Knowledge Management: Some thoughts on Folksonomy versus Taxonomy

One of the biggest challenges in the management of knowledge and content, be it papers, books, or electronically from a database perhaps, has been to create a method to organize and mark the information in such a way that it can be found again when the need arises. This goes all the way back to the libraries of Alexandria. So the fundamental knowledge management issue that companies face is not new. For centuries people have searched for ways to organize and share information easily.

Most recently the practice of tagging and the building of folksonomies are being used as a way to allow any content creator or content user to organize and label knowledge in a way that makes sense to them.Over time a group of users/creators may build a type of taxonomy that is intuitive to them and easy to apply. There are few to no hierarchical relationships to deal with, no attempting to match a predetermined term to a piece of information that may not quite fit. Folksonomies are a joint venture that is extremely immediate and responsive to a user base.

On the other hand, tagging without a common base of understanding can quickly become unworkable. There is a lot of ambiguity inherent in this type of system since the same word or tag may not mean the same to each member of a group. If a new member joins a group that has a stable tagging system, that member may be expected to tag in ways similar or the same as the rest of the group. Eventually the folksonomy starts to resemble and be treated as a taxonomy with the rules of usage that tagging and folksonomies tend to avoid.

So what is the answer? I think that no matter how information is organized there will always be a learning curve in finding information in any system, whether it is a controlled vocabulary with a formal hierarchical taxonomy or a flat form tagging effort. An easy way to meet in the middle for both users and creators of content has yet to be found. But we must persevere. With the volume of information available today and the creation of more, companies must be able to find sense in the blizzard of data that is being produced so it can be used to grow the business and find and retain customers.

This post rambles a little but I hope to hear your thoughts on the organization of knowledge. And I expect to post more on the subject in the coming weeks because knowledge management is here to stay and is sorely needed.