Managing Information
Connecting with Content

Stuctured Information Systems

My previous posts have been exploring the differences between managing content (potential information) and managing information (communication transactions). My reason for probing what for many will seem like a fruitless distinction is to determine whether, or not, it is indeed fruitless to think about content and information differently or whether there may be merits in viewing these concepts as being distinct. It may come to naught but there is no harm in raising the question. And my early explorations have been encouraging me to continue down this path.

Structured Information Systems

Now this post is in some ways a retrospective in that it calls up an idea, and a graphic, that I prepared in early 1998. I was directed back to this material because it posed a problem for my dichotomy between content and information. It posed a problem because it specifically focused on the case of information that remains a high degree of structure, or intelligence, throughout its lifecycle and made possible new approaches to what seemed at the time to be some rather fundamental business activities.

Structured information systems, I recall explaining, were systems that leveraged structured information – information within which the meaning of its internal components was exposed through the introduction of open markup (by which I meant XML and its progenitor SGML).  But I was also interested in structured information systems, as a design concept for how systems should themselves be structured and thereby made fundamentally more intelligent. To summon up a quote from the now distant 1998, I explained that “in both cases [structured information and structured systems], there is an attempt to design and implement robust structures that can, on one hand, adapt to variability and change while, on the other, persist indefinitely and provide a reliable basis for growth. It applies to information as well as to the systems that move, manipulate and manage that information.”

So how does this pose a challenge to my content / information dichotomy? Well it does not pose that much of a challenge, at least theoretically. I have been making the point that it is the content, in being potential information, where it is most important to invest in the intelligence of the assets (of course as appropriate and as justified by prospective returns). From this store of intelligent content, a myriad of information products, each tuned to its given function and audience, can be generated. In many cases, the resulting information products may not themselves exhibit much in the way of “intelligence” in terms of amenability to subsequent automated processing. It may become a relative “dumb” HTML page or a magnificently formatted page in a print product that can only be appreciated by a person.

But information products need not be “dumb” and in many circumstances they in fact must continue to be quite “intelligent”. One example would be the form, or the transactional document, that traverses domains and is modified and augmented at various points and in various ways. Another is the commercial transaction between partners, such as the message notifying a manufacturer that it’s time to produce six more units and see them shipped to various shelves in various stores.

Core Business Activities

In the above circle diagram, I had flagged what seemed to me to be five key, high-level, business activities that an enterprise must undertake and that would supply examples of where structured information systems provide a fundamentally superior execution platform. These included security, internet commerce, knowledge management, enterprise integration and publishing. I recall even stretching these concepts to the point where they could be considered the five big things that all businesses essentially do. For example, publishing became all production capabilities so that all outputs, including manufactured items, became generated outputs from what the enterprise knew. This was admittedly a little extreme.

When thinking about structured information systems however, and specifically about how intelligent structured information (that effectively embeds intelligent content within its transactional wrapper) can enable and drive intelligent systems, I am forced to revisit some aspects of my dichotomy. It becomes important to emphasize that while managing information and managing content may be theoretically different, many of the capabilities associated with managing intelligent content will also be essential capabilities for an effective information management regime and especially so in a coming age of intelligent systems.


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