Typology or Taxonomy?
There is no clear agreement on the definitions of typology and taxidermy, well there are in biology but as we move into other fields it gets harder. I’d also make it clear that I am pushing the boundaries of my knowledge here so if Patrick Lambe (or someone else who does understand this) wants to correct me on my use that is fine. To be honest I am less concerned about the labels than I am about the distinctions. Knowledge management is closer to policy formation than it is to biology so I am going to use the definitions in Kevin Smith’s September 2002 paper in the Policy Studies Journal Typologies, taxonomies, and the benefits of policy classification as my starting point.
In a typology the dimensions represent concepts, they do not necessarily exist in physical reality (although they can). As such typologies generate heuristics which are more adaptive under changing circumstances. On the downside the concepts can be arbitrary may not be exhaustive and can easily be subject to clashes of interpretation.
A taxonomy on the other hand classifies things based on clear empirical characteristics and will have rules that allow determination of location. They have clear boundaries mostly determined by cluster analysis allow rapid decision making . On the downside, once a taxonomy is established if something does not fit, it will be made to fit as the taxonomy itself creates a filtering mechanism through which we filter observable characteristics.
A Cynefin postscript
Now Cynefin is a bit of a hybrid. It is a conceptual framework so at that level its a typology, but the dimensions are based on natural science so there is an empirical aspect but its not from any form of cluster analysis.
I’ve always said that the approach I and colleagues have developed over the years is a form of naturalising sense-making; the naturalising is a philosophical reference to rooting theory in the natural sciences. Now this is useful but it can lead to some confusions if people seize on it and make it a two by two matrix.
It can, and is used as such but properly used it is a lot more. Some quick points here and I plan some more posts on aspects of this:
Cynefin has five domains; simple, complicated, complex, chaotic and disordered.
The disordered domain recognizes the essential inauthenticity to any typology of human experience so disorder is the state of not knowing which of the domains you are in (and you may be in several). Disorder is frequently left out which is a pity.
The chaos domain is always a transitionary state and Cynefin is as much about movements between domains (dynamics) as it is about the domains themselves. Now anyone with the right science background gets that quickly, order comes for free to quote John Holland (I think but it might be one of the other Santa Fe founders and I have limited internet access so can’t check that).
Its very important to use the constrain based definition of the domain as that allows you to understand how to move between them.
- If there are no constrains its chaotic. If the constraints are severe enough to make agent behaviour predictable then its ordered,
- if the nature of those constrains are self-evident then its Simple,
- if they require analysis then they are Complicated.
- If the constrains and agents co-evolve then its Complex.
That means that changing the constraints can change the nature of the system and consequently the nature of situational assessment and decision making.
Simple is next to Chaotic as complacency, or inappropriate application of constrains which can lead to catastrophic failure (again movement)
Ideally the framework is social constructed (the boundaries emerge from the data), ideally with the four points method I described in my paper on the history of Cynefin.
However it can also be used as a categorisation framework (boundaries precede the data) and the HBR article largely focuses on this aspect as it was an approach more familiar to the readers.