Domains and Transformations

As the emphasis in information interchange shifts from hardware and software commonality to one of information domains and boundary transformations of compatible content between them, new ways of thinking about the design and implementations of information systems are needed. They are very different to the centrist approaches of the past and demand new skills. The new “technology-free” technology of XML, a more flexible extension of existing Web content, lies at the heart of these new developments.

Information domains

XML is the new hot topic in e-commerce and information interchange but its very flexibility is creating problems. If you can use XML to create structures to represent anything you want, how do interchange that structured content both inside your organisation and, more importantly, with other organisations?

One approach has been to standardise XML structure vocabularies for particular market sectors. These can be thought of as information domains. The difficulties of creating and maintaining such domains are justified for high-value markets but are not justified for the huge number of other information interchange requirements. Where a common information domain does not exist, then a transformation will be needed at the boundary of the two information domains.

Even if it is possible to standardise the information domain within your organisation, it may not be desirable. Such all-encompassing information content standards will be very hard to maintain in the ever-changing world of the Internet-based organisation. And, there are always two domains you can never eliminate, no matter how hard you try: the domains of the past and the future. Your information domain will change constantly and every time it does so, the need for a boundary transformation to access what has become legacy content will arise. As L P Hartley put it, in a rather different context, “The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there”.

Boundary transformations

The common representation of structural elements that XML provides eases the creation of the necessary transformations. It is thus information interchange between domains of compatible content. Managing these boundary transformations will be a key skill of the new information and knowledge based organisations.

Business and information management is the dynamics of change and the breaking down of the traditional boundaries between the business units of the organisation.

It is said that the best way to predict the future is to invent it; you could also say the best way to benefit from change is to initiate it.

Management of the information domains within an organisation must be kept close to the information stakeholders; the creators and owners of the information and those who understand it best. Unlike IT and IS, information domain management is not a suitable candidate for central control by the IT department. Their help may be needed with the technicalities but with the increasing importance of the meaning of information rather than its representation, the information stakeholders hold the key to making the information more productive.

These boundary transformations mirror the transformations between an organisation and its suppliers and customers. In information management terms, it is very similar to the needs of Customer Relationship Management (CRM) and Value Chain Management (VCM). Think of it as CRM pulled inside the organisation to serve the business model.

(Originally written April 2000)