In a recent posting on the Ontolog forum, Toby Considine discussed the difficulty of describing to several business CEOs the concept of an ontology. He noted that when one of the CEOs finally got it, he explained it thus to the others:
BTW, Toby is chair of the OASIS Open Building Information Exchange (oBIX) Technical Committee (see http://www.oasis-open.org), and is used to conversing about standards and technical matters to business audiences.
This discussion came up in relation to the use of the Cyc knowledge base and the possible role of “lightweight” or “foundational” reference ontologies.
There are a number of interesting points embedded and implied in this discussion, and at the risk of reading too much into them, include:
- Foundational, reference ontologies have an important role, but as frameworks and for external interoperability
- Each enterprise has its own world view, which can be expressed as an ontology and represents its “value proposition”; in this regard, internal ontologies work similarly to current legacy schema
- Semantic “alignment” (and therefore interoperabililty) is important to discuss value
- For a business enterprise, the real focus of its ontologies is to express its value proposition, how it makes money.
I think these sentiments are just about right, with the last point especially profound.
We have supported UMBEL as an important reference structure, and see the role for ever more specific ones. But, at the other end of the spectrum, ontologies are also specific world views, and can and should be private for proprietary enterprises. Yet this is not in any way in conflict with the interoperation — with increasingly widening circles — using shared structure (ontologies).
The balance and integration of the private and public in semantic Web ontologies is still being worked out. But, I truly believe it is appropriate and necessary that both the public and the private be embraced.
Toby’s CEO got it almost right: innovation depends on reserving some proprietary aspects. But the complete story, I also think, is that embracing ontologies themselves and interoperable linked data frameworks in that context is also a key source of innovation and added value.