Michele Ann Jenkins took part in our recent Roundtable Series. We took the opportunity to talk with Michele Ann to discuss the range of her work, and how she supports the diverse needs of her clients.
For this interview Michele outlined her role at Dovecot Studio, expands on a holistic approach to knowledge management, and her recent contribution to a Taxonomy anthology.
Tell us about your early experiences?
MAJ: One thing I find interesting about taxonomists is that we often arrive from vastly diverse backgrounds. You don’t tend to hear “I can’t wait to be a taxonomist when I grow up.” Instead, we stumble upon it through different directions.
Originally, I wanted to be a writer and journalist. I was drawn to reading and writing, but I had also stumbled into early computing culture. I had started to read sci-fi and nonfiction books about programmers and technology. Then, at the University of California, Santa Barbara, I took a class on introduction to programming. I found that I loved working with data types, all these different abstract ideas and variables that you could use to manipulate text. The other class I took at this time was linguistics. My professor encouraged me to explore the connections between language and computers and I really ran with it.
At the university career fair there was a company that worked with the National Library of Medicine on merging and mapping medical vocabularies. They were looking for linguistics students who had programming experience, so it was a great fit for me. I learned on the job and later moved on to another company focused on the emerging area of web publishing systems. So, again, I was able to work at the intersection of tech and writing. This was all in San Francisco in the’ 90s dot-com scene; I found it exciting and dynamic but you never, ever went home.
After a few years, I was really looking for a change of pace and better life/work balance. I joined the World Health Organization working as a programmer for a new centralized web publishing team based in Geneva, Switzerland.
What was it like working for the World Health Organization?
MAJ: When I started there was no central web team and every program or department had separate websites, with their own structure and no holistic organizing principle. The newly formed central web team implemented an open-source web publishing system and started trying to pull all these sites together. As we migrated sites into the new system, I kept running up against issues around content strategy and IA.
Site owners needed clear guidance on how to organize things to bridge the gap between the internal organization’s view and end-user needs. We started to think about things like topics, content types, and other ways of grouping and structuring. Thinking back to my work with the National Library of Medicine, there was a clear need for holistic metadata and taxonomy strategy. We looked at existing vocabularies like MeSH and UNbis and talked with the librarians about information seeking behaviour. We ended up with a set of Health Topics that is still used today.
Tell us about your studies in Knowledge Management
MAJ: I left WHO after a couple of years and consulted for some other United Nation organizations before going to McGill University in Montreal for a Master’s in Library Science with a focus on knowledge management and taxonomy. I wanted to learn more about formal classification systems and understanding users from an information seeking perspective.
At this time there weren’t many opportunities for studying things like technology and ontology from a business perspective like there are now. Luckily, they were open to me doing independent projects like looking at KM in UN organizations, as well as taking classes from the Business School, and generally focusing on technology as much as I could.
Having a solid background in knowledge management is really important when it comes to things like governance, change management, and knowledge sharing.
How did you join Dovecot Studio?
MAJ: After graduating, I was invited to teach the taxonomy course at McGill while a professor was on sabbatical. I asked Stephanie Lemieux, whom I knew from my MLIS program, to speak at the class Career Day. After reconnecting, we worked together on a content migration and website redesign project. We found that we worked really well together and, sometime later, when she was setting up an independent consulting company, she encouraged me to become a consultant for Dovecot Studio.
Tell us more about your role.
MAJ: We collaborate with diverse clients including both NGOs and Fortune 500 retail. My projects can vary from high-level strategic road mapping to deep dives into taxonomy development or programming projects. I really appreciate the diversity of the projects and domains we get to engage with. While we focus on taxonomy, our projects often touch on all aspects of content management from governance and editorial workflows to technology selection and implementation.
We have great relationships with various technology vendors. We can help clients with requirements gathering and understanding the pros and cons of different systems. We talk with people at all the various levels of maturity, and we try to meet folks where they are and help them get to the next level.
The main part of my time is going to be talking to people. There is lots of interaction, through presentations and training sessions, and facilitating conversations. I can often run three or four training sessions a week.
I might be putting together materials, onboarding distinct groups of people and working with our junior taxonomists. Then I might shift to focus on a spreadsheet or writing some code. Then there is the taxonomy work itself, the research and the actual playing with taxonomy pieces, including researching preferred term labels, gathering synonyms, experimenting with different structures and relationships. It’s very much split between stakeholder engagement, presentations, coding, analysis, and the transformation of data.
Which work hat do you really like to wear?
MAJ: I think it’s whatever I’m able to make progress on. If I am stuck on something, it’s really nice that I can shift gears. For example, if I’m trying to put together a presentation and it’s not coming together, there is always the option to pull up a spreadsheet for a while. I will be managing multiple projects at the same time, one may be on the front burner, as we say, with a couple of side dishes that might be a lighter engagement.
I do really enjoy road mapping and strategic components. Before COVID-19 I would fly out and spend a few days running workshops, talking with stakeholders, and bringing together the right people in a room to develop the roadmap. Moving beyond the pain points and untangling dependencies is enjoyable, search, content, metadata, the user experience layer. Dissecting and figuring out the quick fixes and long-term goals. Understanding how it all fits together, the governance, technology, editorial. If I needed to pick one thing it would be this strategic element.
”The holistic approach means looking deeply at how all the different parts work together, user’s needs, your content, organization goals.
Can you expand on your holistic approach to information and content management?
MAJ: The holistic approach means looking deeply at how all the different parts work together, user’s needs, your content, organization goals. You’re putting forward terminology that is considered appropriate. The issue can be you have people searching for something using terminology that is different from your organizations. How do you balance this? We want you all to be saying X, but your users are looking for Y. How do we make the connection, and then how does this work with the technology and the content?
For me, the holistic approach is finding that balance between all those opposing pressures. It’s not just throwing technology first, trying to make the technology fit the problem versus finding the right technology for your problem.
You recently contributed to the new Taxonomies anthology edited by Helen Lippell. Tell us about your involvement.
MAJ: My chapter covers the intersection between different elements of what goes into search. I found that when I was working on taxonomy and search early on, there weren’t a lot of plain language explanations available. You would always hear “search leverages taxonomy, we need taxonomy for search, it’s going to help search”. What was missing was a good breakdown of what this means and the implications for taxonomy design. It was great that this book gave me the opportunity to fill that gap. I hope readers find it engaging and practical — I had fun writing it and iterating through the editing process with Helen.
”Taxonomies bring semantic structures that start to build networks of meaning. These can be leveraged for complex business logic or exposed to end users to let them explore resources.
Why are Taxonomies important to organizations?
MAJ: Language is messy. It’s inexact. The same term means different things to different people. An organization must make this explicit somewhere. Have a definition attached to things and say, “this word, in this context means this for us”. Taxonomies bring semantic structures that start to build networks of meaning. These can be leveraged for complex business logic or exposed to end users to let them explore resources. Often, we focus on term labels first and foremost, but it is the richness of term metadata that can really make taxonomies a powerful tool for organizations.
What advice would you give others on developing a taxonomy?
MAJ: Start with some basics like understanding what your goal is and where the constraints are. What are the use cases, what is the scope of content, what are your user needs? Understand your overall goal at a high level and adopt that as a guiding principle. Try to encapsulate what the vision is and then all your other arguments can refer back to that starting point.
What do you think are the biggest challenges in the sector?
MAJ: Similar to the same challenges in life, the fast pace of technological change. There are a lot of exciting, advanced things people can do, but not everybody is ready. You can move too soon. You may have unstructured content, no taxonomy, and no processes. Do you go all the way into a knowledge graph? Do you need to build your internal resources and skills as well as your technology platform through intermediary steps? Do you have the right people and roles? Will you be able to scale quickly to support rolling out complex new processes and tools across the organization? Don’t overlook the benefits of incremental improvements and building support for bigger changes over time.
”Taxonomy plays a powerful role is bringing together human curation with machine learning algorithms.
Are there any trends in taxonomy you’re excited about?
MAJ: For many years I’ve felt that the Auto Classification has been a bit oversold and not quite there yet. Now, though, I’m starting to think “this is pretty good”. When I graduated library school versus where we are today, it’s just amazing. There are usable tools out there with understandable interfaces producing good results.
I believe having the human in the loop is important. People who build technology understand what users do well, and let machines do what they do well. Use both of these together rather than take it entirely out of the individual’s hands. I’m excited about machines that support workflows, processes and practices.
”I believe having the human in the loop is important. People who build technology understand what users do well, and let machines do what they do well.
Synaptica Insights is our popular series of use cases sharing stories, news, and learning from our customers, partners, influencers, and colleagues. You can review the full list of Insight interviews online including our recent interview with Helen Lippell.