Hype cycles revisited – taxonomies under the gun

My last post discussed the idea that knowledge management has gone through the hype cycle and people are abandoning the term for more fertile buzzwords. According to Gartner, taxonomies are now at the “Peak of Inflated Expectations” headed for the “Trough of Disillusionment” in the hype cycle, which begs reflection on the concept of taxonomies.

All sorts of projects come to us as “taxonomy” projects: Information architecture, content management, portal, records management, document management, integration projects, metadata management, search tuning and integration, workflow management, even organizational change projects. And of course Knowledge Management.

The bulk of my career has been in these areas with taxonomy being a natural part of the process. In the past I was called in to do “x” with x being any of the above and taxonomy being a work stream. Now, because we are so well known as taxonomy experts, we are called in to develop the taxonomy components of large multi vendor projects.

There are a few ways to think about this.

Taxonomy affects each of these areas and needs to be integrated into multiple applications and contexts

We are looking at these client requirements and in some case deciding that though taxonomy is essential, the focus of the project is in implementation of one of these initiatives. The customer is calling this a taxonomy project, but it is really a document management project, etc

For whatever reason, “taxonomy” has become the preferred term and seems to be understandable and resonates with managers. This is good for the most part.

The danger, as someone pointed out to me, “To a man with a hammer, everything is a nail” and that taxonomy becomes the hammer. Or that people misinterpret how to apply taxonomies or they apply them improperly. Or they develop a taxonomy successfully and fail on some part of the document management (or “x” project) implementation and call the “taxonomy project” a failure. Of course this is the danger with any approach where the organization has not gone through the learning curve.

When I do working sessions and training with clients, I try to balance what is practical with what is possible. Yes there are lots of problems we can address with taxonomies, but these are hard problems and solutions are not trivial. Managing expectations is part of education and communication. Sometimes I will try to dial down expectations around the solution or suggest that managers tone down some of the evangelizing.

So I do think it is good to put things into the context of the problem being solved. Saying “system for organizing information” , “classification scheme”, “consistent terminology”, etc helps prevent buzzword fatigue. When we use a term as a representation of a problem to be solved, it sometimes simplifies people’s concept of the problem to the point where it is difficult to communicate the complexity of the problem. Rather than discuss the issues and nuances, the term is tossed about.


Soon enough we will likely find that there is baggage around “taxonomy” just as there is around “knowledge management”. This does not mean the concepts or approaches are invalid, but just that like many other new tools technologies and approaches, they too will traverse the hype cycle. (In the case of KM, I think we are on, as Gartner puts it, either the “slope of enlightenment” or the “plateau of productivity”).

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