Stories are a form of taskonomy

Posted by  Shawn Callahan —August 11, 2006
Filed in Culture

100944135_4469fc1eefI’ve just discovered a new word which I love: taskonomy. Donald Norman uses it to describe how we arrange things around us to get our work done. Rather than organise our materials alphabetically or thematically (that’s the taxonomy approach) we assemble things we might use together. Don’s example comes from some anthropological work investigating blacksmiths. At the end of the day a blacksmith doesn’t put all his hammers in one pile and tongs in another. No, he places the hammer next to the tongs and pops them both on the anvil ready for work the next day.

Typesetters of old, as you would imagine, had a similar system. Typesetting cases were arranged so that the popular letters where together and easily accessible. Capital letters were less commonly used so they tended to be stored in the Upper Case, out of the way. This is where we got the terms upper and lowercase letters.

These examples illustrate physical arrangements of tools which represent a craftsman’s knowledge. Do we use taskonomies to arrange our concepts? To me one obvious example are stories, which arrange ideas using a plot. Like a blacksmith arranging his tools ready for use, a story gathers ideas into a meaningful assemblage ready to be told. Social networks are another example of a taskonomy in the sense that the people we know and trust are clumped together into groups like communities, friends, colleagues.

Patrick Lambe’s post put me on to Donald Norman’s idea of taskonomy. Patrick says:

Taxonomists cannot remain in the back storeroom keeping the shelves tidy. They also need to venture into the storefront and see how customers need their information organised for use.

I suggest taxonomists go a step further and get out into the workplaces of their customers, listen to their stories, find out how work really gets done and start incorporating taskonomy thinking in how they deliver their services. I agree with Patrick when he says:

It’s not that taskonomies are any better than taxonomies – in fact, you’ll need both taxonomies and metadata to support your taskonomies behind the scenes.

The problem we face is that organisations are obsessed with order, taxonomies, and wanting their workplace to work like a well-oiled machine. It’s time we shifted the focus to taskonomy and re-balance our approach to organisational issues by including more right brain thinking (design, story, empathy, meaning. symphony, play).

[thanks to Tom Graves for the typesetter example]

About  Shawn Callahan

Shawn, author of Putting Stories to Work, is one of the world's leading business storytelling consultants. He helps executive teams find and tell the story of their strategy. When he is not working on strategy communication, Shawn is helping leaders find and tell business stories to engage, to influence and to inspire. Shawn works with Global 1000 companies including Shell, IBM, SAP, Bayer, Microsoft & Danone. Connect with Shawn on:

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