Thoughts on Taxonomy

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Thoughts on TaxonomyA guest post by Lee Stadler 
Senior Designer at Ottawa University

Just over one year ago, I co-presented with Widen about branding, storytelling, and digital asset management (DAM) at the HighEdWeb conference in Milwaukee, WI. At said conference, and in a room packed full of eager persons, the presentation began. It was going well, with plenty of jokes and poignant anecdotes. Then, it occurred. A question was asked. But, to this very day the answer I gave to the question has very much run me askew. It wasn't incorrect, but it was incomplete. Much like a milkshake made only of milk that has been shaken. 
 
The question in question was about taxonomy. More specifically, “How did you go about determining the taxonomy for your digital assets (at Ottawa University)?” Instead of reliving that most unsatisfactory of answers, it shall be answered anew. The long answer is in the very purpose of taxonomy.
 
Taxonomy is, inherently, a grouping of function or a grouping by function, (red marbles and blue marbles vs. what red marbles do and what blue marbles do). Functions describe the personality of the organization. Through grouping we attempt to better describe how an organization unfolds. A function can be a line of business or product, a department, or - digital assets. Yet, grouping by asset type and designing a fully-considered taxonomy is simply glossing over purpose. We group because we must. We group to organize the things that are very unmanageable when left to their own devices or the devices of those who do not or cannot group. We group according to purpose – past, present, and future.
 
To say that we group all “image” assets together and that “images” is now a concrete portion of our taxonomy with its own special category is to ignore the impact of those assets on the work they are required to do.  Additionally, DAM is intelligent enough to group "images" together on it's own without a human grouping them together. So it makes more sense to reallocate your resources and efforts towards defining your different purposes. Purpose varies by organization. Though I may use “images” as a primary taxonomic category, that doesn’t mean it makes sense for other organizations to do the same. We don’t all work the same, nor do we do the same work. The constant is the need for clarity, which is what taxonomy strives to provide. 
 
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How do we group traits that are of common use?
By evaluating their common need.
 
What are the 2 types of taxonomies?
1. A Taxonomy of Method
2. A Taxonomy of Material
More specifically:
1. The ways by which we offer
2. The things that we offer
 
If an organization doesn’t have a good grasp on its taxonomy, does that mean it doesn’t have a good grasp on its purpose?
No, just on its ability to remain clear and tell a meaningful brand story.
 
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Let’s consider the humble waffle, for example. A new waffle company makes and sells waffles. The little pockets are just the right size for all sorts of butter and syrup. On the surface, the company make waffles, but a deeper evaluation shows us that they also make something called, “food.” Specific types of food have specific places in time, space and place. In some places, people have waffles for breakfast. In other places, it’s their evening meal. Depending on where you live, it’s called “dinner,” or “supper.” If the company offers dinner waffles or flavors them differently or changes the pocket size, they’re still waffles. So here is the question of taxonomy, “how do we group our waffles?” More accurately, “how do we group our abilities to offer meals?” Even more focused, “how do we group our means of support that enable us to offer our very specific approach to food?” There's the difference. Other organizations make waffles too. But they are not us. We are us. We do waffles how we do waffles, not how they do waffles. We need to understand that and we need a taxonomy that fits us.
 
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The Waffle company taxonomy includes:
Food
  Meals
     Dinner or Supper 
        Waffle
            Pocket size
 
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So, how do you achieve a clear and useful taxonomy? By looking at the work that is required of the organization. Start at the macro and work towards the micro. Once you’ve evaluated the work type(s) that occur within an organization, you can begin assigning taxonomic structure in order to make sense of it all. It can be said that every aspect of an organization is there to support the organization, but not all aspects of an organization have a need for specific taxonomies. In fact, some thrive without a set mandate as their personal purposes can be individually driven. For a broad taxonomy; how do you group the traits that so many of us need to access and use? By grouping personality traits and the methods of delivering those personality traits. 
 
For the sake of food, think of an apple. If our apple is our trait, how do we deliver it? A basket. A bag. A shopping cart. Each of these is a delivery method for the apple (trait) but none of them are the apple itself. Thus we have two taxonomic approaches arising from organizational need – how we group and how we deliver. The purpose in airing them both is to encourage the understanding that they may indeed appear similar, but at their core they are entirely different. How these approaches appear in a more traditional and less food-minded approach is between assets and outputs.
 
There are common groupings for what I call output channels. They are: print, television, radio, and online. These, then, are our baskets and bags and shopping carts; the ways by which we deliver our apples. They receive their own taxonomy, but it’s separate from the taxonomy used for the apples (traits). If you will, A Taxonomy of Method, and, A Taxonomy of Material.
 
So, the short answer to “how did you go about determining your taxonomy?” is, “by evaluating how the organization offered itself, and then modeling the taxonomy after those offerings.” My top tier taxonomy are: image, audio, video, production, text, and code for a material taxonomy and print, television, radio, and online for a method taxonomy. Each of these describes the personality traits of the organization in a way that’s broad enough to encapsulate many files and formats, but brief enough that one doesn't get lost. 
 
So, when you ask yourself how to determine the taxonomy for your digital assets, think first about your organization - its structure, its people, and its functions. These organizational  aspects will provide the guidance you need to get it right.

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