FOIS '10 -- Dr. Rector's Talk, Note Taking, Blogging & An Ontology Use Case

For the final Invited Talk, this afternoon Dr. Alan Rector, of the University of Manchester, gave a very nice overview of ontology, contained within a talk covering ontologies and clinical systems.  The talk was widely appreciated by the audience, and from your host's perspective, Dr. Rector's overview of the state of the art was terrific. As a bonus Dr. Rector included at least a dozen or so pithy insights about what you might call "the ontology business". 

But where writing a blog topic is concerned, and even though your host has been "paying attention" to the world of ontological engineering for quite a while, and is very involved in the enterprise software business, and even though your host's intentions are only journalistic, nevertheless coming up with an interesting, non-trivial and valid insight into some aspect of an academic talk is work, even hard work.

This work of turning the deliver of an academic talk into a blog entry has five phases, (1) attend event, (2) capture information, (3) annotate information, (4) imagine and choose approach and (5) write blog entry.

Phase No. 2, "Capture" is particularly interesting, because it easily involves up to seven channels of information:

1. ASYNCHRONOUS INBOUND -- READ (printed copy of journal article)
2. SYNCHRONOUS INBOUND -- SEE (PowerPoint presentation accompanying talk)
3. SYNCHRONOUS INBOUND -- HEAR (Dr. Rector's voice)
4. SYNCHRONOUS OUTBOUND -- WRITE (personal talk notes)
5. ASYNCHRONOUS INBOUND -- READ (personal talk notes at a later date)
6. ASYNCHRONOUS INBOUND -- REMEMBER (fragments of all channels in human memory)

There may even be additional channels, such as Dr. Rector's gestures, which add substantially to the information conveyed by his voice.  There are probably even more obscure channels such as the social context, the semiotics of academia, the use of rhetoric, side channels consisting of private conversations etc.

Five inbound channels, each with their own unique quite unique characteristics.  It was quite amazing actually to note how the information in Dr. Rector's material "came alive" during his verbal presentation, and contained much more readily accessible information than perceived when reading the article, although the article was certainly well-written.
The act of writing to create hand-written notes is reminiscent of your host's role as a salesperson, scribbling notes while customers spoke, and then later redacting those notes for action items and insights.  In fact the whole experience today is typical of sales in many ways, including the information overload. 

Your host's own long-term interest in ontology is about observing the development of the ontologic technology that would be a precondition for the development of better sales software.  The current generation of sales software is entirely based on ad hoc and "folk wisdom" about sales.  The software is generally very disappointing -- and sometimes terrible.  There seems to be no popular sales software in use today which is based on an ontology of sales behaviour and needs.  The result of the mass, forced use of bad sales software is the usual situation in any company where sales people use their sales software in order to please management, but not often to enhance personal sales effectiveness.

What is a description of the sales domain, that would be relevant to the construction of better sales software?  At the level of the individual sales practitioner, sales can be defined as "cross-boundary representation of the interests of one party to another party with the objective of concluding a contractual relationship between the two parties".  Of special interest here today is the characterization of "noisy" sales information channels which support the representation, negotiating and contracting activities.

The experience capturing notes from Dr. Rector's great talk was a microcosm of what happens to thousands of sales people every day.  Information of value is being pumped towards the salesperson at a rate faster than channel uptake capacity.  The application of information management skills and basic tools results in some measure of information capture, via multiple channels.  And just like the experience of having Dr. Rector's message "come alive" during his personal presentation, the sales person seeks that personal audience with the customer, knowing that the customer's intentions and beliefs will "come alive" during the conversation.  After the engagement, there is "annotation phase", which for many reasons is often difficult. But without annotation, either for the student or the sales person, much of the value of the engagement will evaporate.

This blog note was triggered by Dr. Rector's address, although the blog result is not what could be predicted: a comment on process commonalities shared by students, academics and salespeople and a discussion of sales software.  Perhaps a reader will find the topic of front-line sales person to be a good usecase for an ontology construction initiative.

Your host is resigned to having to wait for great sales software.  Of course any future sales software software probably won't be any good without an ontology of sales.  Although existing upper ontologies probably already include all the necessary work-descriptive primitives necessary to modelling sales work, there seems to be in the world no specific instantiation of a sales ontology yet.