Tag Archives: ontology

Taxonomies 1, Semantic Web (and Linked Data) 0

I’m not a big fan of Semantic Web{{1}}. For something that has been around for just over ten years — and which has been aggressively promoted by the likes of Tim Berners-Lee{{2}} — very little real has come of it.

Taxonomies, on the other hand, are going gangbusters, with solutions like GovDirect{{3}} showing that there is a real need for this sort of data-relationship driven approach{{4}}. Given this need, if the flexibility provided by Semantic Web (and more recently, Linked Data{{5}}) was really needed, then we would have expected someone to have invested in building significant solutions which use the technology.

While the technology behind Semantic Web and Linked Data is interesting, it seems that most people don’t think it’s worth the effort.

All this makes me think: the future of data management and standardisation is ad hoc, with communities or vendors scratching specific itches, rather than formal, top-down, theory driven approaches such as Semantic Web and Linked Data, or even other formal standardisation efforts of old.

[[2]]Tim Berners-Lee on Twitter[[2]]
[[4]]Peter Williams on the The Power of Taxonomies @ the Australian Government’s Standard Business Reporting Initiative[[4]]

The technologies behind the likes of Semantic Web and Linked Data have a long heritage. You can trace them back to at least the seventies when ontology and logic driven approaches to data management faced off against relational methodologies. Relational methods won that round — just ask Oracle or the nearest DBA.

That said, there has been a small number of interesting solutions built in the intervening years. I was involved in a few in one of my past lives{{6}}, and I’ve heard of more than a few built by colleagues and friends. The majority of these solutions used ontology management as a way to streamline service configuration, and therefor ease the pain of business change. Rather than being forced to rebuild a bunch of services, you could change some definitions, and off you go.


What we haven’t seen is a well placed Semantic Web SPARQL{{7}} query which makes all the difference. I’m still waiting for that travel website where I can ask for a holiday, somewhere warm, within my budget, and without too many tourists who use beach towels to reserve lounge chairs at six in the morning; and get a sensible result.

[[7]]SPARQL @ w3.org[[7]]

The flexibility which we could justify in the service delivery solutions just doesn’t appear to be justifiable in the data-driven solution. A colleague showed my a Semantic Web solution that consumed a million or so pounds worth of tax payer money to build a semantic-driven database for a small art collection. All this sophisticated technology would allow the user to ask all sorts of sophisticated questions, if they could navigate the (necessarily) complicated user interface, or if they could construct an even more daunting SPARQL query. A more pragmatic approach would have built a conventional web application — one which would easily satisfy 95% of users — for a fraction of the cost.

When you come down to it, the sort of power and flexibility provided by Semantic Web and Linked Data could only be used by a tiny fraction of the user population. For most people, something which gets them most of the way (with a little bit of trial and error) is good enough. Fire and forget. While the snazzy solution with the sophisticated technology might demo well (making it good TED{{8}} fodder), it’s not going to improve the day-to-day travail for most of the population.


Then we get solutions like GovDirect. As the website puts it:

GovDirect® facilitates reporting to government agencies such as the Australian Tax Office via a single, secure online channel enabling you to reduce the complexity and cost of meeting your reporting obligations to government.

which make it, essentially, a Semantic Web solution. Except its not, as GovDirect is built on XBRL{{9}} with a cobbled together taxonomy.

[[9]]eXtensible Business Reporting Language[[9]]

Taxonomy driven solutions, such as GovDirect might not offer the power and sophistication of a Semantic Web driven solution, but they do get the job done. These taxonomies are also more likely to be ad hoc — codifying a vendor’s solution, or accreted whilst on the job — than the result of some formal, top down ontology{{10}} development methodology (such as those buried in the Semantic Web and Linked Data).

[[10]]Ontology defined in Wikipedia[[10]]

Take Salesforce.com{{11}} as an example. If we were to develop a taxonomy to exchange CRM data, then the most likely source will be other venders reverse engineering{{12}} whatever Salesforce.com is doing. The driver, after all, is to enable clients to get their data out of Salesforce.com. Or the source might be whatever a government working group publishes, given a government’s dominant role in its geography. By extension we can also see the end of the formal standardisation efforts of old, as they devolve into the sort of information frameworks represented by XBRL, which accrete attributes as needed.

[[12]]Reverse engineering defined in Wikipedia[[12]]

The general trend we’re seeing is a move away from top-down, tightly defined and structured definitions of data interchange formats, as they’re replaced by bottom-up, looser definitions.

The future of innovation – beyond 2009

I’ll be involved in the panel discussions at the next InnoFuture Momentum on October 13th, 3:30pm to 6:30pm, in Telstra’s Executive Briefing Centre, Level 18, 35 Collins Street, Melbourne.

We are all fascinated by the future. The future always looks brighter. The prospect of a promotion, developing a winning product or promotion, bigger budget, new government incentive … tomorrow, next quarter, next year … If we realise that there is no future, only what we do today, we can focus on innovation that will result in a better future. Risk, courage, learning from parallel industries and cultures, harnessing our talents… Thinking with an open mind how to create a better world …

The events is structured around a series of industry panels, one of which I’m responsible for.

Innovation has been seen as an arms race—the race for more ideas, more content, more investment, more involvement. If we can see more ideas, get access to more content, get more of our team involved, if we can get it earlier in its lifecycle, then we might be the ones with first mover advantage. However, modern communications technology means than ideas are no longer scarce but freely available. New generation media empires, such as TED, have industrialised the idea collection process, creating vast idea smorgasbords for us to graze on. Today’s challenge is synthesis: understanding what problems are interesting, selecting the ideas which add value to a solution (as not all ideas are created equal), and then bringing together these ideas to create something new. How do we step out of the ideas arms race, creating the space and time our team need to synthesize these new, innovative ideas when presented with a challenge?

We also have an interesting group of participants on the panels (including myself):

  • Ilya Joel-Pitcher, EDS a HP Company
  • Mark Toomey, Infonomics
  • Hafeez Bana, Deloitte
  • Nicole Keating, GHD
  • Neville Christie, CEO Institute, Innovation Group, and discussion moderator

Hope to see you there!

Innovation should not be the race for the new-new thing

Note: This post is part of larger series on innovation, going under the collective name of Innovation and Art of Random.

We’re all searching for the new-new thing. Be it a product or a method, we’re looking for that innovation that will let us stand out from the pack, because in a world where we are all good, we need to be original. If an idea becomes a trend before we’re involved, we are not a leader. When we’re first to market, if we capture first mover advantage, then we can define the rules of the game. But how can we tap into valuable ideas for products, services or method before they are seen as trends, when they are just … random?

In today’s hyper-competitive business environment being good, being operationally efficient, has become the price of entry. We’ve leveraged methodologies like TQM, Six Sigma, LEAN to optimize our businesses, and while we might carry some baggage from our past, we are good at what we do. In this environment, it’s the ability to be original, the ability to innovate, that will let us stand out from the crowd. Innovation, though, is random. At least it often seems that way. A chance connection or unlikely insight takes someone on a journey to create something new. New developments, new product and services based on original ideas, seem to come out of the blue.

A product which created its own product category
A product which created it's own product category

Think of the first time you saw breath strips; small, minty strips that dissolve on your tongue, eliminating pre-meeting (or pre-date) bad breath. Where did they come from? Most of us can’t quite put our finger on their origin. We heard about them one day, and the next they seemed to be in every shop we walking into, anywhere around the world. A new market segment had been created, and its creator had captured most of the value.

The race for the new-new thing seems to have created an innovation arms race. We want to be the first to find an idea, nurture it, and turn it into a competitive advantage. This has made innovation—the search for new opportunities—into a race for more. More ideas, more connections, more investment, more involvement. If we can see more ideas, get access to more content, get more of our team involved, if we can get it earlier in its lifecycle, then we might be the ones with first mover advantage.

We’re starting to take this to extremes, industrialising the quest for more. Conferences (some of which are rapidly becoming media empires in their own right), such as TED, are creating idea smorgasbords for us to graze on. The industrialization of ideas has us all drinking from the same (soda) fountain. This is driving incremental improvement in our businesses by sharing best practice, which is a good thing, but it’s not going to help us find the new-new thing, the innovative product that will help us stand out from the crowd.

The challenge when managing innovation is not in capturing ideas before they develop into market shaping innovations. If we see an innovative idea outside our organization, then we must assume that we’re not the first to see it, and ideas are easily copied. If innovation is a transferable good, then we’d all have the latest version.

New ideas rarely just pop into existence though; technology, the development of ideas, is an evolutionary process. New, novel ideas, are simply combinations of existing ones, driven by someone’s desire to solve a problem. Breath strips, for example, were the chance connection between mouth wash, a Japanese trend for a dissolving sweets and our (western) desire for fresh breath, a connection made by a western executive on a business trip to Japan. As new ideas are simple combinations of existing ones, the technology we thought of yesterday might might be more valuable tomorrow, as the key component in a new solution.

Each small step of innovation is the result of someone, somewhere bringing together a collection of previously unconnected ideas to solve a problem. This is a pull, rather than a push process. Solutions are not created in search of a problem, but in response to a problem. A new idea is the result of a series of small, incremental steps from the ideas we have to the idea we need. The net result of this incremental development is huge. What makes innovation surprising, and seemingly random, is the fact that we often only see the end result, and not the journey.

Innovation, the ability to be original, comes from inside, not outside of our organizations. The real challenge is synthesis: understanding what problems are interesting, selecting the ideas which bring value to a solution (as not all ideas are created equal), and then bringing together these ideas to create something new. How do we create space and time to help our team synthesize these new, innovative ideas when presented with a challenge?

Product Meta-Models

Imagine the future. Not the distant future, we’re talking about next week or maybe the week after rather than an eventual future where we all have flying cars. A new business competitor has emerged on the market, coming out of nowhere with a business model that makes it impossible for your company to compete. They have half the cost to serve of their competitors, half the time to revenue, they seem to be able to introduce a new product in a matter of days rather than weeks, and their products are incredibly customisable. They seem to have halved the business metrics that you want to go down, doubled the ones you want to go up, while as the same time supporting a product portfolio of impressive depth and complexity. And they claim to be able to do this with conventional technology. How did they do it? And how are you going to respond?

A version was published in Align Journal as Product Meta-Models:
Delivering business agility through a new perspective on technology

Link to complete article.