You may have heard the term ‘interoperability’ and wondered what it’s all about. Gareth Baxendale CITP FBCS provides a simple explainer.

In the world of IT, we can often use terms on the presumption everyone knows what things mean, why they matter, and more dangerously that we all agree on these; but in reality, we all may have completely different views and understanding.

So, I’d like to take you on a brief journey to hopefully shed some light on this term and why it matters to businesses.

Definition

Let’s begin with a common definition of interoperability - ‘The ability of computer systems or software to exchange and make use of information.’ It’s a very broad definition but perhaps belies some of the true benefits of what interoperability can offer.

Just as we speak to convey information to each other, so interoperability allows computer systems to convey information. That all sounds simple enough, but what if two people wish to convey information and they both speak different languages? Now things get complicated. The two people have to work out what the other is saying and reply in a meaningful way.

Of course, you could wait to learn the other person’s language but that would take time and effort; if the information needed is urgent, this won’t be an option. So, you could agree on a simple method to convey only the most important information in a manner that is understandable - perhaps by using gestures or some other descriptive method that is common to both parties.

Computer systems do not inherently communicate very well with each other, rather like people speaking different languages. Interoperability is the methodology to solve this problem.

Just as a person may communicate by speech, letter or even the medium of dance, so do computer systems have to agree on the method by which they talk to each other. This could be in the form of APIs (application programming interfaces), email, or other methods used to send and receive data.

The language barrier

Once the method has been agreed, then the computer systems need to know ‘what to send’, or, following our illustration of two people talking, ‘what needs to be said’. This is usually information that has the greatest value to the recipient - perhaps because having that data can improve business processes.

But how do we solve the language barrier problem? What if a system needs to send information but we can’t understand it? For example, what if a data item is longer than the one we use, or has special characters that we don’t allow? We could learn a different language like the two people in our illustration, but that would be time consuming and costly. So, just as two people would agree on a way of communicating, so interoperability relies on standards.

These standards are often captured in a document known as a data dictionary. This document sets out the structure of the data, such as stating that the first name data field would be no longer than 200 characters. The data dictionary also sets out the rules by which information will be shared, so all computer systems know what to expect and how to communicate with each other. In some cases, it also includes how to translate a data item - perhaps shortening it - so it can be used in the receiving system.

Why is interoperability so important?

Interoperability allows the information that has the greatest value held in other systems, or even with other organisations, to be identified. By bringing this information together, business processes can be improved by removing duplication and removing manual work to key in information. It also provides the opportunity to automate processes and even decision making. It also allows information to be shared with other organisations to help them do the same.

Once two people can communicate with each other, even in different languages, then information can be conveyed in a meaningful way that has the greatest benefit to the recipient, even if the recipient simply needed directions to the nearest loo!

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