Organizing Business Concepts: What the Rest of the World Says

Donald R.  Chapin
Donald R. Chapin co-chair, OMG Business Modelling and Integration Domain Task Force Read Author Bio || Read All Articles by Donald R. Chapin

Giving careful attention to the understanding and expertise of disciplines other than IT is always valuable. The focus of the new "Organizing Business Concepts" [OBC] standard on 'meaning' makes such an outward openness to other disciplines absolutely essential.[1] 

This OBC standard is about 'things and communicating ideas about them' (Zachman Col. 1) from the perspective of the 'people involved' (Zachman Row 2). More particularly, it is about people communicating factual content, but does not address issues relating to literary or artistic content.

This BRG Dispatches report identifies the disciplines that have something significant to say about 'meaning' and the 'ways in which it is expressed.' We look to the world of the philosopher, neurobiologist, cognitive psychologist, linguist, lexicologist, translator, librarian, publisher, information architect, and knowledge engineer for the foundations of meaning.

Both the categories of disciplines that follow and the descriptions of the ways they contribute to the OBC standard are necessarily somewhat arbitrary, tentative, and evolving.

1. The World of Philosophy and Theology

This is where to find discussions on the great question of 'about.' What are we talking about? What is this information about?

Here reality and truth are examined together with these fundamental questions: How is reality known? How (well) does language communicate reality?" and "How do people relate words and other symbols to 'things' in the real, external world?"

2. The World of Logic and Mathematics

Propositions, which are at the heart of Logic (OBC Topic 6), are statements that express a concept that can be true (a 'fact') or false (a 'fiction'; an 'illusion'; a 'lie'). Statements are a fundamental construct in OBC (OBC Topic 8).

In Logic 'objects,' 'classes of objects,' 'terms,' and 'symbols' are what the propositions are 'about' and are therefore the key point where Logic contributes to 'concept' (OBC Topic 1). Mathematics intersects with Logic in Set Theory, Category Theory, and the Abstract Theory of Classes and Relations. The most specific mathematic connection with 'concept' is the Set Theory 'element' (OBC Topic 1), Category Theory 'category' (OBC Topic 3), and Abstract Theory 'class' and 'relations' (OBC Topic 4).

3. The World of Psychology and Cognitive Science

Cognitive Neurobiology

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Based on research conducted with people who have suffered brain injuries, this body of knowledge adds a scientific and physical dimension to the understanding of how we 'know' and communicate as human beings. One of the theories to emerge from this research is the Convergence Zone theory that postulates how the brain associates symbols and words with concepts, interprets them to listen and read meaningfully, and assembles them to speak and write effectively (OBC Topics 1, 3, and 4).

Cognitive Psychology

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Concept Formation -- the process of sorting specific experiences into general rules or classes -- figures prominently in the cognitive development aspect of Developmental Psychology, which attempts to describe and explain changes in human behaviour over the life span. The recurring theme from Cognitive Psychology, a psychology of meanings, is 'concepts' (OBC Topic 1) and 'categories' (OBC Topic 3) connected in a network of meaning (OBC Topic 4). Since the audience of OBC is business people, Cognitive Psychology will help keep it 'people-oriented.'

4. The World of Anthropology, Linguistics, Semantics, Names, and Grammar

Logical Semantics

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Semantics is the study of meaning from the perspective that what we perceive, say, and write is only part of the reality. "The map is not the territory." In contrast to lexical semantics, logical semantics is concerned with matters such as sense, reference, presupposition, and implication. Semantics looks at the ways different cultures and their respective languages categorize and name things (e.g., specific colors) in a given semantic field (color). The evidence is that the cultural diversity in semantics is built on semantic primitives and universals. It is in this focus on the partitioning of reality into concepts and categories that Semantics contributes to OBC (OBC Topics 1 and 3).


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Cognitive Grammar, a new and rapidly expanding area of linguistics, starts with the well-established field of grammar and explains its structure with reference to the processes underlying human conceptualization and communication. Concept, Image, and Symbol as the cognitive basis of grammar relates directly to OBC Topic 1.

5. The World of Communication, Semiotics, Language, and Dictionaries


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Semiotics is the study of sign systems and their use or interpretation. It seems as much a perspective on language as a series of sign modelling techniques. Three schools of Semiotics provide widely varying conceptualisations of the relationship between the thing that serves as a sign and the thing that is signified, as well as the relationship of both to communicators. This is one of the key aspects of OBC Topics 1 and 2. Semiotics is used as the basis for text-mining software that identifies terms in text documents and attempts to infer their meaning. There is a new IFIP Working Group for "Organizational Semiotics."

Language Engineering, Lexical Semantics, and Dictionaries

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In contrast to logical semantics, lexical semantics is concerned with the analysis of word meanings and relations between them, such as synonymy and antonymy. Many centuries of dictionary development have evolved into a highly focused discipline, Language Engineering, with greatly expanded application such as information retrieval, speech recognition, natural language processing. Dictionaries are now being treated as lexical databases including subject domain, restricted usage, grammatical usage, separate 'sense' records, and lexical set markers for taxonomy building. The metamodel of these lexical databases are directly related to 'concept,' 'symbol,' and 'context' in OBC Topics 1 and 2.

Translation and Terminology

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Software tools that make extensive use of Terminology Dictionaries support translation activities within a corporate context, especially in Europe. These Terminology Dictionaries capture the specific language of the business, including synonyms and equivalent words in multiple natural languages, to make automated translation more intelligent. Interestingly, Terminology Dictionary entries are also used to define the meaning of database data using the language of the business (OBC Topics 1 and 2).

6. The World of Library Science, Museums, and Electronic Publishing

Vocabularies, Taxonomies , and Topic Maps

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Librarians have long developed what they call 'Thesauri' that contain controlled vocabularies and/or taxonomies (OBC Topic 3) to aid useful access to information and objects. These Thesauri focus on 'concepts' by using primary terms and their synonyms. The taxonomies strongly reflect the essential nature of the things the information is about with a hierarchy of general to specific 'IS A' relationships. Topic Maps are a new way to show the connections between 'concepts' (OBC Topics 3 and 4) similar to Semantic Nets from the world of Cognitive Psychology.

Cataloguing and Indexing

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This library discipline focuses on labelling ('tagging') information objects, or their directory entries, with the 'concepts' that are discussed within them, and physical objects with the 'concepts' they can be classified as being an instance of (OBC Topic 3). It has a long-standing and rich set of best practices. Increasingly, software is used to automate this activity with the most successful attempts supporting close collaboration between people and the software to do the job. 'Text (Data) Mining' is a term often applied to this type of software.

7. The World of Artificial Intelligence

Concept Based Knowledge Representation

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Knowledge Representation is an Artificial Intelligence discipline that seeks to provide enough structure to knowledge and know-how to enable computer support of knowledge intensive activities. Concept Maps, Semantic Networks, Conceptual Graphs, and the KRS version of the CLASSIC knowledge representation language are most common visual languages. Description Logics and the KL-ONE family (e.g., CLASSIC) of knowledge representation languages are non-visual examples (OBC Topics 3 and 4).

Ontologies and Knowledge Sharing

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An Ontology, in the world of Artificial Intelligence, is a specification of a conceptualisation (a description of concepts and connections among them that can exist for a community). It is certainly a different sense of the word than its use in philosophy. What is important is what an ontology is for. A key purpose of ontologies is knowledge sharing and reuse. A conceptualisation is an abstract, simplified view of the world that we wish to represent for some purpose. To specify a conceptualisation one needs to state axioms that do constrain the possible interpretations for the defined terms.[2]  An Ontology's metamodel is where it contributes most to OBC. Upper Ontologies, which specify common things like time, location, and measurements, contribute greatly to OBC Topic 5.

8. The World of Data

Conceptual Data Modeling

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Work on Conceptual Data Modelling began in the early 1970's and has been practiced by a small community ever since. It focuses on 'concepts' and the ways they are connected to state facts (OBC Topic 4), as well as a strong generalization / specialization definition (OBC Topic 3). There are tools that can turn English fact statements into a Conceptual Data Model and then generate a well-formed relational data model. Conceptual Data Modeling is built on Predicate Calculus and supports a rich set of static Business Rules (OBC Topic 6) at the conceptual level. Conceptual Query theory and tools add to the possibilities for practical solutions for Zachman Row 2 Col. 1 models.

Federated Databases and Semantic Integration

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There are two approaches to semantic reconciliation among structured databases: loose coupling (rule-based exchange of data between independent databases) and tight coupling (mapping two or more databases so that they operate as if they were one database). Of the two kinds of semantic discrepancy among structured databases, structural semantic discrepancy has been dealt with quite thoroughly in the 'data transformation' capabilities of data warehouses and middleware. 'Fundamental semantic discrepancy' occurs where tight coupling cannot be achieved without changing at least one of the structured databases. Techniques used to integrate multiple structured databases include semantic dictionaries (OBC Topics 1 and 2), concept hierarchies (OBC Topic 3), similarity-based criteria, concept closeness evaluation, semantic equivalence in ORM/NIAM, text database principles applied to structured databases, and semantic integration mapping languages like EXPRESS Of particular note is an integrative concept, 'situated integrity,' that builds on shared semantic understanding among the people involved in the situation that the data is about. This is what OBC Topic 2 'concept,' 'community,' and 'context' addresses.

The most we have been able to do in this BRG Dispatches column is take an inventory of the disciplines that have something to contribute to the OBC standard. The list is most likely incomplete and necessarily the significance of their contribution can only be touched upon.

A continuing inventory of specific resources from these disciplines can be found at www.BusinessSemantics.Net/SemanticResources.htm. We anticipate occasional BRG Dispatches that treat a given discipline more thoroughly.

Readers are encouraged to share both additional contributing disciplines and resources from these disciplines by contacting Donald Chapin (


[1]  Donald Chapin, "Organizing Business Concepts," Business Rules Journal, Vol. 2, No. 4, (April. 2001), URL: return to article

[2]  Tom Gruber, What Is an Ontology? Stanford University Knowledge Systems Laboratory. return to article

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Standard citation for this article:

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Donald R. Chapin, "Organizing Business Concepts: What the Rest of the World Says" Business Rules Journal, Vol. 2, No. 10, (Oct. 2001)

About our Contributor:

Donald  R. Chapin
Donald R. Chapin co-chair, OMG Business Modelling and Integration Domain Task Force

Donald Chapin is co-chair of the OMG Business Modelling and Integration Domain Task Force. He led the team that developed the OMG's "Semantics of Business Vocabulary and Business Rules" (SBVR) specification, and is co-chair of its Revision Task Force. Donald is also the OMG's Liaison to ISO TC 37 (Terminology and other Language and Content Resources) and the ISO TC 37/SC 1/WG 5 SBVR project leader. He is a member of the British Standards Institute Terminology Technical Committee (TS/1) and a British delegate to ISO TC 37.

Donald has substantial experience in training and methodology development — starting in the late 1960s, when he first introduced decision tables into IBM's internal application development training, and continuing to his current practice, where he is developing and presenting workshops for application of SBVR. Currently he is working with a major manufacturing company and a UK government agency on federated business policies expressed in SBVR. Donald is a member of the Business Rules Group and contributed to the development of the Business Rules Manifesto.

Donald can be reached at

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