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Knowledge: The Essence of Meta Data:
Vision and Reality Hit the Meta Data Environment

online columnist R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.     Column published in DMReview.com
February 17, 2005
  By R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D.

Many people in the IT field look at the meta data repository as an application which provides a limited set of value points for the organization. The reality is that the repository itself is just one part of a much larger collection of products, services, tools, processes and customer support components. Figure 1 provides one view of the repository environment that attempts to pull in some of these components into a single framework.

The structure of this diagram shown in Figure 1 includes five basic components which include the various elements described in the previous paragraph.

  1. The Asset Portal
  2. The Traditional Repository
  3. Business Processes
  4. Application Processes
  5. Customer Support Environment 

Figure 1: The Asset Portal and Corresponding Components

The Asset Portal

Elena Varon (2002) indicates an enterprise portal gives end users access to multiple types of information and applications through a standard interface. The vertical portal addresses one aspect of a business, such as a human resources site that lets employees sign up for training classes and view pay stubs. Others define a portal as an interface for people to access and exchange information online. It is usually customizable and can be designed to provide employees, customers or trading partners with the information that they need, when they need it. Peter Aiken and Clive Finkelstein (2000) indicated that enterprise portals will be the primary method used by organizations to publish and access business intelligence and knowledge management resources. These definitions provide us the foundation for an asset portal (Section #1). The asset portal is a vertical portal that focuses on the IT assets and the meta data representations of these assets (the card catalog of the IT community). The asset portal is the desired starting point for the user base. The main portal page should contain some of the following functionality.

  • Basic Overview, User Guide and Online Help
  • Semantic and Advanced Boolean Search
  • Multiple Hierarchal Structures for Asset Classification
  • Usage Based Listings: Latest Additions, Coming Soon, Top Ten
  • Key Business Functions
  • Service Provider Support
  • Personalization
  • Related Programs

These components provide links to the entire meta data environment from a single point of access. The portal framework fundamentally changes how information systems are built, designed and implemented. Reuse comes front and center, and new technologies such as SOA are enabled by deploying the entire repository environment.

The Traditional Repository

The traditional repository (Section #2) should look familiar to all of us. The collection image describes the various methods of grouping assets. Grouping assets into collections is a natural activity that has been done ever since the computer was created. Four basic collection schemes can be defined as: classification, assimilation, semantic and activity-based. The classification relationship is a basic domain based relationship. For example, all ".xls" files on my personal computer are related by the classification that they are Excel files. Suppose I have a content classification scheme where the categories are customer, product, order, billing, finance, etc. I can classify entities in the customer classification, irregardless of where they are assimilated in the logical model. The most obvious relationship between assets is the assimilation relationship which basically states that one asset is directly, systematically and purposefully related to another. The relationships between logical, physical and database constructs are an example of a assimilation relationship. The semantic relationship could be considered a classification relationship on steroids. However, the classification is focused on a specific match under a meta data domain, the semantic search moves beyond this and allows for a variety semantic techniques. The simple search will take a term and search the entire collection of meta data fields and locate the term within a text structure. The final collection method is the activity-based method. Here, we review the actual usage of the repository in order to create the collection. Examples of activity-based collections include: top ten, most used, recently added, coming soon, etc. From the simple search to the activity-based list, these collections simply group assets together.

The detail page provides the meta data that describes the asset itself. This meta data includes the generic (semantic) meta-model which is a simple and straightforward meta data such as name, description, or keywords. The Dublin Core standard is one such generic meta-model standard. The context specific meta-model describes a specific asset within a specific context: the Object Management Group (OMG), Common Warehouse Model (CWM), Reusable Asset Specification (RAS) and Web Service Definition Language (WSDL). These standards focus on specific types of resources or assets (structural meta data). Presenting this information in a single, usable and functional page is critical to the success of the repository. We are talking about the human consumption of the meta data information. The modern enterprise environment is a collection of technical, functional, application and data-related assets loosely connected within a heterogeneous environment. Communicating the inventory, meaning and eventual understanding of the knowledge held within the corporation can be a daunting task.

The final area is the data loader utility which actually loads the meta data information into the meta-model. Vendors provide a large collection of utilities that can harvest meta data from tools, databases and a wide variety asset types. In addition to the automated loading utility, most applications provide librarian tools for versioning, data quality, integrating and data entry.

Business Processes

The essence of electronic commerce is to move 100 percent of business processes online. With light-speed, organizations are making tremendous investments in making this happen and success can be found everywhere. Few concepts have revolutionized business more profoundly than e-commerce. E-commerce is changing the shape of competition, the speed of action and the streamlining of interactions, products and payments from customers to companies and from companies to suppliers (Seybold and Marshak, 1998). Organizations are also looking internally; Human Resources has made major moves toward employee self-service. IT must also begin to move toward self-service, and this applies to the repository as well. There is no limit to the repository processes that could be moved online. I will describe a couple processes that apply to asset producers and consumers.

Asset Submission and Status Tracking. Meta data must be collected on each and every asset submitted to the repository. Even when the majority of meta data is collected through an automated tool, basic information must be collected in order to initiate the process. An online form or series of forms can provide self-service for collecting information. In addition, the form can also begin the process of asset tracking. Enterprise assets can't just be submitted and loaded into the repository without a governance review by the architecture community. By moving this process online, the asset producer can check the status of the asset as it moves through the process. At some point, the asset submission could trigger a whole collection of services into the architecture community, designers, developers and many other groups within the technical community.

Asset Consumption. The repository can also provide services for consumers of assets. Consumers work on the front end of projects to integrate reusable assets into the technology environment. One of the biggest problems with implementing enterprise architectures is understanding the environment from a usage point of view. While it may sound simple, knowing who is using what naming standard, vocabulary, domain model, pattern or any other asset is critical to impact analysis and version control. Not to mention, reuse, return on investment and other success criteria must be addressed. Online forms can trigger the engagement process for utilizing assets as well as track the relationship between user/application and the asset.

Application Processes

Application processes are products and services based on the application data produced from content and usage. Think of application processes as business intelligence for the repository. Some of these services include content metrics, usage metrics, impact analysis, user tracking, subscription services, etc. A couple application processes that provide some interesting value include: subscription services and product comparison.

Subscription Services. Subscription services are simply processes for notification when an enterprise asset is modified within the technology environment. Users may want to be notified when a specific asset is changed or reloaded. They may also want to subscribe to an entire category of assets which allows them to get notification on a more global scale. As with a newspaper, the customer must subscribe to an actual object. In the past, notification was accomplished by a librarian sending an e-mail from a list or posting the information on a Web site. This method is commonly referred to as pull strategy which forces the user to come to the site without any notification. This will cause a random delay in proliferating information into the enterprise. The system being described here will provide an automatic notification of update when new assets are modified or added to the collection. The value of sending an automatic notification cannot be underestimated since this may decrease the time required to implement new functionality. In the world enterprise application integrations, this utility can be extremely valuable.

Product Comparison. The idea of product comparison is simple, place assets in a side- by-side framework where similar meta data elements can be compared. A good example of this utility is Dell and their laptop compare pages. Here you can see the various laptops, images, prices, configurations and support options. The product comparison function allows the customer to make an educated selection of the products offered. The essence of the online customer experience is the perception of complete control and that's exactly what needs to be done with enterprise assets. Imagine how this kind of utility could be used with the enormous collection of XML vocabulary standards or the volume of Web services that will be available in the next few years.

Customer Support Environment

While technology and new architectures get the majority of the headlines, at the implementation level it still all comes down to the customer. The customer is the person or group that receives products or services of the Meta Data Services Group. Kisner (1999) put it this way when he described the customer experience: "The customer experience. Building a great company on the Web isn't about "aggregating eyeballs," "increasing stickiness" or embracing any of the other slogans that masquerade as strategy. It's about rethinking the most basic relationship in business: the one between you and your customers. How well do you meet their needs? How smoothly do you solve their problems? How quickly do you anticipate what they'll want next? The real promise of the Web is a once-and-for-all transfer of power: Consumers and business customers will get what they want - when and how they want it and even at the price they want."

Adding customer support utilities to the product mix is a positive step in creating a customer experience. Some of the basic components should include: user guides, online help, product and service overviews, FAQ, and training programs. In addition, producer and consumer communities can be created with a wide variety of collaboration tools in order to add value to the relationship.

The Meta Data Services Group is not only a development, delivery and integration organization, they are a support organization. Support organizations should have online brand sites that support one-way communications such as about, contact, process definitions, project plans and many other information points. In addition to the brand (one-way communication), the support organization should begin to integrate more collaboration and interactive communications. The bottom line is that success in the world of meta data will be defined by the customer not by the technology.

The repository environment is a complex collection of communications that are one way, collaborative and interactive in nature. This brings us back to the basic definition of meta data; is meta data a technology, a product or a service? Does it matter? Delivery of enterprise meta data must be effective, efficient and dependable if it is to have value in the customer's eyes. The customer must be able to depend on the consistency of the technology, processes and the relationship. Building the entire repository environment will ensure you can deliver that value each and every time.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Meta Data.

R. Todd Stephens, Ph.D. is the director of Meta Data Services Group for the BellSouth Corporation, located in Atlanta, Georgia. He has more than 20 years of experience in information technology and speaks around the world on meta data, data architecture and information technology. Stephens recently earned his Ph.D. in information systems and has more than 70 publications in the academic, professional and patent arena. You can reach him via e-mail at Todd@rtodd.com or to learn more visit http://www.rtodd.com/.

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