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Knowledge taxonomies: a literature review

Research reports

Written by Arnaldo Pellini, Harry Jones

Taxonomies are part of our daily life and this is particularly apparent today. The explosion in the volume of information and knowledge available though information technology and especially through the internet today has made it more urgent than ever to adopt systems, processes, and technology to organise this information.

This literature review was carried out as part of a study of the Asian Development Bank’s knowledge taxonomy conducted by the Overseas Development Institute (ODI) between October 2010 and January 2011. The results of the literature review informed the semi-structured questionnaire used to interview ADB staff at the bank’s headquarters and in Resident Missions, as well as staff from other development organisations, which were used as comparators.

While one of the first large organised catalogues was created by Callimachus at the library in Alexandria in Egypt, during the 3rd to 1st centuries BC (Malafsky, 2008), modern taxonomies were the result of the dispute between two biologists. On the one hand Carl Linnaeus who was in favour of analysis and a controlled nomenclature of living organisms, on the other hand George Louis Leclerc Compte de Buffon who advocated for an analysis of the environmental context of living organisms.

In its basic definition, a taxonomy is a structured set of names and descriptions used to organise information and documents in a consistent way (Lambe, 2007). A knowledge taxonomy, focuses on enabling the efficient retrieval and sharing of knowledge, information and data across an organisation by building the taxonomy around workflows and knowledge needs in an intuitive structure (Lambe, 2007; Malafsky, 2008).
Taxonomies are crucial for the management of organisations. Pincher (2010) argues that, without a taxonomy designed for storage and management, or one that supports better searching, all types of management systems in an organisation are nearly useless. Nevertheless, there is still reluctance among organisations to commit the necessary resources to the design and maintenance of taxonomies. There is reluctance may be linked to an insufficient understanding of what taxonomies are and what can they do for an organisations.

Taxonomies can contribute to making explicit knowledge embedded in documents available at the point of need. They also help the mapping and categorisation of tacit knowledge embedded in staff expertise. They promote collaboration and sharing between units and departments of an organisations by mapping and coordinating the sharing. They also help putting knowledge into practice by making sense of the knowledge of the organisation and creating a common vocabulary and a common way of working.

Taxonomies have therefore to be treated as an integral part of the knowledge management strategy of the organisation and when the strategy is implemented as a project, taxonomies are a key task that needs to be planned and implemented by teams equipped with the necessary knowledge and skills.

Arnaldo Pellini, Harry Jones