IT and Taxonomies

Taxonomies are related to many fields of work, including knowledge management, information architecture, website design, website marketing at SEO, document management, terminology management, publishing, product management (for information products), content management and strategy, digital asset management, machine learning for classification, natural language processing for auto-tagging, data management, library and information management, and information technology. Information technology is relevant to the implementation of all taxonomies.

Why is IT involved in taxonomies?

Taxonomies link users to content (and taxonomies extended into ontologies also link users to data), but this linking relies on technology. The technology could be a kind of software, such as a content management system that supports the tagging and retrieval of content by taxonomies along with the feature of taxonomy management. Often, however, additional technology is needed to link multiple software systems together, with APIs, and to move data across systems, with extract-transform-load (ETL) tools. Taxonomies are increasingly built in the SKOS (Simple Knowledge Organization System) standard/data model, which enables taxonomies and other knowledge organization systems to be machine-readable and not just human readable.

Taxonomies are a concern of information technology professionals as they are the owners of, and often also the developers of, the systems in which taxonomies are implemented. The systems could be completely internally developed, or they could be licensed software that typically requires some customization or integration with other systems. In my experience as a taxonomy consultant, I have typically engaged in conversations with those in IT as key stakeholders of the taxonomy. However, the degree of the involvement of IT professionals in the taxonomy itself can vary.

In custom taxonomy implementations, such as in an information service/product or in an ecommerce business, IT professionals are usually not involved in the actual design of the taxonomy, but taxonomists or others who create that taxonomy need to collaborate with IT professionals to understand the system’s capabilities and limitations and may impose requirements. Taxonomists are concerned with how the taxonomy will be displayed to the users, how the users can interact with the taxonomy, how tagging is done, and how the search functions. Custom software development has great flexibility in how it supports a taxonomy.

In implementations of taxonomies in licensed software, there may still be some development work for the IT professionals, but there are limits to what can be done or changed. Commercial content management systems (CMS) that allow for the custom development of the user interface, referred to as “headless” CMSs, however, are becoming more common. The user interface in particular is very significant to how a taxonomy is designed and how it functions.

Who in IT is involved in taxonomies?

Those who work in IT departments with involvement taxonomies could be in roles doing development or support for systems that manage and consume taxonomies, or they could be in systems integration roles. Additionally, there are taxonomy/metadata/ontology specialists who work within the IT department of an enterprise, especially if a knowledge/information management department does not exist in the organization.

In a survey of taxonomists I conducted in January 2022 for the 3rd edition of The Accidental Taxonomist book, of 162 people who do taxonomy work for their employers, which are not consultancies creating taxonomies for others, a multiple-choice question asked what area they work in. Information technology ranked 4th out of 11 choices, with 17% of the responses, following the areas of knowledge management, content management/strategy, and product development/management, yet ahead of the specialties of library, user experience, marketing, and others.

The survey also asked all respondents to provide their job titles, and some of those working in taxonomies have job title that are closely associated with information technology. These included titles of IT Data Analyst, Data and Technology Platform Products, SharePoint Product Owner, Senior Solutions Consultant, Implementation Project Manager, Data Architect, Senior Manager – Graph Solutions, Enterprise Architect, Staff Engineer – Systems, Information Governance Engineer, Head of Technical Services, and Director of Solutions Delivery.

What does IT do with taxonomies?

From my experience as a taxonomy consultant, I have observed that those working in IT, in their efforts to facilitate the adoption of new software and features that make use of taxonomies, may include starter taxonomies within the tool, whether selected from offerings of software vendor or created by the IT staff themselves. For example, IT professionals might create simple controlled vocabularies in the SharePoint term store, such as for document types, departments, locations, etc., so that users can start using the search refinements right away, and there is also an example of the functionality of taxonomy, which can be improved upon and expanded by someone else later.

Then there is enterprise taxonomy/ontology management software, which should be connected to search systems, content management systems, and tagging systems (if not using a tagging module of the taxonomy management system). In my experience working for a taxonomy software vendor, the IT department was often involved in the software purchasing process, if not actually leading the decision-making. Representatives from the IT department attend pre-sales demos of the tool, ask questions, and compile and compare system requirements when requesting a proposal.

That taxonomy is actually an area concern of IT, was also made clear when I saw that taxonomies were mentioned in a section within a chapter on knowledge management-related systems in my son’s introductory Management Information Systems textbook for a required course for his B.S. in Information Technology.

In sum, IT professionals who support enterprise knowledge or information management systems need to have a basic understanding of taxonomy principles, standards, benefits, and uses. My website contains various taxonomy resources. Some IT professionals may even want to go further and design and create small taxonomies (lacking the time to create large taxonomies), and they may want to read my book or attend my workshops or online courses.

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