Business Taxonomies

It’s difficult enough for professionals to come to a consensus on the definition of “taxonomy.” As for “business taxonomy,” it’s even worse. There are varying ideas of taxonomy, varying ideas of “business,” and varying ideas on what the connection should be, in addition to the scope and purpose. Is it a taxonomy used by a for-profit enterprise? Is it a taxonomy of business processes for use in any enterprise? Is it the same as an “enterprise taxonomy”?

Just as the term “taxonomy” has both a specific and generalized meaning, so does the term “business taxonomy.” The specific meaning of a taxonomy is a controlled vocabulary of concepts (terms) that are organized into a hierarchy, based on hierarchical relationships (broader/narrower, parent/child, group/member, superordinate/subordinate) between the terms.  The generalized meaning of taxonomy is any kind of controlled vocabulary or sets of controlled vocabularies (whether structured as lists, hierarchies, facets, thesauri, etc.) to support the organization and findability of content. The specific meaning of a business taxonomy, is a taxonomy that is specific for business use by dealing with business functions and processes. The generalized meaning of a business taxonomy is any taxonomy used by a business/enterprise, as opposed to a scientific discipline, to organize and manage its content.

I would caution that a taxonomy designed to define and describe business process and functions may not have the same objectives as the more common taxonomies whose purpose is to support the organization and findability of indexed content (documents, files, digital assets, etc.).  In fact, even the term “taxonomy” in its purest sense does not mean that it has to be used for content management. The original taxonomies, such as the Linnean taxonomy of animals, plants and other organisms, were not designed for indexing and searching content associated with each concept in the taxonomy. Similarly Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational concepts is not for indexing educational content but rather to define the scope of educational objectives. Thus, a taxonomy could be just for classifying its term/concepts/members for sake of better understanding of its members and their relationships. In this way, a business taxonomy, in its more specific meaning, with the focus on functions and processes, could serve the purpose creating a better structure of an organization and improving business processes. The users of this kind of business taxonomy are the officers and managers of an organization with a goal of improving overall management, rather than all content users.

Furthermore, the business functions/process taxonomy can be more generic, and the same taxonomy, such as a Sales, General & Administrative (SG&A) taxonomy, with modifications, could be used by different organizations. In contrast, a taxonomy for content management and retrieval, especially when it is product/service-focused, should be custom-designed and developed to reflect the nature of the content and the goals of its users. The larger an enterprise is, the more unique its particular business mix and content is. That’s why the largest enterprises tend to have taxonomists on staff.

Yes, the more generic “business taxonomy” and “enterprise taxonomy” are terms often used interchangeably. However, I prefer it when the term “enterprise taxonomy” is used to mean specifically a taxonomy (or set of inter-related taxonomies) that is intended for use enterprise-wide. This is an important designation, because within an enterprise, taxonomies are often siloed. Integrating them and designing a unified taxonomy that cuts across all departments to support the broadest sharing of content across the enterprise is an important goal of an “enterprise taxonomy.”

The term “taxonomy” might sound too technical, scientific for business owners and managers who don’t understand exactly what it is or what it can do. Calling it a “business taxonomy” is sometimes a sort of marketing technique of taxonomy consultants to suggest that a taxonomy is something standard for businesses and something the business needs. It often works, but ultimately the term “business taxonomy” has resulted in confusion as well.