I was asked a question the other day and as I don’t think I reached a satisfactory answer I thought I would seek more learned opinion and post the question to this board. The question I was asked was “what does it mean when the new Zachman framework declares itself as an ontology and specifically the Enterprise Ontology” and to quote the Zachman.com website “the Framework is the ontology for describing the Enterprise”
So what does something have to be to call itself an ontology and perhaps more so in the commercial sector. Don’t get me wrong as I have a lot of respect for the work John Zachman has done and I have used the framework on several occasions as an aid to strategy and architecture.
MW: The things that get called ontologies are many and various, from loosely related collections of classes, to relatively formally presented ontologies written in OWL or Common Logic. I tend to be generous in what I am prepared to admit. The definition I prefer for ontology is: “A theory of what exists: the sort of things there are and rules that govern them.”
MW: Now the Zachman Framework certainly includes some sorts of things that enterprises are interested in. It also includes relationships between those things, and since relationships always tell you something about what is allowed or forbidden amongst things, then it includes some rules. So at least in a loose sense it is an ontology, but since it is not written (presumably) in a formal language (e.g. OWL or CL) then it is not a very formal ontology.
I was unfortunately unable to say to my colleague that I thought it represented a formal ontology in the way I am familiar with. I explained that I worked for three years on an ontology that had undergone over 10 years of research, testing and construction in Protégé and that it was formally accepted by public bodies in the UK and is in active use in the health sector. There are other major ontologies that have undergone similar if not more effort to construct. Yet without that formal approach how are you able to depend upon the model?
MW: Well people did test theorems before we had computers.
So our discussion lead to several conclusions;
1/ Perhaps the Zachman Framework is enough in itself to be called an ontology as why should it have to be developed with an ontology editor and undergo formal construction and reviews and acceptance by a public body (maybe it has and this is not in the public domain). It is not the kind of ontology developed in the science fields and used for example in the health sector. Zachman International is a private company and thus is free to declare what it wants.
MW: Well it certainly does not have to go through acceptance by a public body to be an ontology, only to be a standard ontology. And you a right, you do not have to use an ontology editor either.
2/ The Zachman framework is more of a metamodel and collection of concepts that a company then licences the Framework to build their own enterprise ontology. This of course places all of the hard work on the company unless Zachman International plans to provide an OWL or Frames ontology in the future.
MW: My knowledge of the Zachman Framework is that it has relatively few concepts, of the order of tens, rather than the thousands to tens of thousands that would be needed for even a modest enterprise ontology. I would expect the Zachman Framework to form an upper ontology/framework that helped to analyse the enterprise and produce the detailed enterprise ontology.
3/ Finally, a more controversial conclusion that this is not enough and is more of a marketing ploy to capitalise on the increasing interest in the commercial sector in ontologies and the semantic web.
MW: Well of course it is a marketing ploy, but we should be please that people are coming into our area.
Perhaps I am viewing this incorrectly and being too formal in my thinking. I would be grateful for any thoughts that might provide a better conclusion.
MW: Yes I think you are being a little too formal. However, once Zachman has said that what he has produced is an ontology, you can reasonably ask him if he has an OWL version of the ontology (or some other formal language) so that it can be used in a more formal environment. That might prompt him to take the next step.
MW: By the way, there is a formal ontology developed specifically to support the development of enterprise architectures, it’s called IDEAS. You can find out about it here:
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