Structured Business Vocabulary: Concept Models
Excerpted with permission from Building Business Solutions: Business Analysis with Business Rules (2nd Ed.), by Ronald G. Ross with Gladys S.W. Lam, Business Rule Solutions, LLC, 2015, 308 pp. URL: http://www.brsolutions.com/bbs
A structured business vocabulary allows you to communicate (talk and write) about operational business things in a consistent manner. It provides the two basic ingredients needed to communicate effectively:
- Terms — the nouns and noun phrases used to designate operational business things.
- Wordings — the verbs and verb phrases that allow you to express what you know about those things in a consistent manner.
You need wordings to write complete sentences — for example, business rule statements. A sentence represents a complete thought. Sentences are what you (the reader) and I are using right now to 'talk' with each other, even though displaced in time and space.
That's the thing about business rules and other forms of formal business communications — they will be read by people you personally haven't met, in circumstances you might never have anticipated. Best to mean the words you say and to say exactly what those words mean.
Structured Business Vocabularies vs. Concept Model
We define a structured business vocabulary as the set of terms and their definitions, along with all wordings, that organizes operational business know-how. The terms and wordings do not represent data or information about operational business things. They represent the actual things themselves out in the real world.
Every use of a term or wording will depend on the meaning provided by its definition. Here is a good sample definition for customer, straight from MWUD: one that purchases some commodity or service; especially, one that purchases systematically or frequently.
Definitions should always be business-friendly and free of any IT jargon. Always define the real thing as it appears to the business, not as represented or viewed as data (e.g., as a data element). Giving (and retaining) examples always proves very useful in reinforcing the intended sense of a definition. And short is almost always good.
Any business practice subject to change should be treated as a business rule, not embedded in a definition. Why? Business practices change, faster every day. The secret to business agility is isolating basic things that seldom or never change from things that can change relatively fast. The structured business vocabulary represents the former; business rules are for the latter. Let business rules handle changing business practices.
About Concept Models
You can have words without meanings — but that's called babble. You can have meanings without words (or other symbols) — but you could scarcely communicate many of them accurately.
The system of meanings that the words in a structured business vocabulary represent is called a concept model. We define a concept model as a semantic blueprint for the operational business concepts basic to know-how as expressed by a structured business vocabulary.
IIBA defines a concept model as an analysis model that develops the meaning of core concepts for a problem domain, defines their collective structure, and specifies the appropriate vocabulary needed to communicate about it consistently.
When is a Concept Model 'Done'?
A concept model is 'done' only when each concept has a term acceptable to the business and a clear, concise business definition. In addition, no additional concept needs to be referenced (talked about), where such concept:
- is at the day-to-day operational level of the business.
- cannot be derived or computed from other concepts.
- is within scope.
If some distinction about things in the business is worth mentioning in a business rule or other business communication, then you need a way to talk about it, no matter how fine-grained it is. If you never need to make the distinction in any business rule, then you don't need the concept in the concept model. By the way, concept here refers to both noun concepts and verb concepts.
A structured business vocabulary establishes the full scope of potential discourse about operational business activity in a very fundamental way. If a business worker or business analyst needs to express know-how about some concept not in the vocabulary, and wants to communicate or share that know-how in a standard and consistent fashion, you're dead in the water. End of story. Do some more concept modeling.
How far? Should you go beyond business rules in assessing the completeness of your concept model? Judgment call, but our feeling is that all operational business communications should use standard business vocabulary. (What are we missing?!) Fortunately, rarely do you come across an operational business thing not referenced by any business rule at all.
How large? Your concept model will be large, perhaps ultimately hundreds of terms. But not impossibly large. After all, we're just talking about standard business terms (and wordings) for basic concepts used in business operations day-in and day-out. If you don't have words for those things, how can you really manage them anyway?!
How stable? Structure is the hardest (and most expensive) part of any business solution to change. (Think remodeling your house.) Fortunately when concept models are done correctly they tend to be very stable. The reason is simple. Any business practice subject to change is treated as a business rule and externalized from the concept model, not embedded within it.
Once a concept model is well-structured, new concepts can often be added with minimal disruption. It's changing concepts already in it that can have big ripple effects.
Let's be very clear here though. Put aside all derived and computed concepts — you have business rules for those. The fundamental concepts in your concept model, the ones needed for day-to-day business activity, really don't change very often. If they do, you're really moving into a whole new business space, aren't you?!References
 Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.
 Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK), 2015.
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