The Accidental Taxonomy Consultant

It’s well known that most taxonomists become taxonomists by accident, as the title of my book attests.  As I look back on my career, I see this progression continuing one step further in accidentally becoming a taxonomy consultant.

Not all consultants are accidental, though. Bright college graduates in the social sciences with strong analytical skills are often attracted to entry level jobs at consulting firms.  They then pick up technical consulting skills by practice over time, and these could even involve taxonomy work.  As such, they are not accidental consultants, but they may become accidental taxonomy consultants.

Those who are already taxonomists, as myself, often end up as consultants, because that’s where they find the work. Full-time taxonomist jobs are still relatively rare and are often not in one’s geographical location. So, if an experienced taxonomist loses a job due to a layoff or relocation, and looks around and cannot find another conveniently located taxonomist job, consulting becomes an option. Employers of full-time taxonomists tend to be limited to either certain industries (publishing, media, ecommerce, etc.) or to very large companies in any industry with large internal content management needs, but then the taxonomist job is only at their headquarters location. However, companies of all industries and various medium to large sizes have taxonomy needs and can often afford a taxonomy consultant on a temporary project if not a full-time staff member. Thus, taxonomy consultants are in greater demand than are full-time employed taxonomists.

In seeking to contract a taxonomy consultant, you may wonder whether it is better to hire a consultant-turned-taxonomist or a taxonomist-turned-consultant. If you hire a skilled taxonomist who is less experienced in consulting, you ought to get a good taxonomy, although the process might not be that smooth. More likely, though, the experienced taxonomist who is inexperienced in consulting will not likely make as good a first impression and sell the services as well as professional consultant. The professional consultant-turned-taxonomist will provide a better project experience, although the end-result taxonomy may not be as good.  If you can plan and manage the project yourself, then it is the experienced taxonomist you want, but if you want the entire project managed by a consultant, you need a good consultant.

You might not have to compromise, though. A senior enough consultant could be sufficiently skilled in both consulting and taxonomies, that the career sequence does not matter.  If you can afford to hire a firm or partnership, or even a consultant with subcontractors, you may not need to make the choice of experience either, because you can hopefully get some of each on the consultant team serving you. That’s why you should look at the resumes of each member of a consulting team, to ensure that at least one member has very solid taxonomy experience, while at least another member has considerable consulting and project management experience.

Among the things I have learned about consulting is that it helps to have standard consulting processes and procedures, including standard questions that the consultant should ask the client at the very beginning of a project to clarify the scope and understand the context. Consulting firms may additionally have standard deliverables, reports, etc. But in the particular field of taxonomy consulting, the variables are too great, and standard deliverables rarely fit.

There are a lot of books on consulting, but none about taxonomy consulting. When I came across a potential title,
Information Consulting: Guide to Good PracticeI (Chandos Publishing, 2011), I found that even this book addressed consulting more generally, and when it occasionally discussed “information consulting” it was more about the work of independent research librarians. So, accidental taxonomy consultants lack written guidance that is just for them.

This is my story. I became a taxonomist by accident. Then after getting laid off, more than once, I became a taxonomy consultant by accident. Then I joined a consulting company of intentional consultants, some turned taxonomy-consultant by accident, but I did not feel I fit in with them or their choice of projects, since I was a taxonomist first. So, I recently chose to go on my own again as an independent consultant or partnering with another on a case-by-case basis.