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Using Scenario Analysis to Predict the Future of the Semantic Web

Next week I will have the privilege of speaking to the Special Libraries Association (SLA) once again. The SLA audience is always interested and engaging, and I always have a lot of fun. I’m really excited to get another chance to talk two topics I really enjoy: the semantic web and scenario analysis.

The “semantic web” is a nebulous and imprecise term. It is generally intended to apply to a collection of technologies that unify digital content with meaningful meta-data. The semantic web makes it possible for computers to process textual or spoken information the way computers have traditionally processed numerical data. Semantic technologies make it possible for computers to “understand” the concepts that are embedded in written and spoken language.

The semantic web is a truly disruptive technology. It will make new products and services possible, many of which are futuristic or unimaginable today. Apple’s Siri, IBM’s Watson and the Wolfram Alpha search engine are contemporary examples of semantic technologies. Readers may be aware of the quirks and limitations of these tools. Disruptive technologies improve on logarithmic or exponential scale. Most critics assume that these technologies will improve on the same linear scale that defines most incumbent technologies.

The role of the information professional changed with the introduction of quality search engines, e.g. Google. Search engines made it easier for non-experts to find information. For librarians the search engine was a disruptive technology. The semantic web will make it possible for computers and search engines can understand the meaning of digital content. This will make sophisticated search, retrieval and processing of information possible for non-experts.

Scenario analysis is one of my favorite competitive intelligence and strategy tools. It’s a very advanced method for developing a vision about the future and enriching strategic dialog. Scenario analysis cuts through cognitive biases that hobble many organizations when they try to plan for long-term futures. When it is used well a scenario analysis can inform a robust set of early warning activities.

Is the semantic web a threat or an opportunity for information professionals? Anyone who wants to dig in their heels and protest the technology is likely to lose that battle. So how information professionals align their skills with the change the semantic web will bring? These are the questions my audience and I will explore. We’ll apply the tools of scenario analysis to create a view on four possible futures for the semantic web.

I hope to see you at SLA 2012 in Chicago.

If you are unable to see the SlideShare embed please feel free to download the PDF.