Great Dinner Conversation: Taxonomy and the Information Technology Industry

Y’all who didn’t stick around for dinner after the meeting missed a great conversation. Well, ok, perhaps I’m biased, but I’ll bet the taxonomist enjoyed it, too. It was one of these conversations that’s left my brain buzzing and sparking. I kept trying to talk myself out of blogging it, but I failed. When I pause to stare off into space at my desk Wednesday, y’all’ll know what’s on my mind.

For an upcoming presentation, someone suggested that the taxonomist talk about how folks in the tech sector could benefit from taxonomies and indexing.

“Absolutely!” I replied.
“Tell me more.” She requested.
I obliged.

Many of the places I’ve worked have some of the same problems, whether a tech company or another environment.

  • Some of the bundled tech services, like systems with email, wikis, document storage, and the like have the problem where you kinda have to know something exists in order to know to look for it and maybe have an inkling about where to find it. Why not a master index? Relying on known-item searching always seems like a bad idea to me in these situations.
  • Permissions are a tripwire. If the document or wiki page owner/creator didn’t give you permissions, you might not be able to find or access what you want.
  • In several of the tech companies I’ve been in, the tickets for fixing bugs and implementing features are in one place and specs are stored somewhere else. Someone must link the two together. And sometimes notes about specs, changes, and whatnot end up piecemeal in tickets and in people’s email accounts. How do you draw all that together? Again, you’re relying on people to keep notes current and update various documents. Some kind of index with arms pointing all over the place could be really useful, not only streamlining someone’s search for known information, but able to bring someone up to speed quickly on all the bits.
  • Many of the tech projects I’ve worked on have had a need for a taxonomy. For example, along the spine of several applications were lots of companies. I dreamed of the product having a taxonomy that would unify disparate company names and link merged and unmerged companies together. As soon as companies merged, newer entries for one would vanish, becoming part of the parent company’s record. Not everyone knows mergers happen nor does everyone know the point at which a certain company becomes an official part of another. Instead of thinking “Oh, that’s odd: this product doesn’t have records for a company past this year,” the customer would learn about the merger and be able to get information on that entity under/alongside its new parent.
  • I’ve implemented indexes in many places to facilitate information retrieval, often for visitors from the public coming to the web sites and sometimes for people who may not use the same kinds of words as those found in the content on the site, like using common parlance instead of scientific or medical terms.
  • Rather than forcing complicated navigation patterns on mobile device users and other people coming in on technology that benefits from simplified applications and sites (like those people using assistive or adaptive technology), indexes or other pointers to key locations in an app or on a web site can ease use.
  • In some places, a unified vocabulary across the company was useful. What one group called something might not be what another group calls it.
  • And there might be connections or links between different terms: not just subsets of each other (narrower, broader, see also, use for, …), but some terms might nest in multiple places. Buses have wheels, carts have wheels, paddleboats have wheels … Yet everything with a wheel is not a vehicle (think flywheels), nor might it be related to a vehicle. (When I think about some of these relationships, I imagine a pot of spaghetti …)
  • And, of course, there’s a ton of document/file management, too. When I was a kid, my Dad used to bring me to his tech company office to organize their publications. Each topic had a unique serial number by which I would stack pamphlets, books, and other materials. Someone somewhere in a much bigger corporate office came up with those designations.
  • Some people struggle with the idea that like objects go together, whether it’s someone who’s organizing/creating something or someone who’s trying to find it. Sometimes, the problem is in defining what a “like object” is. What is similarity?

And an interruption derailed my thought train. I think I covered the major points, though.

Also, I dedicate this post to JK, who often asks me questions like “What can a librarian do for a software company?”

“Well, JK, hire me and find out.”

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