An Ontology-based Approach for Enterprise Interoperability
Aggelos Liapis, Stijn Christiaens, Pieter De Leenheer and Robert Meersman
Semantics Technology & Applications Research Lab (STARLab)
Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Pleinlaan 2, B-1050 BRUSSEL 5, Belgium
Keywords: CSCW, collaborative environments, ontology, enterprise interoperability, legacy systems.
Abstract: In the current competitive industrial context, enterprises must react swiftly to market changes. In order to
face this problem, enterprises must increase their collaborative activities. This implies at one hand high
communication between their information systems and at the other hand the compatibility of their practices.
An important amount of work must be performed towards proper practices of standardization and
harmonization. This is the concept of Interoperability. Interoperability of enterprises is a strategic issue,
caused as well as enabled by the continuously growing ability of integration of new legacy and evolving
systems, in particular in the context of networked organisations. of the reconciliation of the communicated
business semantics is crucial to success. For this, non-disruptive re-use of existing business data stored in
“legacy” production information systems is an evident prerequisite. In addition the integration of a
methodology as well as the scalability of any proposed semantic technological solution are equally evident
prerequisites. Yet on all accounts current semantic technologies as researched and developed for the so-
called Semantic Web may be found lacking. In this paper we present a methodology, which has resulted in
the implementation of a highly customizable collaborative environment focussed to support ontology-based
enterprise interoperability. The main benefit of this environment is its ability to integrate with legacy
systems, rescuing enterprises from having to adapt or upgrade their existing systems in order to interoperate
with their partners.
Collaboration and knowledge sharing have become
crucial to enterprise success in the knowledge-
intensive European Community and the globalised
market world-wide. In this market the trend in
innovation of products and services is shifting from
mere production excellence to intensive,
collaborative and meaningful interoperability (De
Leenheer and Meersman, 2007).
The main objective of this paper is to illustrate the
features and the underpinning technology of a
collaboration platform designed to support the
effective interoperability within and between very
large enterprises. A main key issue that this platform
addresses is the variety and number of different
resources that concur to achieve a cross-enterprise
business service. A second key issue it addresses is
the diversity of agreed (e.g. meaning negotiation
when creating online contracts) models, and the
difficulty in adapting its integrated features and
services to different situations.
These problems are addressed with a flexible
solution, avoiding rigidity that occurs in the
implementation and maintenance of existing
cooperation platforms and their integration with an
advanced semantic repository.
The proposed platform operates at two levels: at the
front end, it enables the end users to access seamless
collaborative (e.g., synchronous, asynchronous and
semi-synchronous) as well as individual mode tools
and services to extract valuable information; at the
back end, it uses a sophisticated ontology framework
to support and record the collaborative work,
enhancing interoperability among different
enterprises and other service providers.
The final part of the paper presents appropriate
evidence regarding the usability as well as the
functionality of the platform through a realistic case
Liapis A., Christiaens S., De Leenheer P. and Meersman R. (2008).
COLLABORATION ACROSS THE ENTERPRISE - An Ontology-based Approach for Enterprise Interoperability.
In Proceedings of the Tenth International Conference on Enterprise Information Systems - SAIC, pages 255-262
DOI: 10.5220/0001718702550262
In general, interoperability is defined as the ability of
two or more systems or components to exchange
information and to use the information that has been
exchanged (Athena, 2004, Interop, 2003). The
European Commision (EC, 2006) adopts a broader
notion with Enterprise Interoperability (note the
capitals), which indicates the field of activity aimed
at improving the manner in which enterprises
interoperate by means of ICT.
Enterprise interoperability is considered “valid” if
inter-business interactions are enabled at three main
enterprise IT levels: data, application and business
process (IDEAS, 2003). Figure 1 illustrates these
levels, and how ontologies, being formal computer-
based of concepts and vocabulary of the business
context under discussion, are instrumental in these
interactions as they provide the necessary shared
semantic resources (De Leenheer and Meersman,
Figure 1: IDEAS Interoperability framework (adapted
from IDEAS, 2003)
Data integration is not a novel issue, however an
important share of so-called legacy data is crucial
for competency is still locked in different corners of
the enterprise.
Legacy systems are in many cases mission-critical.
Large investments have been made in those systems,
and it is clear that enterprises are very reluctant
towards simply replacing those systems by newer
equivalents. Especially in the case that the legacy
system is consistent in its information processing,
reliable in its operation, and predictable in its output.
A current trend in information systems is the
adoption of Service Oriented Architecture (SOA).
According to the OASIS Committee on SOA, a SOA
is defined as “a paradigm for organizing and
utilizing distributed capabilities that may be under
the control of different ownership domains”
(OASIS, 2006). In SOA, everything is a service, and
services can be consumed by different systems. The
benefit here is that any legacy system can be
subdivided in several specific services, which can
then be encapsulated in modern technologies and
incorporated in a SOA architecture.
As such, a lot of the technical details (e.g.,
technology, format, syntax) are currently being
taken care of. An important aspect here, which has
not received enough attention in our opinion, is the
need for decent information architecture. It is
exactly here that proper semantics can be covered,
and that the last frontier in computing (Meersman,
2002) can be tackled. Semantically unlocking the
data in legacy systems, and deploying it across the
boundaries of the enterprise, is a collaborative effort
and requires a methodological approach.
Brodie and Stonebraker (1995) define a legacy
information system as “any information system that
significantly resists modification and evolution”.
The technical annex of the Enterprise
Interoperability roadmap by the EC (EC, 2006)
simply states, “Previous generation(s) of
technologies, [are] now termed ‘legacy’”. In any
sense, these type of systems are in many cases
mission critical, and their failure can have a serious
impact on business (Bennett, 1995). Next to pure
technical issues such as hardware and interfaces, we
can also add proper understanding of the concepts
contained in and used by these systems (Bisbal et al.,
Collaborative environments can be described as
systems aimed at improving the experience of
distributed users. Since distance between co-workers
usually equates to less effective teams and
inadequate project outcomes, the use of technology
focussed to bridge this gap is considered to be
essential (Tomek et al., 2003). By providing more
effective communication tools, we enable distributed
co-workers to collaborate, co-ordinate and
communicate effectively on projects while
2.1 Issues
The majority of the researchers support the view that
Enterprise Interoperability must come along with
considerable performance penalty (Hauguel and
Viardot, 2001, IDEAS, 2003). Thus almost all of the
proposed models of frameworks used to evaluate the
difficulties in Enterprise Interoperability focussing
on communication, security and performance
excluding the integration of a methodology focussed
to serve the specific cause and integration and
support for legacy systems.
Casola et al. (2007) argue that that although a
service provider is able to guarantee a predefined
service level and a certain security level, the mere
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COLLABORATION ACROSS THE ENTERPRISE - An Ontology-based Approach for Enterprise Interoperability
nature of interoperability and the utilisation of up to
date technologies does not allow for automatic
measurement of such attributes.
De Leenheer and Christiaens (2007) conceive the
interoperability issue as a gap between different the
social (communication between humans) and the
technical (communication between machines) parts
of any knowledge-sharing system. They adopt the
four knowledge conversion modes described by
Nonaka and Takeuchi (1995) socialisation (person to
person), externalisation (person to machine),
combination (machine to machine) and
internalisation (machine to person).
2.2 The Need for a Methodology
According to the ISO standard, Enterprise
Methodology (EM) is defined as the act of
developing an enterprise model which is a
representation of what an enterprise intends to
accomplish and how it operates (Curtis, 1988). More
precisely, EM is the representation of the structure,
the behaviour and the organization of the enterprise
according to different points of views (Casola et al.,
Functional, Informational, Physical (Business),
Decisional, Processes and,
Technical, Economical, Social, Human
With two interconnected visions:
Global System Theory: the global view of the
enterprise which collects objectives, structure,
functions, evolution of the enterprise (dynamic),
links with legacy systems and features of the
Local: detailed description according to the
concepts of activities and processes.
The role of the methodology is to represent,
understand and analyze through an enterprise model,
the running of an enterprise in order to improve its
performances (Curtis, 1988). The role of EM in
Interoperability is to define interoperability
requirements and to support a solution
implementation. This contributes to the resolution of
interoperability problems by increasing the shared
understanding of the enterprise structure and
behaviour. Several problems are related to
interoperability and the absence of a concrete
methodology to support it.
The enterprise systems of the partners are not
exchangeable (e.g., built using two different
languages) or there are compatibility issues due
to legacy support failure.
The same term used by two systems does not
mean the same thing (lexical ambiguity).
Models of both enterprises show differences in
practices, which are not aligned (output data of
the first is semantically different to input data of
the second).
Models of both information technology (IT)
systems shows incompatibility in information
Based on the above issues it is almost certain that
the implementation of a concrete methodology will
play a significant role in interoperability, particularly
in terms of analysis to target the problems, which
can appear in an approach of implementation of
Interoperability and how to solve these problems.
Interoperability problems are either related to (i) the
semantics and vocabulary used to annotate the
resources; (ii) the architecture and platform; and (iii)
the model of the enterprise.
The first allows having a common language; the
second allows the interoperability by the technical
aspects (e.g., software, hardware, net) and the third
models the supply chain to allow having
interoperable practices at the interfaces. To solve the
problems related to ontology, we have two options:
either we set up a common and global ontology in
all enterprises of the supply chain but the
implementation and management will be difficult
and tiresome, or we set up a common ontology only
at the boundaries of the enterprises. Therefore, to
bring an answer to some of the enterprise
interoperability problems, we need to develop a
methodology, which has the following
To manage the evolution of enterprise with the
definition of different steps;
To manage the performance of the supply chain
in its entirety. The notion of performance is very
important because it allows to bring the activity
and to share the information, to promote the
cooperation between the function in the
enterprises and between the members of the
supply chain, and the will to increase the vision
angle inside the supply chain;
To model only the information, the flows and the
services which, concern interoperability of the
supply chain. We don't speak about boundaries
of an enterprise toward another enterprise but we
speak about boundaries of the supply chain.
Indeed, two enterprises don't need to be
completely interoperable, but they need to be
interoperable at the interface. For this reason, we
have to define a supply chain boundary to
separate the services which collaborate from the
To take into account the human aspect i.e. the
communication between different people and
the human psychological aspects in the
evolution of their enterprise. Indeed, in the
evolution management, people are often
recalcitrant to change due to the conflicts
involved with their current legacy systems.
2.3 Role of Collaboration in EI
Collaboration is a key factor to success in any
enterprise setting, and even more so when enterprise
borders have to be crossed (e.g., interoperability in
the extended enterprise). According to the FRISCO
report (Falkenberg et al., 1996), a community
constitutes a social system, where action and
discourse is performed within more or less well-
established goals, norms and behaviour. If
collaboration within an (inter-) organisational
community is to be successful, it is clear that proper
communication should be in place, and that the
semantics of the concepts being communicated are
clear and agreed upon. Engineers or architects
tasked with tying systems together need to
understand each other properly in order to get
maximum results out of their collaboration. Given
the wide variety of design abstractions and differing
terminologies, it is clear that communication in this
kind of collaboration can lead to frustrating
misunderstanding and ambiguities.
2.4 Levels of the Environment
The general architecture of the prototype is
organised into the following four layers (Liapis,
Configuration level
Reuse level
Reflection level
2.4.1 Configuration Level
The main metaphor of the environment is the
concept of customizability. It allows the user to
customise the tools according to the needs of the
project by simply dragging and dropping them into
the categorized tabs as illustrated in figure 3 (Liapis,
2.4.2 Reuse Level
Generally, the ability to reuse heavily relies on the
ability to build larger systems from smaller ones,
and being able to identify and resolve common
problems and conflicts between current and legacy
systems (Malins et al., 2006). Reusability is often a
required characteristic of collaborative environments
(Liapis, 2007). The concept behind the
implementation of this prototype was to provide
users with appropriate tools in order to help them
reflect on their ideas. The tools were implemented
and arranged in a way that a user is constantly
reminded of the next step, related sources, and about
past and present approaches. The prototype is
designed in a way that allows participants to work
collaboratively, as well as individually,
simultaneously following a loosely coupled group
approach. All the contributions are being monitored
and recorded by appropriate mechanisms providing
meta-information as to the date and time the
contribution took place, and the name(s) of the
2.5 Front-end of the Prototype
The following section presents the most significant
features of the proposed prototype focussing on their
architecture and contribution on the particular
Figure 3: Customisation of the main interface (adapted
from Liapis, 2007).
2.5.1 Brainstorming
The proposed prototype includes the following two
brainstorming techniques:
Brainstorming, is a highly successful method, but
requires significant support to be successfully used
in a virtual setting (Diehl, 1987). There are two
essential stages to any brainstorming process: the
first being to generate as many ideas as possible
(Malins et al., 2006); the second being to categorize
or evaluate the ideas that have been generated
(Liapis, 2007). The other technique is mind-
mapping. Brainstorming through mind-maps may
assist the design process by allowing the structuring
of abstract concepts as well as concrete ones (Buzan,
2005). Both tools are using a series of data mining
algorithms to allow users access to relevant third
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COLLABORATION ACROSS THE ENTERPRISE - An Ontology-based Approach for Enterprise Interoperability
party online resources while brainstorming. In
addition the post it notes tool includes an integrated
Really Simple Syndication (RSS) reader dedicated
to scan the web for the latest technologies,
approaches and events based on user input.
2.5.2 Collaborative Tools
Collaborative environments allow a virtual team or
an organisation to share their work, seeing what
others are doing, commenting and working together.
Current collaborative technology still fails to support
real life collaboration (Malins and Liapis, 2007).
This problem is a direct result of not looking at the
dynamic aspects of work. In collaborative
technology that is able to support real-life interaction
processes we need to pay attention to the fact that
real-life situations are dynamic and involve complex
tasks (Malins et al., 2006). Throughout the design
process, the team needs to be able to communicate
effectively. This is especially the case in an
enterprise level where there is a tendency for a lack
of communication because of the constant
competition and the issues illustrated in the above
sections. We have integrated two synchronous and
one asynchronous collaborative service:
Voice over internet protocol (VoIP) via
Skype communicator
Remote access via virtual network computing
Ontology server (DOGMA) Ontology Management
Supporting an online team requires an advanced
ontology management system, capable of mediating
and sharing the contributions of the team. For a
comprehensive state of the art on theories, methods,
and tools for ontology management, see Hepp et al.
Figure 4: DOGMA Studio Workbench - the modelling
The tool illustrated in figure 4 is the DOGMA
Studio Workbench, which allows users to elicit and
apply different ontological elements. They can
browse and edit their ontologies, keep a record of
different versions and share selected elements with
other partners. Recording Mechanisms
When a team collaborates using a groupware system
its members must be co-ordinated in order to avoid
possible conflicts (Malins et al., 2006). To preserve
the integrity of the project throughout its complete
lifecycle appropriate recording mechanisms should
be integrated into the system (Liapis, 2007).
Recording mechanisms allow participants to
coordinate their work without communicating with
others. This is an important characteristic as it
prevents coordination breakdowns which frequently
occur during collaborative design (Malins et al.,
2006). The prototype consists of four different
recording mechanisms to provide participants with a
verification mechanism with regards to the evolution
and security of the project. In addition participants
can use the outputs as a reference for future work or
to review the process (Liapis, 2007):
1. Video and audio recording mechanism for
synchronous collaborative sessions
2. Automatic logging of users activity when
using the environment
3. Automatic file versioning
4. Collaborative history mechanism in the
modelling tool
The outputs of these files are being saved in the file
repository tool with appropriate Meta information
such as date, time, and participants.
2.6 Back-end of the Prototype
As the backbone of our knowledge management
system, we adopted the DOGMA (Developing
Ontology-Grounded Methods and Applications)
framework for ontology engineering. A DOGMA
inspired ontology is decomposed into a lexon base
and a layer of ontological commitments (Meersman,
1999, 2001). A full formalisation of DOGMA can be
found in De Leenheer et al. (2007), and an overview
is given by Jarrar and Meersman (2007).
2.6.1 Concept Definition Service
Each (context, term)-pair then lexically identi es a
unique concept. The concept is described by a gloss
(short natural language description) and a set of
synonyms. Together with the linguistic
representation in the form of the lexons, DOGMA
remains close to natural language, which is
indispensable in communication between
collaborating teams.
2.6.2 Ontological Commitment
Any application-dependent interpretation of a set of
lexons is moved to a separate layer, called the
commitment layer. This layer serves as a mediator
between the plausible fact types (lexons) and their
axomatisation in applications. Each commitment
consists of a selection of appropriate lexons and a
limitation on their use through the application-
specific constraints.
By separating the conceptualisation (lexonbase)
from the axiomatisation (commitment), this
approach provides more common ground for reuse
and agreements. For instance, a business rule stating
that each person has exactly one address may hold
for one partner’s application, but may be too strong
for another.
2.6.3 Versioning
As with all things, information systems are in
constant flux. Especially in a collaborative setting,
where an ontology serves as a mediating instrument,
will we find a high and continuous need for proper
versioning and evolution management. DOGMA
incorporates proper support for these issues through
the use of change operators, change logs and context
dependencies. This includes detailed Meta
information such as the name of the contributor,
time, date, and appropriate commentary on future
changes or possible objections in a project.
In this paper we positioned the features and the
underpinning technology of a collaborative platform
designed to support the effective cooperation of
large-scale enterprises. We outlined the key issues
addressed from the specific platform such as the
integration of appropriate resources that concur to
achieve a cross-enterprise business service and its
ability of adapting its integrated features and
services according to the project needs.
We are planning to address these issues with a
flexible solution based on a methodology that will
help avoid the rigidity that usually occurs during the
implementation and maintenance stages of existing
cooperation platforms. We will perform experiments
with cases from a EU-funded project, where
educational institutes and public employment
organisations from various EU-countries
collaboratively developed a “vocational competency
ontology” enabling them building interoperable
competency models. Part of this work is currently
being published.
The research performed in the context of this paper
was partially sponsored by the EU PROLIX project
(FP6-IST-027905), as well as by the Brussels-
Capital Region. We would like to thank the people
involved in the experiment, as well as our colleague
Damien Trog for his assistance during the
experiment and valuable discussions about theory
and case. We would also like to thank Professor
Robert Meersman for his significant contribution
and guidance through the entire process (Liapis et al.
2008, Liapis and Meersman 2008).
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