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Organising Knowledge (book review)

I used to feel dizzy when taxonomies and knowledge management (KM) were mentioned in the same sentence. And I tried to understand why my feelings were so biased. Was it because, despite having attended numerous talks on KM and read numerous journal articles on taxonomies, I still could not grasp that damn concept? Or was I trying, in vain, to connect the world of KM and taxonomies to design, a world I’m more familiar with. Something was telling me there was a connection – that taxonomies will help me better understand my world of user experience and design. But I just could not find the clues.

That all changed when Patrick Lambe asked me to review a draft copy of his new book. I’ve known Patrick for quite a long time and the placeholders I’ve developed around KM and taxonomies were largely a result of watching him deliver workshops and speak practically about wide ranging topics, from social network analysis to brand to customer service, and yes, on KM and taxonomies as well. His book weaves through all of this and more to explain, in a practical manner, what taxonomies have to offer and how they can be used for different purposes and in different disciplines, be it for information management or for project management.

Patrick treats the subject in a practical and pragmatic way. Right upfront he tells us that organising knowledge is not all about logic. That there is both a logic-part and a magic-part to it. The logic tells us what needs to be done, and the magic comes from how it is done.

“Taxonomies are products, things that can be used. But in many ways, the processes that produce our taxonomies are more important than the things themselves.”

For me, Chapter 2: Taxonomies can take many forms, was important for setting the baseline for the entire book. In this chapter, Patrick tells us that taxonomies do not always have to take the form of a hierarchy. There are other representations such as lists, trees, matrices and facets that work better in different situations. This cuts through several disciplines such as information visualisation and information architecture.

Chapter 6: What do we want our taxonomies to do, was one that gave me the confidence to discuss knowledge and taxonomy work openly, with friends and colleagues, and more importantly to spot and identify the many charlatans in seminars and conferences.

Chapters 3-5 deal with how taxonomies actually benefit the organisation, from setting up the right infrastructural connections to managing knowledge assets. The chapters come with plenty of cases and examples. The case on Victoria Climbie tragedy is something that will stick with me. This case is about how, despite having clues, hints and information on persistent abuse and battery of an 8-year old, the healthcare and child protection agencies could not stop her eventual murder. And all because they could not share the information they had.

The last section of the book is on preparing, designing and implementing your taxonomy project. I found this section useful even though I’m not in the hardcore taxonomy business simply because the process taught me several things about incorporating and using knowledge in my own work. This goes back to what Patrick mentioned earlier on the process being more important than the “thing” itself.

There are other reviewers who have mentioned that they finished the book in a day or on a long haul flight, this was not the case with me. I took my time. There were sections that were hard going, where I had to refer to previous chapters, or go through a few times. I read the book twice already. But that’s just me.

So, all in all, I would recommend this book to those who want to know how to make use of the knowledge they find around them.

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