Theknowledgecore's Blog

Complexity and Knowledge Management Navigators…

The futility of KM taxonomies

I recently had the pleasure of a conversation with Laszlo Balkanyi, a KMer from Sweden.  Aside from being highly knowledgeable and engaging, he reminded me of a piece of work that I had somehow forgotten about…one of those things I believed to be useless years ago that became enlightened in the context of our discussion. Laszlo was talking about a job interview and how he approached the classification of knowledge within a KM framework.  He cited the work of Jorge Luis Borges and his list of Animals, from the `Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge` in which it is written that animals are divided into:

  1. those that belong to the Emperor,
  2. embalmed ones,
  3. those that are trained,
  4. suckling pigs,
  5. mermaids,
  6. fabulous ones,
  7. stray dogs,
  8. those included in the present classification,
  9. those that tremble as if they were mad,
  10. innumerable ones,
  11. those drawn with a very fine camel-hair brush,
  12. others,
  13. those that have just broken a flower vase,
  14. those that from a long way off look like flies.

This classification has been used by many writers. It “shattered all the familiar landmarks of his thought” for Michel Foucault. Anthropologists and ethnographers, German teachers, postmodern feminists, Australian museum curators, and artists quote it. The list of people influenced by the list has the same heterogeneous character as the list itself.

So, where does this link to KM enlightenment?  It’s all about order and control…

What strikes me about our field is that we are constantly attempting to classify it.  I understand why we, as human beings, need to bring structure and order to that which we do not understand.  We combat ambiguity through familiarity and what better way to understand a nebulous and domain, such as KM, than through structure and order – enter advocates for taxonomies!  The problem, as beautifully illustrated in the work of Borges, is that our domain is dominated by context.

People in the KM field have been working for years on a KM taxonomy, but, as suggested by Borges, it is fraught with what appear to be insurmountable challenges; just look at the diffuse nature of the language we use to describe our field and the understanding that underpins that language.

First, have a think about this:

“…talking in the wrong language, or in too many languages rather incoherently, or in not enough languages… One way or another there’s a re-examination needed here, and I’d suggest we cast a harsher critical eye over our sloppiness, assumptions, half-baked metaphors and undigested analogies” (Ward, 2010)

Then, think about the breadth of KM practice that needs to be influenced, not just in terms of job sectors, but in terms of cultures.  We can catch an insight into the challenges by analysing the work of published authors, such as Holsapple & Joshi, two North American writers who attempted to construct a framework in 2004.  They attempted to address the need for a common language for the KM field, with a stated goal to provide, “a common vocabulary and frame of reference that can enhance the communication and sharing of ideas among practitioners” (p. 609). However, their approach, much like the highly contextual taxonomies that flood the KM-a-sphere, appears to have been flawed.  They employed an approach to the development of their framework that involved 31 of the most recognised theorists and practitioners in the field (including: Larry Prusak, Karl Sveiby, David Skyrme and Karl Wiig). The goal was to develop a unified language for the field, but the panel was biased towards “Northern Hemisphere” practice, with only one representative outside of a European-North America axis, coming from Australia.  Their classification appears to have died a quick death – do any of you use it?  This leads to the question of how a common language or taxonomy can be produced without representation from the wider global community?

So why do we keep trying to do this?  Perhaps it just goes back to Homo Faber, our basic need to bring order and structure, to demonstrate our intelligence as human beings through tools or models to explain the tools we use.  Who knows.  What does appears to be clear is that Pandora’s Box is open, the field is far too mature to attempt to control it now and, until something else emerges, we are going to have to get comfortable with ambiguity or heterogeneous networks where people enroll into belief systems that numb their uncertainty.

3 comments on “The futility of KM taxonomies

  1. Aravind
    December 27, 2011

    nice article….a common taxonomy looks something close to impossible, IMO

  2. Pingback: The evolution of Knowledge Management? No, time to evolve the D-I-K-W hierarchy! | Theknowledgecore's Blog

  3. Pingback: The futility of KM taxonomies | The Future of KM |

So, what do you think?

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


This entry was posted on December 26, 2011 by in Engagement frameworks, Knowledge Management and tagged , , , , .
%d bloggers like this: