Classification and the Platypus

People love classifying. Taking things that are all different from each other and putting them in buckets. In business consumers are divided into good and bad prospects. Even when you are measuring consumer potential effectively there is often very little difference between some consumers in each group. For instance, when extending credit there is always someone who just missed the cut who is similar to someone offered the loan. In education the lowest A- student is often almost identical to the highest B+ student yet the transcripts look very different. We often simply have no choice but to classify, for example if we have only one scholarship to award, but it is worth bearing in mind that many classification systems approach arbitrary.

The natural world has had many fascinating classification problems. For example, the Duck Billed Platypus seemed to present a significant problem for classification when discovered. That it is a mammal that lays eggs is pretty atypical but mostly the problem seemed to be the unscientific criteria that the Duck Billed Platypus looks really weird. When brought back to europe people doubted its was genuine. “But Shaw, an experienced naturalist, a Fellow of the Royal Society and Assistant Keeper of Natural History at the British Museum, clearly regraded the peculiar specimen with suspicion. Could it, he wondered, be a hoax?” (Moyal 2004, pages 6-7). Classification was all over the place.

As a business scholar the lessons to learn from problems classifying the Platypus aren’t anything to do with biology. Firstly, it is worth remembering that to learn from other disciplines we need not be at the cutting edge of their discipline. There is nothing wrong with learning from historical problems in other disciplines. A second, more practical lesson, is to remember that any classification system that imposes a rigid structure on a complex world should be tested for the effect of the boundary you choose. If you are bucketing customers who spend over $100 together check what happens if you bucket those who spend over $90, or those who spend over $110, together. If this makes a massive difference to your expected results you might need to reconsider your classification system.

Read: Ann Moyal (2004) Platypus: The Extraordinary Story of How a Curious Creature Baffled the World, The Johns Hopkins University Press.

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