Mind to Market

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Terminology vs Knowledge

In our perpetual climb up the value chain beginning with the bits and bytes of data, then to recognizable information and finally knowledge, terminology fits right in the middle. Terms, or words, are recognizable slices of information that may be organized into a hierarchy or system. In fields such as medicine or biology with long histories of terminology development, many different systems of terms have cropped up due to the various needs of sub-groups of users and their isolation from each other. As a result, there is much duplication, overlap and confusion in terminology use even within the knowledge domain.

The need to interface between various networks of healthcare payers and providers has driven the demand for organization in this confusion, resulting in systems such as Current Procedural Terminology (CPT), SNOMED Clinical Terms, and International Classification of Diseases all developed to assist healthcare providers in finding a common vocabulary to describe the services they provide.

Selecting a standard terminology provides a common framework and is a significant step forward, but these are merely words; text strings in a matrix of other text strings without the ability to transfer significant quantities of knowledge. Humans naturally make the connection between a term and the object it represents and in fact expect that term to be imbued with the requisite information, but such is not the case with computers. To a computer "Joe Smith" is just a nine character text string.

Object Oriented Programming (OOP) sought to change all that, providing the knowledge underpinnings to turn simple terms into full-fledged objects that behave as do the terms they represent, or at least to the degree necessary to fulfill the requirements of the software. And there you have it: what exactly are the requirements? For a terminology management system it is to standardize and organize the diverse terminologies and there it stops. Most knowledge management systems aspire to loftier goals such as supporting decision making processes.

And thus we have a grey area: terminology management systems that aspire to be knowledge management systems. Or users who want them to be. A successful terminology management system is one which includes and classifies as many terms in the domain as possible whereas a successful knowledge management system includes as many functions in the domain as possible.

Let's take for example an anatomical terminology management system. If this includes a complete catalog of anatomical parts, including synonyms and locations, this will fulfill the requirements of users who wish to know what term to use and in what context. However, even if we know that the femur is attached to the hip and is in the leg, the terminology management system may not indicate that it is a bone or that it could suffer a fracture. This is the type of information that would be contained within a knowledge management system.

Perhaps the most effective knowledge management systems would be ones that incorporate a terminology catalog at the front end; a place where every term could be found and then once found could capture the information needed to model that object. As terminology management systems finally catch on and fulfill the needs of the industry, knowledge management systems will not be far behind.

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