Your Next Hire: Word Whiz

SAN MATEO (05/15/2000) - If information is the key to e-commerce success, then who's going to organize it all? The answer: Your company's team of ontologists.

"On-what?" you might ask. Ontology, once a mostly academic field, is gaining ground fast in e-business.

Ontology is crucial in the business-to-business e-commerce arena, says d'Armond Speers, manager of ontology at Requisite Technology Inc., in Westminster, Colorado. Ontologists make sure companies use the same language to talk to one another when ordering and supplying goods and services over the Internet. "When your goal is to organize a tremendous amount of information so that people find products and make purchase decisions, you have to have some kind of consistent description of the items in those catalogs," Speers explains.

For example, if your company has cut a special deal with an office supply company for discounts, and a secretary looking for "wastebaskets" in the online catalog can't find them because they're listed as "garbage bins," he or she may buy the wastebasket at a local office supply store -- without the discount.

Multiply that over many divisions, and your company starts losing money. Now imagine a manufacturer encountering the same problem when ordering millions of dollars in materials, and you can see why ontologists are vital in the b-to-b model.

"As the Internet continues to grow and as more and more businesses take advantage of b-to-b, the success of these negotiated prices depends on people buying in that model," Speers says.

Ontology is becoming a key function for many e-businesses: Yahoo Inc., for example, employs staff ontologists -- they are known as "surfers." Ontologists have also been involved in developing software that essentially performs business interactions on a user's behalf as well as word programs and systems for autonomous agents.

For companies that sell or buy items, the role of the ontologist has a certain bottom-line ring: "If you can't find your items, you can't buy your items," Speers says.

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d'Armond Speers

Title: Manager of Ontology, Requisite Technology Inc.

Education: Bachelor of Arts in cognitive psychology from Western Carolina University, Master of Science in theoretical linguistics from Georgetown University, Ph.D. (pending) in computational linguistics, Georgetown UniversityStaff: Manages a staff of three and helps to oversee broader teamsSalary: Won't specify, but points out people in the field are earning "close to the six-figure level"Reports to: Vice President of Technology, who reports to the CTOHot e-jobsIntegrators and strategic-alliance builders: The web is giving "networking" a whole new meaning. People who can help tie companies and systems together will bring value to the enterprise. "All of this [e-business activity] has to be tied together," says Varda Lief, senior analyst at Forrester Research. "All these companies have to work together."

Analytics: Specialists in financial analysis have been around for a long time.

But now they're moving to the Internet. "We're seeing [analytics] people being hired away from the financial services industry and moving on to the next wave," Lief says.

Ontologists: Accurately describe and catalog products.

Enterprise channel managers: It's a trendy notion that the Web will help get rid of the middleman so that manufacturers can sell directly to consumers. It turns out those folks in the middle add value: managing contract issues, marketing, and offering financing. Look for companies springing up to fill the void, making b-to-b relationships more efficient. "I've seen estimates that up to 70 percent of b-to-b gets transacted through channels," says Bob Parker, vice president of e-commerce at AMR Research.

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