Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Do we need to define a "Category" for Semantic Technology in the IT Stack?

I started thinking about 'having a category for semantic technology' more after having a conversation with a friend of mine who is a Vice President of Product development for a software product company. His exact words were : "I believe in Semantic Technology and it is very promising. We will also see lots of innovation in next few years. But it is hard to sell product and services in this space" He really meant it more in context of an enterprise than the WWW. He is probably right somewhere despite his limited exposure to Semantic Technology world.

 Even though there are many semantic technology-based implementations that are happening in the IT industry but it is still a tiny fraction of what is going on with Databases, ERP, CRM, BI, Portals, ECM, SAAS, SOA, Collaboration, Applications Servers, Security, legacy application modernization and so many others disciplines. Semantic Technology is not among top ten priority for any CIO for 2009 or even 2010! Actually, it is not even perceived as a category.  When will it become a priority? Do we need to create a category for semantic technology for the enterprise? Maybe! Selling any product and services in this space can be hard sell if semantic technology industry doesn't do a good job in coming up with a nice and understandable category like ERP, BI, CRM etc.. which is already defined clearly in the minds of business and IT in any company. At least, they don't argue about what it really means. At the same time, we have seen the fate of "knowledge management" category which till this date means different things to different people. Selling it as "Semantic Technology" has the same risk as selling SOA (service oriented arhchitecture) which is always a hard sell by IT to business. It has to sound like a solution to the business who doesn't want to buy another piece of technology. The Semantic Technology community now has to wear their marketing hats.

I really admire at least four instances where defining a category played a huge role in success of one or more companies in that space and subsequently many innovative products and solutions were introduced in the marketplace.

  • SAP hijacking MRP and rebranding it as ERP (Enterprise Resource Planning). Later on other disciplines like sales and distribution, warehousing, financial etc. became a part of ERP.
  • Siebel, through acquistion, coalesces SFA (Sales Force automation), CCA (Contact Center Application) and marketing automation tools into CRM category.
  • BI was coined by Gartner and they re-named catgeories like DSS (Decision Support System) or EIS (Executive Information System)
  • The industry went through the confusion of defining a  category for many years for web content mangement, imaging, document management, records management, digital asset management, collaboration etc.. Finally, everybody has settled on ECM (Enterprise Content Management) which is broad and relevant enough. The ECM industry has been on a great growth trajectory since then.
Also,  these four categories are already multi-billion dollar industry now. Having a broader concept and having more players as part of it always helps when anyone is sizing up a category. In matter of months, from small player who is struggling to make few millions on its own, you suddenly look like a part of a growth industry which is already making hundreds of millions. It also makes a CIOs as well as VC community very comfortable.

Defining a right category which sticks and resonates with both business and IT is one of the most important steps for growth and to foster innovation. We really need better positioning for semantic technology! Having a right category doesn't guarantee success but it is the first step towards long-term success. It will definetely accelerate adaption! From timing perspective, the Semantic Technology Industry has to do it now. As Sir Tim Berners Lee says, "We have all the tools to make it happen" - he probably meant web in this context but we know that all the technologies are equally relevant and game changing in the enterprise context also.

Things can quickly change in theIT  industry if you take the examples of SAAS (software as a service model). It was nowhere among the priorties for CIOs 3-4 years back and has already made it into the top 10 list for many of them. There are already more than six hundred vendors who are offering SAAS. Virtualization and Cloud computing also comes to mind in this context as they have also made it into top priorties in a very short span of time. These examples should be enough inspiration for companies who are planning to build products or offer services as Semantic Technology discipline is based on eually good foundation of solid research and development as any of these disciplines mentioned above. Again, right categorization is the key here.

We really need an "Umbrella Term" for Semantic Technology so that companies in this space like Franz (database), Metatomix (platform), TopQudrant(tool), offering ontology services and many others can live peacefully under it. It will also make life so easy for sales, marketing, channels and future enterpreneurs  in the vendor community.

"Business Semantics Management" has been used earlier in a similar but smaller context. Though, personally I think that it has a very broad meaning and can be one of the candidates. It does resonate with business but this name can have its own limitations also. It can be perceived more as just in context of ontology and vocabulary whereas Semantic Tchnology can give you business insights also. It can multiply your ROI on your investments on BI, data management,integration, ECM, search etc..  There can be many meaningful and relevant names for this category which will require more dialogue in the industry.  Once we agree on a category name then it needs to be marketed and socialized relentlessly.
We really need a body in the semantic technology like what AIIM is to ECM industry or TDWI is to Business Intelligence to help in this.  W3C is doing great work but its focus is more web, research and standards. We need an organization who can work closely with corporatations, vendor communiy and maybe research to facilitate conversation and ideas.It will be lot of work for this organization if they have to follow the model of AIIM who has done great job in ECM market in education, industry advocacy, marketing, consulting, professional development, peer networking, benchmarking, market intelligence, developing local chapters, best practices, help in developing policies and procedures etc..


  1. Priyank, if you want a category name, what's wrong with the one you gave, Semantic Technology?

    Regarding the term BI (business intelligence): It was coined by IBM researcher Hans Peter Luhn, not by Gartner. See my article, BI at 50 Turns Back to the Future,

  2. Priyank, good analysis. Semantics is already finding its way in many different existing categories as requirements: e.g., SOA, Metadata Management, ...

    Business Semantics Management (or BSM) does seem like a good label: broad enough and given enough use cases to clarify it to a broader audience, it will be seen as very relevant. Some links related to BSM:

    Concerning organizations, what about:
    - STI International
    - Semantic Universe
    - OMG

  3. The reason that Semantic Technology is hard to sell, say compared to ERP, CRM, BI etc is that it is technology focused. It need to be customer/problem/solution focused. Semantic technology has for years been a solution looking for a problem. It is largely that today.

    The other categories are names for solutions to problems, or for areas that clearly need support.

    Semantic Technology is a bit like a word processor. It is very very general, and can add value to virtually any area, including ALL of BI, CRM, ERP, and many other acronyms.

    Can you think of any other sectors that are technology oriented, rather than customer/problem oriented?

    Michael Uschold