When it comes to Semantic Web technologies, there are some business-technology leaders that see value in moving rapidly forward. For some, it’s critical if they’re to live up to their image as technologically advanced enterprises. For others, it’s a matter of hearing that competitors are doing it, so they need to get on board too. There’s also the case to be made that there the amount of data to deal with already is overwhelming, and it’s only going to get worse, creating a world that mere humans and current information technology tools simply can’t keep up with.
At the (quickly) upcoming Semantic Tech & Business Conference in Washington D.C., Janet Millenson, principal of advisory firm Two Crows Consulting, will hit those high notes. But expect also to hear about what remains to grapple with in order to get executive support for what is still a new idea in many organizations.
Consider, for example, not just the hesitancy about relating internal data to information that resides in outside databases or across the web – way outside the enterprise’s control – but also the fact that in a lot of big companies, different divisions don’t even like to share data with each other. “I was talking to someone in a giant conglomerate, and there are attitudes in where people in different divisions don’t see a reason to share what they do with other divisions,” relates Millenson. “That’s happening even in the same company, so some of those organizations will be less motivated to change.”
Then, too, big companies have big investments in traditional technologies from big IT vendors. While certainly such brands – the likes of IBM, Oracle, and Adobe – are themselves invested in acquiring and continuing to create more semantic expertise, the arena still is full of lots of small vendors providing different pieces to solve the semantic puzzle. “These vendors are full of really smart people, but they’re often small and new companies,” says Millenson. “And if the buyer of services has a long-established relationship with a big company and hasn’t heard of some of these smaller ones, that’s a bit of a barrier to get over.”
Add to that that it isn’t necessarily obvious about how the promise of semantic technology fits into what they’re already doing. Overhauling everything isn’t in the cards. “You have existing staff, existing technology setups – relational databases and legacy systems,” she says. How does a move to semantic technology change what business users are used to in terms of their interactions with information, and what kind of training is that going to require? “This is a concern to executives – how to plan for future enhancements. It can be done successfully but let’s face it: Many ‘new and improved’ projects over the years that were supposed to be simple and cheap weren’t, and didn’t even necessarily accomplish what they were supposed to do,” she says.
How to keep a semantic web project from falling into that category? For one thing, don’t set expectations that the technology will do it all. “Human beings must stay involved and human review is still required,” Millenson says. “You have to retain the people with domain knowledge – a lot of it which hasn’t been captured in digital format. Don’t fire Gertrude who’s been doing her job for 40 years and think you can replace her with some software, because maybe she knows some things that aren’t in there. Maybe there are 14 different names that label the same data item and Gertrude is the only one who knows what they all are.”
She also cautions to set initial ROI expectations to focus on reduced costs, not necessarily increased revenue. “For any new tools to help manage data better, the quickest payback is in reducing costs. Improved revenues will happen with better customer satisfaction, more targeted sales and all these wonderful things,” she says. “But the real payback, based on patterns I’ve seen with past technology adoptions like predictive analytics, may be from heading off problems,” and saving costs by responding to them quickly.
If you want to hear more of Millenson’s views, join her at her discussion, The ROI of RDF: How to Explain Semantic Technology to Management at the D.C. conference.