Different Words Mean Different Things, Part 1

By Leonard Fehskens, The Open Group

Over on the LinkedIn Enterprise Architecture Network discussion group there is a thread on the relationship between Enterprise Architecture (EA) and Business Architecture that as of late November 2012 had run to over 4100 comments.

Some of the sprawl of this thread is due to the usual lack of discipline in staying on topic.  Some of it is due to the rehashing of well-worn themes as newcomers arrive.  It seems clear to me though, that even when long time contributors try to move the subject forward, a lot of the back and forth that fails to converge is a consequence of the community’s lack of an appropriate and widely shared vocabulary.

In particular, there are four words that many in the Enterprise and Business Architecture communities seem to use interchangeably – enterprise, business, organization and corporation.

Before I tackle this subject, there is some context I should provide.

First, people who know me consider me to be obsessive about the precise use of language, and they’re right.  I think of Enterprise Architecture as more a craft than a science, and as such, the language we use to express it is ordinary language (as opposed to, for example, mathematics).  To me it follows that it is especially important that we use that language carefully.

Second, I’m coming at this from the perspective of creating a profession and its supporting ecosystem.  I believe a profession should be broadly applicable, with specializations within the profession addressing more narrowly focused concerns.

Finally, though much of the discussion about Enterprise Architecture is in English, I acknowledge that for a large fraction of the community English is a second (or third) language.  So, while this post is specifically about English usage, I suspect much of it applies as well to other languages, and I don’t want to imply that the conventions of English usage are the only ones worthy of consideration.

That’s enough by way of preamble.

The EA community may not have agreed upon definitions of many of the words it uses, but as these words are drawn from the vernacular, the rest of the world does.  This conventional usage makes clear distinctions between enterprise, business, organization and corporation.

While it is true that these words all have some sense in which they are roughly synonymous, they have primary definitions that distinguish them from one another.  I think we ought to observe these distinctions because they are useful, especially in that they allow us to sensibly relate the concepts they represent to one another, and they do not needlessly foreclose the broader application of these concepts.

First, I’m going to propose definitions for these words to be used in the context of Enterprise Architecture.  Then I’m going to look at what these definitions imply about the relationships between the things these words denote, and how the current usage obscures or denies these relationships.

It’s very possible, if not likely, that you will not agree with these definitions.  I’ll deal with that later.


The Oxford English Dictionary (Compact Edition, 1971) defines “enterprise” as:

Derived from the French entreprendre, “to take in hand, undertake”.

    1. A design of which the execution is attempted; a piece of work taken in hand, an undertaking; chiefly, and now exclusively, a bold, arduous, or momentous undertaking.
      • b. engagement in such undertaking
    2. Disposition or readiness to engage in undertakings of difficulty, risk, or danger; daring spirit.
    3. The action of taking in hand; management, superintendence. Obsolete.

So, enterprise means “undertaking” or “endeavor,” especially one that is relatively ambitious.  Implicit in this concept of enterprise is the intentional action of one of more people.  It is intentional in the sense that the action is intended to achieve some outcome.  The role of people is important; we do not generally consider machines, regardless of their purpose, to exhibit “enterprise” in this sense.  For me, the essential properties of an enterprise are people and their activity in pursuit of explicit intent.

This is a deliberately, very broadly inclusive concept of enterprise.  All of the following are, in my opinion, enterprises:

  • A child’s lemonade stand
  • A club
  • A professional society
  • A committee or working group
  • A town, state or country government
  • An international/multinational coalition
  • A military unit
  • A department or ministry of defense
  • A for-profit, non-profit or not-for-profit corporation
  • A partnership
  • A consortium
  • A church
  • A university or college
  • A hospital


English speakers commonly use the word “business” to mean three things, and are usually able to infer the intended meaning from context.  These three common meanings of business are:

Business-as-commerce: The exchange of goods and services for some form of compensation for the costs and risks of doing so.

Business-as-commercial-entity: An entity whose primary activity is the conduct of some form of business-as-commerce.  In colloquial terms, the primary purpose of such an entity is to “make money”, and if it does not “make money” it will “go out of business.”

Business-as-primary-concern: The primary concern or activity of some entity.

These three different commonly understood meanings of business make it possible for someone to say something like:

“The business of my business is business.”

I.e., “The business-as-primary-concern of my business-as-commercial-entity is business-as-commerce.”


An “organization” is a structured (i.e., “organized”) group of people and resources, usually acting in concert to achieve some shared purpose.


Finally, a “corporation” is an organization structured and operated in a particular way so as to satisfy certain legal constraints and thus benefit from the legal consequences of that conformance.  Strictly speaking, a corporation is a legal entity that has an organization associated with it.  In the case of a “shell” or “dummy” corporation, the associated organization’s people and resources may be minimal.


Based on these definitions, one can make some observations.

An organization is typically the means by which an enterprise is realized.  Small scale enterprises may be realized by a single individual, which is a trivial case of an organization.

Not all organizations are business-as-commercial-entities.  Organizations that are not businesses will almost certainly conduct some business-as-commerce as an adjunct activity in support of their primary intent.

Not all enterprises have as their intent some form of business-as-commerce. An organization that realizes such an enterprise will not be a business-as-commercial-entity.  While all business-as-commercial-entities realize an enterprise, not all enterprises are realized by business-as-commercial-entities.

Not all organizations are corporations.

Not all business-as-commercial-entities are corporations.

These relationships are depicted below.

 Len diagram

This is a three-part series that discusses how our vocabulary affects the way we conceptualize Enterprise Architecture, Business Architecture and their relationship.  Part 2 will examine the effect of our definition of enterprise on how we think about EA. 

 Len Fehskens is Vice President of Skills and Capabilities at The Open GroupHe is responsible for The Open Group’s activities relating to the professionalization of the discipline of enterprise architecture. Prior to joining The Open Group, Len led the Worldwide Architecture Profession Office for HP Services at Hewlett-Packard. He majored in Computer Science at MIT, and has over 40 years of experience in the IT business as both an individual contributor and a manager, within both product engineering and services business units. Len has worked for Digital Equipment Corporation, Data General Corporation, Prime Computer, Compaq and Hewlett Packard.  He is the lead inventor on six software patents on the object oriented management of distributed systems.


  1. Len, agreed, clarity on definitions would be very useful. I see the word Business used in another way as well, by IT people. In this context it means ‘that part of the organisation that is the stakeholder for this project/application’. So you might hear someone say: we suggested doing X & Y, but the Business wanted us to drop Y to achieve the deadline.

  2. Thanks for your comment Simon.

    There’s a reason I left that definition out — you won’t find it in any dictionary of the English language. I’d also argue that the more common usage by the IT community is “that part of the organization that’s not IT”, or “that part of the organization that IT provides support to”. It’s an idiosyncratic usage unique to the IT community, and that use hijacks the word’s availability to denote the three concepts that everyone else uses it to mean. And when the word “business” becomes unavailable to denote those three concepts, it becomes very difficult to talk about how “enterprise”, “organization”, and “corporation” relate to the concepts denoted by “business” that I describe above.

    Finally, it’s ultimately disrespectful of the business community, implicitly treating them as a generic community that one need not make any effort to understand in detail. And we wonder why our relationship with “the business” is problematic.


    1. Len, I completely and wholeheartedly agree with you!
      I find it frustrating when IT professionals refer to “the business” as if it were something that existed outside IT.
      Just like marketing, human resources, manufacturing, etc., IT is a business capability, competing for resources to deliver value that exceeds the cost of capital.
      Even within IT, I position “architecting” as a business capability (not necessarily a strategic one, but nonetheless a business capability).

  3. Len,
    The Corporation, is it not an Enterprise? It does not appear clear in the diagram. It should be, I should think.

    But I would draw the diagram differently:
    * both Corporation and Business-as-commercial-entity are a kind of Enterprise
    (moreover, for the EA purpose, the distinction between the Corporation and Business-as-commercial-entity is more legal than otherwise and as such not so significant; you may leave only Business… since the Corporation is a type of that)
    * any Enterprise is realised by an organization (the people part of an EA);

    Non-profit organizations (as opposed to commercial entities) need to be pictured in the diagram.
    Business-as-commerce does not seem to me of the same type as the rest. I would leave it out.
    Besides, does this align with TOGAF?

  4. Adrian — look at the picture again. The link from corporation to enterprise is two step. A corporation is a legal entity (as you later confirm). In my model, It is not the corporation that realizes the enterprise; it is the organization that does so, and the organization is structured as a corporation. An organization realizing an enterprise could be structured in some other way.

    You write:
    “both Corporation and Business-as-commercial-entity are a kind of Enterprise”

    No, in this model they are kinds of organizations, and while the concepts are independent of one another, they are not mutually exclusive. A business-as-commercial-entity can be a corporation. You are certainly free to argue for a different model.

    You continue:
    “Non-profit organizations (as opposed to commercial entities) need to be pictured in the diagram.”

    Why? The intent of this diagram is only to show the relationship between the four words I discuss, not to show the relationship between all possible kinds of businesses or organizations. I did not claim the model was exhaustive, only that it illustrated the way I thought of the relationships between these four words; one of these words is used to represent three distinct concepts, and one of these three concepts is not relevant to the relationships depicted in the diagram, but two are. Hence, five boxes/concepts in the picture

    You continue:
    “Business-as-commerce does not seem to me of the same type as the rest. I would leave it out.”

    Why must everything in this diagram be of the same “type”? That said, I would argue that for the purposes of this model they in fact are the same type — they are concepts. Or I could argue that the five boxes are in fact all of different types. Business-as-commerce is in the diagram because it is one of the concepts associated with the conventional meanings of the four words the article is about. That it may be of a different “type” is irrelevant.

    I did say at the beginning that one might disagree with my model.

    You conclude:
    “Besides, does this align with TOGAF?”

    It is outside the scope of TOGAF as currently defined. And what if it didn’t align with TOGAF?


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