Wednesday, 5 March 2008

Taxonomies: may be it is all a myth?

Jim Connelly has published an article in this month’s RMS Bulletin, entitled ‘Functional taxonomies: myth or magic?’ Aside from the opening assumption that the birth of functional classification dates back to 2001 (odd, as I remember having lectures about it when studying for my Records Management Masters in 1997, and of course the first function-based JISC Study of the Records Lifecycle came out in 1999!), it’s an admirably succinct overview of the pros and cons of adopting either a functional, subject or organisation based approach to developing a corporate-wide schema.

The interesting thing from my perspective is that although the relative strengths and weaknesses of each of these different flavours of corporate-wide classification schemes is debated, there is no consideration given as to whether the notion of the classification scheme (of whatever hue) really is fit for purpose. I would argue that rather than just assuming the validity of corporate-wide classification schemes, we should, perhaps, be questioning whether they really meet the needs of our organisations now, and into the future.

For example, do we, in fact, kid ourselves that our classification schemes meet the needs of our users, who actually require a level of granularity far below that achieved by most classification schemes? Despite our best efforts, do records managers really understand the complex business processes which define our organisations (I speak as someone who started their career in the pharmaceutical industry and certainly never understood the intricacies of the drug development process)? Are classification schemes really comprehensive enough – especially function-based schemes - which may struggle to incorporate information which was not created as the result of one clearly defined process (e.g. photographs or even blogs). And, perhaps most significantly of all, how will we, on a practical level, be able to apply our corporate classification scheme to information and records being created and housed in a myriad of disparate, unconnected and externally hosted systems as we move further into a Web2.0 world.

The article suggests that it is ‘time to look at functional systems or schema objectively’. I would argue that it is time to cast the net even wider than that and, instead, to look at some of the fundamental assumptions on which all classification schemes are currently based.

8 comments:

Sarah Heal said...

Hi Steve,

Refreshing to see someone challenging the conventional view.

I think one of the common failings of classifications is that they are intended for either an electronic world or a hybrid world (paper and electronic) but operate from a paper world view.

This has one of two effects: (1) the classification does not have the appropriate level of granularity but the records manager has not got sufficiently involved (or maybe doesn't have sufficient knowledge) in the detailed design to ensure that the classification is complemented by and meshes with meaningful metadata which can help provide some of this granularity.

Alternatively, the records manager is alert to the users' needs for granularity and as a result tries to mash everthing into the classification resulting in classifications many levels deep which quickly become unusable.

Is this the end of classifications? I certainly think that they are a blunt tool and inadequate on their own.

Steve Bailey said...

Hi Sarah,

I agree entirely that most classification schemes do not even remotely approach the level of granularity required to be useful to most users. This is because we approach them as records management tools, primarily designed to help us manage records - not as tools to help the user perform the functions that they are paid to do.

This is not a criticism of records managers, there is simply no way that we can be expected to know the thousands of complex, often highly technical, processes which make up most organisations. Our only mistake is to assume that we can. The only people with the depth of knowledge required to produce something meaningful are, of course, those who undertake the processes themselves. Once again, in isolation their view may be equally as partial and patchy as that of the records manager; but begin to aggregate them and you have the promise of something much more interesting...

Sharon van Biljon said...

Working with enterprise-wide classification schemes, I have just come to a few renewed realization about subject-based taxonomies. Some thoughts are that they: 1. reflect the mandate of the enterprise 2. should be designed from a paper-based RM point of view only at a high level and then introduce notion of e-management for granular management. I believe it is not possible any longer to create taxonomies & not take cognisance of IT enablement. User indexing and retrieval plays a pivotal role in the success of RM.

John James O'Brien said...

I imagine that there have been concurrent developments in roughly parallel time lines here and there. Generally, it seems, academia follows rather than leads.

Back in the mid-80's a team of archivists, taxonomists and general factotums in British Columbia wrestled with early thinking about subject versus function when devising a means to integrate retention planning into classification scheme design (countering the then prevalent Canadian federal government model of a separate retention management model for government records). The work was influential and a consultant brought the insights to New Zealands, Australia and China, with that influencing developments in Oz and even showing up (whole hog, including imperfections) in the Hong Kong government classification scheme. So, will have to tackle Jim on that 2001 date!

Sarah Heal's comment is spot on re need for granularity. However, I have found that in some circumstances, it is less a matter of RMgr knowledge and more a matter of senior decision maker's lack of valuing of complexity. When serving Government Records Service Director & Principal Archivist of Hong Kong, a great challenge was in the need to help senior (and junior) officers grasp that complexity simply IS. It cannot be ignored or wished away. On the other hand, as I like to say, complexity need not be complicated ;-)

Can't go so far as to suggest the end of classification is nigh. I believe that there will always be need to be conscious of the relationship among entities and that is about classification. Our conceptualization of classification has surely already changed (ontologies vs taxonomies, metadata frameworks and concept maps, etc.). But as a business leader, ultimately, I must be sure that content is managed according to value, risk, and potential for capacity building. I cannot be assured of thins within some representation of the elements that ca be grasped from these perspectives. That representation would be a classification. Thoughts?

Anonymous said...

Hi Steve, I am reading, in your post and others, that classification scheme is a difficult tool for the user to store and retrieve data.
My question is whether the classification scheme is for this purpose? Should the classifcation scheme be only for the records managers.... and become the freamwork of the file plan.
Could a "folder scheme" designed for the users - maybe based around subject (project/ person/ departmental) be more appropriate for storage and retrieval.
Folders within the "folder scheme" would be registered against the classification scheme to complete the file plan.

Steve Bailey said...

Hi,

I agree with you in part - certainly that classification schemes are the kind of tool that mean lots to information professionals, but often precious little to our users (something we sometimes seem to forget).

I'm certainly in favour of removing this kind of 'complexity' from the user but my concern would be the level of maintenance inplied in your suggestion of 'mapping' a user-friendly front of house system with the classification scheme. My worry is that this would end up increasing the risk of the records manager as a bottleneck in the process of information management at a time when we need to be finding ways of going in the other direction.

Cheers

Steve

Mercy said...

I am in agreement with what anonymous had to say. I have been designing and implementing classifications schemes for organizations for the past 10 years. Functional hierarchy ending in subject and or numeric is the only thing that works. Just like paper systems (imagine that).
I really don't understand all the fuss about granularity and "it has to be different" simply because it is digital. My question is this: How is that working for you?
I really worry about where we are going in the digital age now that we have laid aside basic records management principles. There is great concentration on "content" rather than "context", resulting in ECM and EDMs systems that are generally a mess. Granularity in classification only seems necessary because we are focused on individual document content rather than document context (i.e. relationships), which actually tell the complete story. Because of this and the lack of sufficient documentation and training, end users are faced with having to run multiple queries returning Google type hits that may or may not contain the complete information.
Most organizations that call me in are having trouble with user acceptance. They expect me to create documentation and train the users. What I am seeing in the organizations I work with is the following:
• RM professionals have been marginalized in favor of IT implementation of Electronic document management systems - done by a vendor w/o pre-implementation RM work.
• Large ECM applications, SharePoint and LANs have replaced file cabinets – the office looks so clean!!
• Classification is subject and /or Organization based, and done on-the-fly: unrelated documents everywhere so users copy to PC, LAN or SharePoint folders.
• If policies and procedures exist at all they are vague, or in "draft" form and not widely circulated
• There are millions of documents on the systems and very little control or guidance as to what is stored where.

The few systems I have seen that are adding value to the organization are the single function departmental applications. The systems work extremely well as designed. Unfortunately, problems arise as this “fabulous” system is pushed out across the organization without well defined RM fundamentals in place (i.e. classification, taxonomy, file plans, retention and destruction policy, and training).
One last thing – IT is usually the work group that brings me in. They eventually realize they need something done with the information in the system, they are not sure what, they certainly don’t want to do it, but most important – they do not trust their in-house RM professionals.
All implementations I have seen are said to be a “collaborative effort” between IT and RM. Even the ones where this was truly the case, what I invariably find is that the RM staff backed down on every important issue.

Mercy said...

I am in agreement with what anonymous had to say. I have been designing and implementing classifications schemes for organizations for the past 10 years. Functional hierarchy ending in subject and or numeric is the only thing that works. Just like paper systems (imagine that).
I really don't understand all the fuss about granularity and "it has to be different" simply because it is digital. My question is this: How is that working for you?
I really worry about where we are going in the digital age now that we have laid aside basic records management principles. There is great concentration on "content" rather than "context", resulting in ECM and EDMs systems that are generally a mess. Granularity in classification only seems necessary because we are focused on individual document content rather than document context (i.e. relationships), which actually tell the complete story. Because of this and the lack of sufficient documentation and training, end users are faced with having to run multiple queries returning Google type hits that may or may not contain the complete information.
Most organizations that call me in are having trouble with user acceptance. They expect me to create documentation and train the users. What I am seeing in the organizations I work with is the following:
• RM professionals have been marginalized in favor of IT implementation of Electronic document management systems - done by a vendor w/o pre-implementation RM work.
• Large ECM applications, SharePoint and LANs have replaced file cabinets – the office looks so clean!!
• Classification is subject and /or Organization based, and done on-the-fly: unrelated documents everywhere so users copy to PC, LAN or SharePoint folders.
• If policies and procedures exist at all they are vague, or in "draft" form and not widely circulated
• There are millions of documents on the systems and very little control or guidance as to what is stored where.
The few systems I have seen that are adding value to the organization are the single function departmental applications. The systems work extremely well as designed. Unfortunately, problems arise as this “fabulous” system is pushed out across the organization without well defined RM fundamentals in place (i.e. classification, taxonomy, file plans, retention and destruction policy, and training).
One last thing – IT is usually the work group that brings me in. They eventually realize they need something done with the information in the system, they are not sure what, they certainly don’t want to do it, but most important – they do not trust their in-house RM professionals.
All implementations I have seen are said to be a “collaborative effort” between IT and RM. Even the ones where this was truly the case, what I invariably find is that the RM staff backed down on every important issue.