ArticleExpert View – Antonella De Robbio on Organisational Interoperability

Expert View - Antonella De Robbio

In Digital Libraries (M.I.T. Press, January 2000 – rev.ed June 2005), William Arms defines Interoperability (IOP) as “the task of building coherent services for users when the individual components are technically different and managed by different organizations“.

In other words, Arms sees the problems of getting a wide variety of computing systems to work together as a fundamental challenge to all the aspects of digital libraries.  In its complete form, interoperability would be synonymous with the seamless integration of disparate collections held by different organizations. I believe that this outlines very well organizational interoperability.

Christine Borgman (From Gutenberg to the Global Information Infrastructure: Access to Information in the Networked World, Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2000) identifies three main aspects, relevant for digital libraries, relating to interoperability:

  • Getting systems to work with one another in real time
  • Enabling software to work on different systems (portability)
  • Enabling data to be exchanged among different systems

In his article, ‘Interoperability: What is it and Why should I want it?‘ (Ariadne, Issue 24, 2000*), Paul Miller, goes beyond these technical aspects in the belief that interoperability is also related to the ways in which organisations work, particularly attitudes to information. He subdivided the interoperability concept in six aspects:

  1. Technical (communication, transport, storage, representation standards, common user interfaces…).
  2. Semantic (naming of things, authors, creators, means…).
  3. Human/political (decision to make resource less or wide available:ownership is stated here as access control, user profile..).
  4. Inter-community (between disciplines or institutions).
  5. Legal (access requirement, privacy control… between different legislation by different countries).
  6. International (problem of languages, difference in technical approach or working practices.

I see in these six aspects of interoperability the three levels identified by the Policy Working Group because on the technical level we have all issues concerning software, systems, data. On the semantic level we have issues concerning content, with also syntactic interoperability (concerning data) and on the organisational level we could aggregate political/human issues, inter-communities aspects, legal matters, and international scale of differences.

Open systems facilitate standardisation, which is closely interrelated with interoperability. The European Interoperability Framework (EIF) differentiates the three layers of technical, semantic and organisational IOP. The draft of the second version adds the layers of legal IOP and the political context (European Communities 2008). Definition of organisational IOP in different framework concepts [European Journal of ePractice N' 6 - January 2009 - ISSN: 1988-625X]:

Organisational interoperability concerns a broad set of elements of interaction, including business processes, business interfaces such as email, web portals, etc., business events within and between administrations, and “life” events, involving the external parties: businesses and citizens. This aspect of interoperability is concerned with how different organisations such as different Member State Administrations collaborate to achieve their mutually beneficial, mutually agreed eGovernment service-related goals. The partners need to reach detailed agreements on how their processes will interact (synchronize and cooperate) in order to deliver “public services where needed”. [...] “Organisational Interoperability aims at addressing the requirements of the user community by making services available, easily identifiable, accessible and user-oriented. Organisational interoperability occurs when actors agree on the why and the when of exchanging information, on common rules to ensure it occurs safely, with minimal overhead, on an ongoing basis, and then draw up plans to do all these things, and carry them out.”

Three dimensions of organizational interoperability‘,  European Journal of ePractice, N’ 6 – January 2009 – ISSN: 1988-625X

Antonella De Robbio, University Centre for Libraries of the Library System, University of Padua, Italy

* cited for research purposes with the aim of drawing attention to documents deemed to provide key background information for the investigations of Working Group investigations

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