By Stuart Boardman, KPN
“Words are stupid, words are fun
Words can put you on the run.”*
Many years ago I learned, at my own cost, how easily words can be re- and/or misinterpreted. The story itself is not important. What matters is that a bunch of us were trying to achieve something we thought was worthwhile, thought we’d achieved it but got conned by someone more cunning with words than we were. The result was pretty much completely the opposite result to what we intended.
I’ve spent a lot of time since then trying to find ways of tying down meanings so that, if someone disagreed with me, it would at least be clear to everyone what we were disagreeing about.. That basically involved looking for a very precise choice of words and offering a definition of what I was using them for. Nothing very original there. It’s the same motivation which leads us to create a glossary or taxonomy.
Which brings me to the problem I want to address: Definitions can actually get in the way of the discussion. In the professional world, inhabited by pretty much anyone likely to be reading this, we tend to borrow words from natural language to describe very specific concepts: concepts which we have made specific. Sometimes we borrow these words from other disciplines, which may themselves have specialized out of natural language. Sometimes the usage is often a form of metaphor or analogy, but with familiarization that fact becomes forgotten and it becomes just another word we take for granted.
Recently I had a (friendly) public debate with Tom Graves about the meaning of the word entropy, which we used separately from each other to characterize related but different phenomena affecting enterprises. We both used it as an analogy or parallel and we based our analogies on different definitions of the terms within the world where it originated, physics. These definitions are not contradictory in physics but are pretty divergent when used as analogy or metaphor. Tom and I are friends, so the discussion didn’t become rancorous, but we have yet to achieve a satisfactory resolution – at least not on an agreeable definition.
Also recently, I have witnessed a debate in the Enterprise Architecture community (on LinkedIn) about the meaning of the words business and enterprise. These are words common in natural language whereas here they were being used in the context of our specific discipline. In that context it was a relevant and perhaps even important discussion. The meaning you associate with them, unless you believe they are semantically identical, has a significant impact on your view of Enterprise Architecture (EA).
Unfortunately, the debate rather quickly developed into a heated discussion about who had the correct definition of each of these words. All kinds of “experts” from the worlds of economics and management science were quoted along with various dictionaries, which only served to prove that almost any position could be justified. The net result was that the substantial discussion got lost in definition wars. And that’s a pity because there were some important differences in perspective, which could have been useful to explore and from which everyone could have learned something – even if we all stuck to our own definitions of the words.
We may not be doing anything obscure with these words in EA, but we’re still giving them a very specific context, which may not be identical to what the man on the number 9 bus (or a professor in a business school) thinks of. If even then we are able to give them different, reasonable definitions, it’s clear that we should be seeking to focus on the underlying discussion, as intended/defined by the person who started the discussion. Otherwise we’ll never get beyond a meta-discussion.
So how can we get away from the meta-discussions? To come back to Tom and me and entropy, the discussion about the definition of the word was useful to the extent that it helped me understand what he was getting at. (Beyond that it was of no value at all in the context of the substantive discussion, which is why we parked it.) Later on, Tom observed that the important thing in a discussion about terms is the process of discussion itself. Interestingly my partner made the identical point last night and she comes from an entirely different discipline as a healthcare professional: What’s useful in such a discussion is not the statement we make but the story we tell. A statement is static. A story is dynamic. So then, instead of saying “my definition of entropy is X. What’s yours?” we say, “I use the word entropy to refer to the following phenomena/behaviors. What things are you trying to capture?” We’ve pushed that definition out of the way. Later on we may come back to it, if we think at that point it would be useful to tie the term down.
Another recent discussion on Ruth Malan’s Requisite Variety site reminded me of the importance of visuals – sketching something. In fact I’m seeing an increasing number of people talking about visual thinking You don’t have to be a great artist to sketch something out, which is a good thing because I can’t draw to save my life. You just need to realize that in your head you are very often visualizing something and not necessarily a physical object. I think that’s particularly true when we use analogy or metaphor. And how often do we talk of seeing something in our “mind’s eye”? Let’s get that vision out there, show what we think is going on and how things affect each other. Take a look at that discussion on Ruth’s site and check out the links provided by Peter Bakker.
Of course definitions have their uses and are important if a group of people developing standards need to agree on how terms will be used. The group also wants other people to understand what they’re trying to say. They hope that, even if they know another reasonable definition, they’ll accept this one for the purposes of the discussion. But sometimes people are sufficiently uncomfortable with your definition – with your use of the word – that it becomes a barrier to the discussion. That’s what happened in the enterprise/business argument I mentioned before.
Let’s think about the term enterprise again. TOGAF™ has a clear definition of enterprise, which I happily use in discussions with people who know TOGAF. There are, however, people who for perfectly good reasons have a problem with a government or non-profit organization being called an enterprise or who believe the term only applies to organizations above a certain size and complexity. There are also people for whom an enterprise is necessarily identical to an organization. I personally tend to a much more generous definition. What am I going to do when I’m talking to those whose definition of an enterprise is different from mine? Should I try to convince them my definition is right or should I say “OK, fine, we’ll use your definition but let’s talk about all those other things I wanted to include and try to understand how they affect our organization.”
I need to draw pictures. A picture doesn’t force anyone to agree on a definition. It provides a canvas (there we go, another common visual metaphor) on which to place the elements of the discussion. This picture, courtesy of Tom Graves, provides an example of such a canvas. You don’t have to agree on a definition to understand what is being said. And there’s an accompanying story. Then we can investigate what it was I was trying to say and whether we can agree about the what, how and why of mechanisms in play. That doesn’t mean they’re going to agree but at least we’ll be arguing about the actual substance and there’s a fair chance we’ll all learn from the process. The label we pin on it is then a secondary consideration.
“Words in papers, words in books
Words on tv, words for crooks
Words of comfort, words of peace
Words to make the fighting cease
Words to tell you what to do
Words are working hard for you
Eat your words but don’t go hungry
Words have always nearly hung me.”*
*From Wordy Rappinghood by Tom Tom Club (1981)
Stuart Boardman is a Senior Business Consultant with KPN where he co-leads the Enterprise Architecture practice as well as the Cloud Computing solutions group. He is co-lead of The Open Group Cloud Computing Work Group’s Security for the Cloud and SOA project and a founding member of both The Open Group Cloud Computing Work Group and The Open Group SOA Work Group. Stuart is the author of publications by the Information Security Platform (PvIB) in The Netherlands and of his previous employer, CGI. He is a frequent speaker at conferences on the topics of Cloud, SOA, and Identity.