regional > North America > United States > Regions > California > Localities > Lotus . Each of these branches therefore ends in a different interpretation of the search term. Clicking on one of the leaves will take you to a set of corresponding web pages.
Within ebusiness, taxonomies are implicitly or explicitly the subject of much deliberation at the development stage of more complex websites. Any site that gives users a number of routes through the site to a particular destination should be managed consistently so that updates take account of inter-dependencies. A common ontology, based on a taxonomy, can help both the content managers and the users to be clear about the inter-dependencies between terms.
Consider a navigation path in an online catalogue that starts at computers, goes to multimedia computers, and ends at multimedia computers at home. Now consider another path starting at home electronics, goes to home entertainment, and ends at home multimedia computers. Probably, these two end points refer to the same item. If so, it would be desirable that the same term is used in both cases. By adopting a common ontology, the use of equivalent terms may be obviated.
Structural problems with content can also be addressed with taxonomies. An error that can easily arise is for a cycle to occur in a hierarchy. So for example, we could have a path that says Product A is a type of Product B, Product B is a type of Product C, and Product C is a type of Product A. Whilst this violates the definition of a hierarchy, it is difficult to spot.
A third kind of problem involves deciding on an appropriate set of constructs. Consider an online catalogue for a motor manufacturer such as Ford. We can start with a set of vehicles and then identify subsets of different brands Ford, Volvo, Land Rover, etc. and subsets for each of these for models such as Mondeo, Range Rover, etc. But now, suppose we want to capture parts. Some parts only work for certain models built in certain periods. What is the most efficient way of capturing this? Now consider accessories. If we have a customer who is navigating down a path to Range Rover models, how do we capture the relationship with Land Rover Accessories, or even Land Rover Branded Clothes?
A number of software supplier have developed products to support the creation and mangement of taxonomic catalogues for B2B ecommerce. A leading specialist supplier of catalogue content management software is Requisite Technology (www.requisite.com) based in Colorado in the US. Products include eMerge which allows organizations to construct an online catalogue for procurement. Suppliers load product information into eMerge, and this information is organized into a consistent structure and staged for review and approval before loading into an eProcurement catalogue. Searching an online catalogue is then via text searching, including key word searching, or tree searching. In tree searching, the user navigates through the taxonomy of catagories of items. Organizations using this software include Reuters and Delta Airlines. Recently various net marketplaces have also adopted it. These include SciQuest, PlasticsNet.com, and Petrocosm.
Within knowledge management, the role of taxonomies can be pushed even wider. A taxonomy provides a perspective on an organization. Each taxonomy breaks the organization in some way, and the range of possibilities includes: types of revenue stream, types of services offered by the organization, types of knowledge experts offered by the organization, types of customers, and types of services bought in. Each of these taxonomies can be illuminating for the participants involved in their construction, and they constitute valuable transferable knowledge that can support decision making. They may also lead to creative improvements in the organizations.
One of the things to note in the examples of taxonomies for an organization is the use of the word "type of". This gives an important handle on ways of constructing taxonomies. We focus on this in Box 2 on "Constructing hierarchies". Whilst, there are no hard and fast rules for constructing taxonomies, they draw easily on established knowledge about an organization, including its products, people, or customers.
In the short term, the two key applications of taxonomies in knowledge management are likely to be in helping users navigate to web-based resources such as web-pages and pdf files on a knowledge management intranet, and in the construction of taxonomic breakdown of experts in an organization. Users navigate these taxonomies to find the information or experts that they require. There are clearly pros and cons of using tree searching, but it can be combined with key-word search to offer a hybrid approach. One of the key advantages of tree searching is that users can browse more easily than with key-word searching. And of course having users browsing information can be an ideal form of knowledge dissemination in an organization.
Anthony Hunter is a lecturer in computer science at University College London. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org