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Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Why You Need a Concept Model for Integration

"A human being is part of a whole, called by us the 'Universe,' a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings, as something separated from the rest - a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and to affection for a few persons nearest us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circles of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty." - Albert Einstein

An Enterprise Content Architecture (ECA) essentially consists of content (elements) and metadata (attributes and relations). By applying the proper types of metadata to describe and organize the content within an enterprise, the ECA makes sure that it can be managed and delivered as needed. So far so good. But, the main challenge when trying to establish an ECA and integrate content from various content sources is to overcome two great barriers related to the metadata that surrounds the content:

  1. The first barrier has to do with the structure of the metadata. If the metadata in one content source is different in structure from the corresponding metadata in another content source, we must make sure that they get the same structure.
  2. The second (and even greater) barrier has to do with the semantics – the meaning – of the metadata. If the metadata in one content source does not mean the same as the corresponding metadata in another content source, then we have a problem that we need to resolve. If we are not aware of sematic differences in metadata between two content sources that are to be integrated, then we might get in serious trouble.

To develop an ECA is obviously a challenging - but not impossible - task given that most enterprises have lots of content sources where both the structure and semantics of the metadata have been defined in isolation from how they have been defined in other content sources. This phenomenon iscommonly refered to as the development of “content silos” or “content islands” and it is a result of IT systems being developed to support only specific functions, parts of processes or – at best – entire processes within an enterprise. That is, without an enterprise perspective where all processes and IT systems are viewed as being part of a whole.

To be able to merge different content architectures, there is really no other way than to go back and first (re-)define the basic concepts used in the enterprise. Only when you have established a (agreed upon) concept model on enterprise level you can start to map the content models in different content sources with eachother. Here is a basic approach to establish the enterprise concept model:

  1. Make sure you have commitment from top management and then create a team with represenatives from all “content islands” (that is, departments and/or processes)
  2. Make an inventory of existing content and which content that is needed but does not exist
  3. Identify which content is valuable to the enterprise and therefore should be classified (and managed) as assets
  4. Work out an enterprise concept model in modeling workshops

The enterprice concept model can then guide the creation of enterprise metadata standards, enterprise taxonomy development and (structural and semantic) harmonization of metadata in different content sources thoughout the enterprise.

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