Taxonomy: A Profession, Not an Industry

I am looking forward to attending and presenting at my 8th Taxonomy Boot Camp conference next week. What makes this conference special is that it is very much both a professional and a commercial/industry conference, whereas most conferences tend to be one or the other. In other words, it is a commercial conference that serves a profession.

A professional conference is one that is usually organized by a nonprofit professional organization/society for its members for furthering the intellectual exchange in the field and otherwise serving the needs of its members. Professional conferences at which I have presented include those of SLA (Special Libraries Association) and the American Society for Indexing. A commercial conference, on the other hand, is one put on by a company (in publishing, advertising, research, consulting, or pure event management) to bring together clients and vendors in specialty area and promote business for all. Commercial conferences at which I have presented, in addition to those associated with KM World, include the Gilbane conference, Henry Stewart DAM, and Text Analytics World. Professional conferences do have vendor exhibits, too, but more as an aside to help finance the conference, and these exhibits can be very small. Commercial conferences do, of course, have informative and educational sessions, but the conference is organized with the primary purpose of earning a profit from selling exhibit space and registrations.

Commercial conferences are often based on an industry, with industry loosely defined as companies that sell related products or services for a defined market and thus potentially could be exhibiters. This “industry” could be as specialized as knowledge management, content management, or digital asset management. Taxonomy, however, is not an industry.

Taxonomy is a profession and is also an information management tool/technique. Sometimes an industry and a profession are almost the same, such as in medicine and law. Closer to the world of taxonomies are the industry/professions of software development, consulting, and librarianship. Taxonomy work comes closest to the latter, and many taxonomists were originally trained as librarians. So, if libraries are both an industry and a profession, then some might make the assumption that taxonomy is also both an industry and a profession.

To determine if there is an industry associated with a profession, to look at trade show/exhibit vendors at a conference or look for advertisement-supported trade journals. Taxonomy Boot Camp has a mini exhibit of usually half a dozen sponsors, in contrast with the co-located KM World conference showcase of over 30 sponsors. Indeed, commercial software vendors of pure taxonomy management tools (not a feature of a larger solution) can be counted on one hand. Taxonomy-related services, namely those of consultants, are also a significant business, but this cannot be considered its own “industry.” That is because any consulting firm (larger than a sole proprietorship) that consults on taxonomy also consults in other, related areas, such as knowledge management, data management, user experience design, content integration, etc. As for trade journals, there are none dedicated to taxonomy, simply because there are not enough companies that would advertise in this niche space. Libraries, on the other hand, do have lots of vendors, which exhibit at conferences, and there are also library trade journals.

Taxonomists work in all industries. I have worked in full-time permanent positions as a taxonomist in industries including publishing, software, consulting, and renewable energy, and have provided taxonomy consulting services to many more industries: financial services, retail, hospitality, biomedical research, manufacturing, and education. Despite my various industries of my employment, I have always applied the broad “Information services” or “Information technology and services” as my “industry” in my LinkedIn profile. For this reason, trying to analyze the industries used in taxonomist LinkedIn profiles might not be accurate or useful, due to the preference of those two industry designations. Nevertheless, I have found taxonomists in LinkedIn to use the following additional industries:

Online Media
Higher Education
Computer Software
Public Relations & Communications
Marketing & Advertising
Management Consulting
Hospital & Health Care
Oil & energy

Indeed the Taxonomy Boot Camp conference has attendees from all of these varied industries, but all with a shared professional interest in taxonomies. That’s what makes this conference feel more like a professional conference. But unlike a professional conference (such as SLA for librarians, of which I am not, so I always feel like an outsider there) , you don’t have to be a member of an organization or professional taxonomist, just interested in taxonomies as a tool/technique. As such, the conference is both highly educational/informative, yet welcoming and open to all.