Forest for the Trees: How Taxonomy Design Is Like Systems Engineering

Thanks to my wife, I’ve been learning a little bit about systems engineering, a form of engineering that addresses the complex interactions of multiple systems. As she says, you need to consider systems engineering when the interrelationships between systems are as complicated as the systems themselves. For example, to reduce automotive traffic you need to research social behavior, road design, business, and the environment. To study ergonomics you need to study the human body, computer design, application design, and user efficiency needs. And don’t get me started on the U.S. healthcare system.

The very first step of systems engineering is to understand the full scope. Ground transportation isn’t about cars and trains, for example, but about the entire surface of the earth: population clusters, topography, climate, and distances. Taxonomy starts this way too, with facets like people, documentation types, product lines, and access levels.

Or at least it should. Sometimes it’s easier to look at a single component of your world and tabulate it in isolation — department offices, account records, HR data — and imagine someday expanding to something larger. But this doesn’t work, not in the long run.

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