Enterprise Ontology – a framework for building and identifying corporate evidence


Role of an enterprise ontology

For an overview of this concept i am going to reference an article written by Dave McComb called The Enterprise Ontology. It offers a good description of an ontology, an Enterprise Ontology as well as some very good reasons as to why an organisation should build one. The article was written in 2006 and i will quote the first paragraph: At the time of this writing almost no enterprises in North America have a formal enterprise ontology.

Yet we believe that within a few years this will become one of the foundational pieces to most information system work within major enterprises.

We are now in 2011 and i am not aware of any publicised stories of any companies in the USA or Europe or the rest of the world for that matter that are able to say they have an enterprise ontology and that it is underpinning the information systems that exist within organisation.

Whilst it is expected that it will take an organisation some time to design, model and build an enterprise ontology the benefits will, if it is managed effectively, bring considerable change to people and value to the information created.

An enterprise ontology provides the enterprise indexing system to define meaning, classification and categorisation for past, current and future information. By providing this it aids evidence and evidence based enterprise architecture by creating a means to “frame” information by specific terms and definitions and thus aid like to like relationships.

If we consider evidence as either proofs or observations derived from a formal or scientific approach as well as opinions and expert statements created from renowned experience and capability; thus that evidence has to be

An Evidence Ontology


Monastery of Hosios Loukas - Gabriel
Monastery of Hosios Loukas - Gabriel

I have been thinking about the task of developing a model of the classes and attributes  of an evidence ontology to support Evidence Based Enterprise Architecture. Having searched on Google, not that i was expecting to find an exact match, i came across something similar for the field of biosciences.

It was interesting to read how they have approached the problem. They describe the use of their ontology as a means to record a collection of assertions, the sources of the assertions and the degree of confidence experts hold in the assertions.

There are very similar relationships here with the requirements for an evidence ontology for evidence based enterprise architecture. Firstly the means to classify particular assertions made in the enterprise architecture. For example these assertions can be found within the artifacts such as models and specifications, the architectural and solution building blocks and statements recorded in architectural views.

Secondly the ability to classify the degree of confidence in the assertions as expressed by senior architects and subject matter experts. Measuring the confidence is perhaps a two fold activity whereby the author assess the confidence and this is either accepted or revised by an expert.

Building up evidence


The likelihood of delivering value through enterprise architecture, in my mind, is based on the evidence behind the arguments supporting the decisions made in any architectural change. So what are the ways in which evidence based methods and practices can be developed to work with the task of managing Enterprise Architecture as a function within an organisation.

I will use this blog to explore the various ways to build up appropriate tools and techniques to support evidence based enterprise architecture but first i want to describe a view of the future. A future where an organisation is is using this approach to shape the design and development of their enterprise architecture.

This future organisation already has very mature enterprise content management, metadata management and master data management policies and practices in place. With these foundations in operation the Enterprise Achitecture team are now exploring the potential of semantic technologies to make more use of their knowledge, information and data repositories. By this i mean they are going to use an inferencing engine to drive answers from an EA knowledge base. The asserted model will then be used to create evidence to support multiple decisions in a architectural strategy.

To be able to create specific data or content assertions the inference engine would have to be supported by a detailed federated ontological environment and secondary knowledge bases. An arrangement for this type of environment could include upper ontologies such as Cyc or WolfrumAlpha then specific ontologies such as an enterprise ontology (covering organisation domains) working with an enterprise architecture ontology which would be supported by extension ontologies including an ITIL ontology, SOA ontology, OMG BPMN ontology and OMG Business Motivation Model ontology.

I accept that the above suggestion would be quite a piece of work to do and i am not aware of any organisations attempting such a thing. Leading academic institutions have over the years put out papers covering projects that built an enterprise ontology and i have only come across a few organisations that have attempted it but i am sure this will change over the next few years. The biggest challenge to this is the cost and effort required to build and maintain the knowledge and evidence through knowledge bases and ontologies. Yet, this cost would be nothing compared to the cost of failed strategies.

Enterprise Architecture value assurance


Why is value assurance important to Enterprise Architecture? Value assurance is a means to review plans, proposals, architectural designs and strategies to determine that value to the business will be delivered.

Like any assurance process it cannot guarantee value will be delivered but it can investigate and decide that the information is aligned to a framework or standard and that the evidence is sound and backs up the decisions, risk mitigation and actions. Value assurance should be independent in its approach and incorporate consultation and critical reviews of all proposals. The objectives of a value assurance review should be:

a) To provide external challenge to the architecture project team at each key decision stage; to help assess the validity and robustness of the work done and the key areas requiring focused attention; and to assist in achieving the value of the deliverable.

b) To assess the suitability of the plans and strategies to ensure a go ahead to operate within the context of the overall Enterprise Architecture.

c) To appraise the readiness and justification of the project to proceed into the next phase, including the project’s soundness for capital allocation.

d) To capture lessons learned for dissemination across EA teams and, where appropriate, facilitate best practice transfer into the maturation or project team.

Two important areas of value assurance are the compliance to the enterprise architecture framework and the validity of the evidence supplied. Checking compliance is relatively straight forward by ensuring the proposals are all based on the agreed template and process, checking evidence is a lot harder.

If an organisation has had a disciplined approach to information management (supported by an enterprise information management strategy ensuring all formal information is well classified, categorised and accessible) then an evidence relationship map should be straightforward. By evidence relationship map i mean the pedigree of references to past documentation pertaining to the current proposal.

For example, references to three similar projects implementing the same technologies or business decisions that have all proved value through their successes – delivered to schedule or cost, shown effective transformation and or growth through sales or customer satisfaction.

If an organisation has poorly managed their information assets then building up evidence to support decisions will be a lot harder. I suspect most organisations are a mix of these two scenarios and as Enterprise Architecture is relatively new, historic information assets aligned to the EA framework is unlikely. Value assurance and evidence management are two critical activities to support Enterprise Architecture maturity. If an organisation is not using evidence to support architectural decisions then it is running the risk of undermining the importance of its EA and its ability to deliver value in the future.