If you have been following this blog, you likely already know that my goal is to move beyond “Facilitation 101” and focus on the deeper context of facilitation, which I believe is the ability to connect people, technology, and process in ways that create performance improvement.   It is my belief that the traditional view of facilitators “running good meetings” is wholly inadequate for today’s competitive and rapidly changing social-political and economic environment.  One such “deeper” theme of this blog is the understanding of the facilitator’s role in managing knowledge creation.  I have written before of the process of facilitating knowledge creation and managing the documentation of knowledge.  In this post, I wanted to add another dimension of knowledge management by discussing the importance of using taxonomies as a strategic tool in facilitation.  Knowledge taxonomies are based on the science of classifying words, ideas and concepts, according to natural relationships and should be part of the operating system of a facilitator. There are two ways of thinking about taxonomy development. One use is the use of a taxonomy in “organization of knowledge” and the second is the use of a taxonomy in “organization of people. Ideally a facilitator can use taxonomy in a blended approach taking the best of both orientations.

Taxonomy and Organizing Knowledge:  One of the clearest benefits of creating a taxonomy is that it serves as an organizer.  A few years ago I worked with a team managing three large resource libraries and had the privilege of being mentored by some truly amazing librarians who taught me a tremendous amount about managing knowledge through taxonomies.  While there is a large science of taxonomies, the process of developing a taxonomy boils down to identifying the requirements, conducting a concept mapping exercise, building a draft taxonomy, getting a usability feedback, refining the taxonomy and applying/maintaining the system. The power of proactive knowledge taxonomy is that it gives order to process at the beginning and the dividends are accrued when content multiplies and expands. If a knowledge taxonomy is created up front, then as materials are created they can be labeled, organized and stored effectively.  In the absence of a defined taxonomy, one can spend hours on a shared drive looking for a reference article, only to find it in the “download archive” folder named something like “3089.doc”

Taxonomy and Building Community: Almost polar opposite to creating a structured taxonomy is  a community taxonomy that is iteratively and built from the bottom up by those contributing and using the knowledge.  Sometimes called a folksonomy to contrast it from an informatics approach, a folksonomy is a democratized approach to building a defined taxonomy.  It builds upon the social life of information and lends itself to community building. A common example of a folksonomy can be seen the use of keywords and tags associated with blogs.  If you have ever seen a tag cloud, you begin to get the sense of how folksonomies are developed.  Concepts attract concepts, patterns are recognized and a shared understanding grows out of the mutual use of terms.  Another example of a folksonomy can be found in personal lists Twitter users create to sort content.  Lists are developed, cross-posted, referenced and begin to “trend” as a shared concept.  The power of such folksonomies is found when user tags are combined and refined based on the principle of self-organization.

If a facilitator understands the concept of taxonomies s/he can harness both the power of structure and community organization in creating framework for organization of knowledge.  This brings us to the application of taxonomies in facilitation.  How does understanding the use of taxonomies improve facilitation?

Managing Documents: The obvious, and previously stated, application is in the management of documents.  For those facilitation assignments that require the creation and management of multiple documents, the use of a taxonomy is critical.  Whether a top down informatics approach or a bottom up community approach, defining a taxonomy is essential to managing documents.

Making the Complex Simple: A second use of a taxonomy in facilitation is in taking a large and/or complex topics and breaking down so that it builds a common understanding of the group.  The most common taxonomy exercise is creating a concept map.  Concept mapping is a way off creating an inventory of ideas and vocabulary and creating relationships between the ideas and vocabulary.  While some may argue that creating a concept map differs from creating a taxonomy, in my opinion, the two are at least close cousins.

Depoliticizing Words: A final application of taxonomy thinking in facilitation is as a tool to depoliticize language.  For example, I have been in many discussions about affordable rental housing where group members used interchangeably words like: low-income housing, public housing, undercapitalized housing, substandard housing and predatory housing.  Each of these terms can be loaded with a political agenda.  A facilitator could easily remove the politics by starting with the higher order concept of housing and creating a taxonomy.  In that process, the politics are uncoupled from the concepts and common ground is more likely to be created as a platform for productive rather than polarized discussions.

As I suggested earlier, facilitating the development of a knowledge taxonomy is likely the result of a blended structure that is in part designed but also allows for the iterative co-creation and improvement of how processes are organized.  The point of this blog is not to teach informatics but is to describe the intentional clarity that a facilitator needs to bring to language, words and concepts. Facilitation has as a core foundation principle the ability to bring order to diversity. In the past, such facilitation might have been achieved by charisma, felt-tipped markers, and easel paper. However, the increasing complexity of process demands more than simple facilitation skills.  Markers and easel paper are still required but the facilitator needs to understand how to think and design in terms of systems, organization and knowledge management.  Such facilitation requires the theory and application of taxonomies as part of the facilitation toolbox.  With taxonomy skills facilitation meets the need of times, when there is more at stake than running a good meeting.


(1) Taxonomy Development for Knowledge Management

(2) Taxonomy and Folksonomy Wiki


Mark Fulop
Mark founded Facilitation & Process in 2009 to help organizations and communities bridge the gap between where they are today and where they want to be tomorrow. He’s led dozens of Portland nonprofits, government agencies and philanthropic organizations through complex change initiatives including strategic planning, revenue planning, board development, collaboration, and facilitation.