Interoperability Through Organization: The Role of Digital Libraries in Distributed Knowledge Management

Xavier R. Lopez, Ph.D.
School of Information Management and Systems (SIMS)
University of California, Berkeley
The rapid development of communication and computing technology is changing the way scientific information is created, disseminated, managed, and used. A new scientific information infrastructure is emerging, one that enables electronic peer to peer communication and unprecedented access to distributed information resources. Geographic information scientists are likely to be at the forefront of this new infrastructure with the development of globally integrated geospatial digital libraries. These geo libraries promise to boost scientific innovation, productivity, and returns on investment. They also pose immediate challenges to data and organizational interoperability. This paper examines the organizational dimension of interoperability for geographic information. In particular it examines how digital libraries can promote interoperability for geospatial information and other forms of distributed knowledge. Recent developments from operations research and organizational science are highlighted to illustrate how organizational innovations resolve interoperability challenges, create new opportunities for virtual product development and service delivery. This paper focuses on:

  1. Interoperability challenges in geoprocessing
  2. Organizational approaches to interoperability
  3. Digital libraries as interoperable organization systems
1. Interoperability Challenges in Geoprocessing

The interoperability issues of the geographic information community are both technical and organizational in nature. As defined by Litwin (1990), and paraphrased by the UCGIS: "interoperability generally refers to a bottom-up integration of pre-existing systems and applications that were not intended to be integrated but are systematically combined to address problems that require multiple DBMS and application programs" (UCGIS 1996, p. 1). Effective communication and transfer of geographic information requires that organizations resolve interoperability of data models and components across organizational boundaries and applications. Organizations have evolved their own systems, legacy databases, and applications to serve internal needs. This has resulted in data models and applications uniquely tailored to meet specific internal requirements. However, as the importance of sharing information across organizational computing environments is recognized, data interoperability becomes paramount (ibid.).

The interoperability of geographic information across systems and platforms is also an organizational issue. Traditionally, government geospatial data suppliers have operated under centralized and hierarchical organizational structures to serve bounded communities of users with unique semantic and conceptual requirements (e.g. military, federal agencies, transportation agencies). This bureaucratic framework has resulted in closed, proprietary, and centralized geoprocessing services. Increasingly, however, there is an urgent need to access distributed information from many organizations to address boundary-spanning problems such as: disaster relief, environmental monitoring, interagency coordination, joint force deployment, and provision of integrated geospatial mapping services over the Internet. The need to access information resources across bureaucratic and hierarchical boundaries calls for new organizational processes that permit open network exchanges.

2. Organizational Approaches to Interoperability

Access to information across organizational boundaries is enabled by distributed computing. But distributed computing, alone, cannot support the complex supply chain of interactions that will be increasingly needed. Interoperability between organizations requires organizational planning. Interorganizational alliances and partnerships will establish de jur and/orde factos standards. The adoption of interoperable data models and modular software components, along open network standards and protocols, permit concurrent and autonomous development of applications (OGIS 1996). Process and component design can be enhanced by embedding coordination between distributed component activities and other activities required to fully develop a new product, eliminating the need for much, if not all, of the overt managerial coordination of development activities.

Geospatial data supply-chain integration, necessary for enhanced product development and service delivery, can be streamlined in an electronic environment, increasing organizational efficiency and effectiveness. Embedding coordination and transportable computation to remotely linked resources and competencies make supply-chain interactions efficient, effective, and scalable. In this manner, interoperability and distributed computing can even lead to new modular forms of organization that incorporate firm-specific and firm-addressable resources along a value-added chain. The challenge of exploiting new technological opportunities, therefore, lies with a complementary organizational structure to guide implementation. Moreover, the resulting structures need to be flexible enough to accommodate change. Digital libraries are emerging as an organizational form that are responsive to managing scientific information in a digital age.

3. Digital Libraries as Interoperable Organization Systems

Digital libraries provide a meaningful framework for integrating information resources and competencies from multiple organizations to deliver a synergistic service that is greater than its parts (Lopez 1997). They can play an instrumental role in overcoming current impediments to interoperability, by harmonizing the transfer of open geospatial data. The concept of "digital library," however, must be clarified before being used further. A digital library is defined as a coordinated set of heterogeneous actors/organizations which interact along an electronic and communication network to develop, add-value, disseminate, and archive electronic information and related specialist services. It is characterized by flexibility, decentralized planning and control, and lateral ties to other organizations. The chief structural characteristic of a digital library is a high degree of data integration across formal boundaries.

Organizational relations are crucial to a digital library. In a sense, the organizational challenge of maintaining peer to peer communication and relationships is analogous to the technical challenges of transferring geographic information across computing platforms. Open data models can reduce transaction costs, stimulate component generation, and provide a standard platform for new components and applications. Contractual arrangements and hierarchical rules also facilitate data interchange between the geo library and suppliers and the geo library and clients. However, static agreements and protocols alone, may not provide needed flexibility to respond to changing internal and external requirements and opportunities. Increasingly, human relations are necessary to (re)define common objectives and establish consistent work processes. Such relations are reinforced through interorganizational norms, consensus, and trust. Fortunately, digital libraries can effectively respond to both technical and organizational interoperability by coordinating resource integration across institutional boundaries and geographic space. In doing so, the network self-organizes, responding to client/user demands. It is also responsive to supply-side opportunities that can further enable service delivery.


Buehler, Kurt and McKee, Lance. (editors) 1996. The Open GIS Guide, The OGIS Project Technical Committee, Open GIS Consortium, Inc.

Lopez, Xavier R. 1997. "The Network as Organization: Digital Libraries for Spatial Information." Proceedings of the First Assembly and Retreat of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS) held in Bar Harbor, ME June 15-20.

UCGIS. 1996. Interoperability of Geographic Information, Research Initiative of the University Consortium for Geographic Information Science (UCGIS). URL: