The Motorcycle Approach to Enterprise Vocabulary
I. Steering a Course
One of the least understood aspects of motorcycle riding is steering. Many novice riders attempt to ride a motorcycle the same way they drive a car -- turn right, steer right. However, on a motorcycle nothing could be farther from the truth. To ride a motorcycle through a corner, the concept of counter steering must be understood. Counter steering applies the principles of a spinning object on an axis and the resulting gyroscopic effect. The gyroscopic effect is this: If you have a spinning gyroscope (the front wheel) and you try to rotate its spin axis, the gyroscope will instead try to rotate about an axis at right angles to your force. This principle allows a motorcycle to turn by pushing the handlebars opposite to the direction of the turn. New riders are taught, "Turn left, push left." The actual physics of what is going on to make the bike turn is quite complicated, and the idea here is not intuitive to new riders. In essence, to turn the bike you must move the wheels out from underneath it.
In the same manner, when building an Enterprise Vocabulary many experienced business people find themselves a novice in the vocabulary business. To make vocabulary work, old habits must often give way to new principles, and often you find yourself in a position of having to 'move the wheels out' from under the organization. In a recent semantic modeling session, facilitated by Ron Ross, I observed two areas that often present a challenge when trying to steer the organization to the correct use of language.
Legacy terms are terms that have a historical significance in an organization and are often very difficult to remove. Moreover, legacy terms are often the source of confusion when comminuting ideas. This problem is illustrated with the term 'minimum load.' This term is used in the electrical industry to describe the minimum output a generator must have to remain stable. The term probably grew from plant operators referring to 'loading up a generating unit.' However, when building an enterprise vocabulary the question will be asked: if we call the minimum output for generators minimum load, what do we call the minimum output for load? ... minimum generation??? NOT! The answer is not simple, and I will not bore you with the details; however, it is a fact that any term developed will never be as elegant as calling the thing what the thing is. This leads to my first axiom of vocabulary writing:
Always call the thing the thing
The second area that often brings confusion to vocabulary is referring to the value of the thing as the thing itself. In the wholesale power business we have abused the words 'demand' and 'load.' Demand is the rate at which electric energy is delivered (value of the thing). Load is defined as an end-use device (the thing itself). We then proceed to talk about the load forecast. Of course we don't want a forecast of how many toasters (load) are out there, but of how many MW (demand) are going to be used! To an outside person this can be very confusing, and it is only because we have been doing this for years that we in the industry really understand each other! To separate the value of the thing from the thing is often difficult and challenging. Look carefully in your organization and you will be able to identify many examples. This error also occurs with the identification of the thing and the communication of the thing. The second axiom for vocabulary writing is:
The thing itself is never a value
In building vocabularies for the enterprise, a commitment to use language in a structured manner is essential if new architectures are going to be used. Modern software architectures that utilize services and XML depend on the business defining the 'instance of the business language.' Often in the development of the business lexicon you will feel the need to 'move the wheels out from under the organization'; however, by doing this you are helping your business clearly negotiate the next corner and, in the end, produce accurate and precise vocabularies that will improve communication and allow the introduction of efficient architectures.
II. Getting Traction
As a motorcycle enthusiast I am often surprised by the number of riders who don't understand how a motorcycle tire retains traction. Good traction helps keep the shiny side up! The tread of the tire has very little to do with the traction the tire will get on dry pavement. In fact, the tread is almost exclusively used to increase traction on wet surfaces by preventing hydroplaning, a condition where the tire is riding on a water film and not on the road. Motorcycle tires gain traction by filling in the rough surface of the road with the rubber of the tire. Hence, tires that are softer are said to be 'sticky.' In technical terms they create a higher coefficient of friction. However, these softer tires can wear out in as few as three thousand miles. A good tire for a touring motorcycle finds a compromise between wear and traction.
Building business vocabularies requires 'traction'; however this usually does not generate the kind of excitement needed to get the job done right. If we are interested in building business semantics we must understand how to get traction in our organization for building business vocabularies. And, realize, a 'good' approach must be selected -- one that won't 'wear out in three thousand miles.' Successful semantic projects must find the right balance between value and accuracy. In building semantic models we can't let Perfect be the enemy of the Good.
I have found two key areas which, if addressed, will yield semantic projects that improve communication, allow implementation of Service Oriented Architectures (SOA), and aid in the development of the agile business.
The first key area is:
Use a disciplined approach to build the model
As with any process, an engineered approach always works best. Far too often, building a semantic model is reduced to producing a 'glossary of terms' or a 'data dictionary.' An engineered process for producing a semantic model will include a pattern for developing and writing definitions and a formal approach to identifing all terms and facts of the business lexicon. The finished product is a catalog of concepts that have been designed to work together. There are no circular definitions and all terms have been defined. During the construction of a semantic model the 80/20 rule will apply. Work to get 80% of the terms right. The 20'% that your team cannot agree on can be addressed by the governance structure.
The second key area is:
Build a governance structure to maintain the model
The governance structure is a major element in any project, but plays a key role in building a business lexicon. Once the initial modeling is complete, the Lexicon Governance Body has the role of model maintenance, including the introduction of new terms and the clarification of existing terms. This body should be comprised of only the most knowledgeable business people. To be effective this body needs authority that allows its decisions to be binding. This body must also be able to respond rapidly to requests from the design team. The governance members will often consider design plans and requests for new terms that must be added to the existing model.
III. Enjoy the Ride
Having an established lexicon and semantic model for a business is a sign of business maturity. An engineered approach to model development will help you maintain traction throughout your project, and a well-defined governance structure will help you keep the shiny side up. And if these two things occur, you will have had a great ride!
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