Tag: Vocabulary management

Why is it so Hard to “Get” Semantics Inside the Enterprise?

Semantic Software Technologies: Landscape of High Value Applications for the Enterprise was published just over a year ago. Since then the marketplace has been increasingly active; new products emerge and discussion about what semantics might mean for the enterprise is constant. One thing that continues to strike me is the difficulty of explaining the meaning of, applications for, and context of semantic technologies.

Browsing through the topics in this excellent blog site, http://semanticweb.com , it struck me as the proverbial case of the blind men describing an elephant. A blog, any blog, is linear. While there are tools to give a blog dimension by clustering topics or presenting related information, it is difficult to understand the full relationships of any one blog post to another. Without a photographic memory, an individual does not easily connect ideas across a multi-year domain of blog entries. Semantic technologies can facilitate that process.

Those who embrace some concept of semantics are believers that search will benefit from “semantic technologies.” What is less clear is how evangelists, developers, searchers and the average technology user can coalesce around the applications that will semantically enable enterprise search.

On the Internet content that successfully drives interest, sales, opinion and individual promotion does so through a combination of expert crafting of metadata, search engine technology that “understands” the language of the inquirer and the content that can satisfy the inquiry. Good answers are reached when questions are understood first and then the right content is selected to meet expectations.

In the enterprise, the same care must be given to metadata, search engine “meaning” analysis tools and query interpretation for successful outcomes. Magic does not happen without people behind the scenes to meet these three criteria executing linguistic curation, content enhancement and computational linguistic programming.

Three recent meeting events illustrate various states of semantic development and adoption, even as the next conference, Semantic Tech & Business Conference – Washington, D.C. on November 29 – is upon us:

Event 1 – A relatively new group, the IKS-Community funded by the EU has been supporting open source software developers since 2009. In July they held a workshop in Paris just past the mid-point of their life cycle. Attendees were primarily entrepreneurs and independent open source developers seeking pathways for their semantically “tuned” content management solutions. I was asked to suggest where opportunities and needs exist in US markets. They were an enthusiastic audience and are poised to meet the tough market realities of packaging highly sophisticated software for audiences that will rarely understand how complex the stuff “under the hood” really is. My principal charge to them was to create tools that “make it really easy” to work with vocabulary management and content metadata capture, updates, and enhancements.

Event 2. – On this side of the pond, UK firm Linguamatics hosted its user group meeting in Boston in October. Having interviewed a number of their customers last year to better understand their I2E product line, I was happy to meet people I had spoken with and see the enthusiasm of a user community vested in such complex technology. Most impressive is the respectful tone and thoughtful sharing between Linguamatics principals and their customers. They share the knowledge of how hard it is to continually improve search technology that delivers answers to semantically complex questions using highly specialized language. Content contributors and inquirers are all highly educated specialists seeking answers to questions that have never been asked before. Think about it, search engines designed to deliver results for frequently asked questions or to find content on popular topics is hard enough, but finding the answer to a brand new question is a quantum leap of difficulty in comparison.

To make matters even more complicated, answers to semantic (natural language) questions may be found in internal content, in published licensed content or some combination of both. In the latter case, only the seeker may be able to put the two together to derive or infer an answer.

Publishers of content for licensing play a convoluted game of how they will license their content to enterprises for semantic indexing in combination with internal content. The Linguamatics user community is primarily in life sciences; this is one more hurdle for them to overcome to effectively leverage the vast published repositories of biological and medical literature. Rigorous pricing may be good business strategy, but research using semantic search could make more headway with more reasonable royalties that reflect the need for collaborative use across teams and partners.

Content wants to be found and knowledge requires outlets to enable innovation to flourish. In too many cases technology is impaired by lack of business resources by buyers or arcane pricing models of sellers that hold vital information captive for a well-funded few. Semantically excellent retrieval depends on an engine’s indexing access to all contextually relevant content.

Event 3. – Leslie Owens of Forrester Research, at the Fall 2011 Enterprise Search Summit conducted a very interesting interactive session that further affirms the elephant and blind men metaphor. Leslie is a champion of metadata best practices and writes about the competencies and expertise needed to make valuable content accessible. She engaged the audience with a series of questions about its wants, needs, beliefs and plans for semantic technologies. As described in an earlier paragraph about how well semantics serves us on the Web, most of the audience puts its faith in that model but is doubtful of how or when similar benefits will accrue to enterprise search. Leslie and a couple of others made the point that a lot more work has to be done on the back-end on content in the enterprise to get these high-value outcomes.

We’ll keep making the point until more adopters of semantic technologies get serious and pay attention to content, content enhancement, expert vocabulary management and metadata. If it is automatic understanding of your content that you are seeking, the vocabulary you need is one that you build out and enhance for your enterprise’s relevance. Semantic tools need to know the special language you use to give the answers you need.

Collaboration, Convergence and Adoption

Here we are, half way through 2011, and on track for a banner year in the adoption of enterprise search, text mining/text analytics, and their integration with collaborative content platforms. You might ask for evidence; what I can offer is anecdotal observations. Others track industry growth in terms of dollars spent but that makes me leery when, over the past half dozen years, there has been so much disappointment expressed with the failures of legacy software applications to deliver satisfactory results. My antenna tells me we are on the cusp of expectations beginning to match reality as enterprises are finding better ways to select, procure, implement, and deploy applications that meet business needs.

What follows are my happy observations, after attending the 2011 Enterprise Search Summit in New York and 2011 Text Analytics Summit in Boston. Other inputs for me continue to be a varied reading list of information industry publications, business news, vendor press releases and web presentations, and blogs, plus conversations with clients and software vendors. While this blog is normally focused on enterprise search, experiencing and following content management technologies, and system integration tools contribute valuable insights into all applications that contribute to search successes and frustrations.

Collaboration tools and platforms gained early traction in the 1990s as technology offerings to the knowledge management crowd. The idea was that teams and workgroups needed ways to share knowledge through contribution of work products (documents) to “places” for all to view. Document management systems inserted themselves into the landscape for managing the development of work products (creating, editing, collaborative editing, etc.). However, collaboration spaces and document editing and version control activities remained applications more apart than synchronized.

The collaboration space has been redefined largely because SharePoint now dominates current discussions about collaboration platforms and activities. While early collaboration platforms were carefully structured to provide a thoughtfully bounded environment for sharing content, their lack of provision for idiosyncratic and often necessary workflows probably limited market dominance.

SharePoint changed the conversation to one of build-it-to-do-anything-you-want-the way-you-want (BITDAYWTWYW). What IT clearly wants is single vendor architecture that delivers content creation, management, collaboration, and search. What end-users want is workflow efficiency and reliable search results. This introduces another level of collaborative imperative, since the BITDAYWTWYW model requires expertise that few enterprise IT support people carry and fewer end-users would trust to their IT departments. So, third-party developers or software offerings become the collaborative option. SharePoint is not the only collaboration software but, because of its dominance, a large second tier of partner vendors is turning SharePoint adopters on to its potential. Collaboration of this type in the marketplace is ramping wildly.

Convergence of technologies and companies is on the rise, as well. The non-Microsoft platform companies, OpenText, Oracle, and IBM are placing their strategies on tightly integrating their solid cache of acquired mature products. These acquisitions have plugged gaps in text mining, analytics, and vocabulary management areas. Google and Autonomy are also entering this territory although they are still short on the maturity model. The convergence of document management, electronic content management, text and data mining, analytics, e-discovery, a variety of semantic tools, and search technologies are shoring up the “big-platform” vendors to deal with “big-data.”

Sitting on the periphery is the open source movement. It is finding ways to alternatively collaborate with the dominant commercial players, disrupt select application niches (e. g. WCM ), and contribute solutions where neither the SharePoint model nor the big platform, tightly integrated models can win easy adoption. Lucene/Solr is finding acceptance in the government and non-profit sectors but also appeal to SMBs.

All of these factors were actively on display at the two meetings but the most encouraging outcomes that I observed were:

  • Rise in attendance at both meetings
  • More knowledgeable and experienced attendees
  • Significant increase in end-user presentations

The latter brings me back to the adoption issue. Enterprises, which previously sent people to learn about technologies and products to earlier meetings, are now in the implementation and deployment stages. Thus, they are now able to contribute presentations with real experience and commentary about products. Presenters are commenting on adoption issues, usability, governance, successful practices and pitfalls or unresolved issues.

Adoption is what will drive product improvements in the marketplace because experienced adopters are speaking out on their activities. Public presentations of user experiences can and should establish expectations for better tools, better vendor relationship experiences, more collaboration among products and ultimately, reduced complexity in the implementation and deployment of products.

Leveraging Language in Enterprise Search Deployments

It is not news that enterprise search has been relegated to the long list of failed technologies by some. We are at the point where many analysts and business writers have called for a moratorium on the use of the term. Having worked in a number of markets and functional areas (knowledge management/KM, special libraries, and integrated library software systems) that suffered the death knell, even while continuing to exist, I take these pronouncements as a game of sorts.

Yes, we have seen the demise of vinyl phonograph records, cassette tapes and probably soon musical CD albums, but those are explicit devices and formats. When you can’t buy or play them any longer, except in a museum or collector’s garage, they are pretty dead in the marketplace. This is not true of search in the enterprise, behind the firewall, or wherever it needs to function for business purposes. People have always needed to find “stuff” to do their work. KM methods and processes, special libraries and integrated library systems still exist, even as they were re-labeled for PR and marketing purposes.

What is happening to search in the enterprise is that it is finding its purpose, or more precisely its hundreds of purposes. It is not a monolithic software product, a one-size-fits-all. It comes in dozens of packages, models, and price ranges. It may be embedded in other software or standalone. It may be procured for a point solution to support retrieval of content for one business unit operating in a very narrow topical range, or it may be selected to give access to a broad range of documents that exist in numerous enterprise domains on many subjects.

Large enterprises typically have numerous search solutions in operation, implementation, and testing, all at the same time. They are discovering how to deploy and leverage search systems and they are refining their use cases based on what they learn incrementally through their many implementations. Teams of search experts are typically involved in selecting, deploying and maintaining these applications based on their subject expertise and growing understanding of what various search engines can do and how they operate.

After years of hearing about “the semantic Web,” the long sought after “holy grail” of Web search, there is a serious ramping of technology solutions. Most of these applications can also make search more semantically relevant behind the firewall. These technologies have been evolving for decades beginning with so-called artificial intelligence, and now supported by some categories of computational linguistics such as specific algorithms for parsing content and disambiguating terms. A soon to-be released study featuring some of noteworthy applications reveals just how much is being done in enterprises for specific business purposes.

With this “teaser” on what is about to be published, I leave you with one important thought, meaningful search technologies depend on rich linguistically-based technologies. Without a cornucopia of software tools to build terminology maps and dictionaries, analyze content linguistically in context to elicit meaning, parse and evaluate unstructured text data sources, and manage vocabularies of ever more complex topical domains, semantic search could not exist.

Language complexities are challenging and even vexing. Enterprises will be finding solutions to leverage what they know only when they put human resources into play to work with the lingo of their most valuable domains.

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