Structured Business Vocabulary: Concept Models

Ronald G.  Ross
Ronald G. Ross Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC , Executive Editor, Business Rules Journal and Co-Chair, Building Business Capability (BBC) Read Author Bio       || Read All Articles by Ronald G. Ross
Gladys S.W.  Lam
Gladys S.W. Lam Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC , Publisher, Business Rules Journal and Executive Director, Building Business Capability (BBC) Read Author Bio       || Read All Articles by Gladys S.W. Lam
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:

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:[1]  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[2] 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?!


[1]  Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary.  return to article

[2]  Business Analysis Body of Knowledge (BABOK), 2015.  return to article

For further information, please visit      

# # #

Standard citation for this article:

citations icon
Ronald G. Ross and Gladys S.W. Lam, "Structured Business Vocabulary: Concept Models" Business Rules Journal, Vol. 17, No. 11, (Nov. 2016)

About our Contributor(s):

Ronald  G. Ross
Ronald G. Ross Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC , Executive Editor, Business Rules Journal and Co-Chair, Building Business Capability (BBC)

Ronald G. Ross is Principal and Co-Founder of Business Rule Solutions, LLC, where he actively develops and applies the BRS Methodology including RuleSpeak®, DecisionSpeak and TableSpeak.

Ron is recognized internationally as the "father of business rules." He is the author of ten professional books including the groundbreaking first book on business rules The Business Rule Book in 1994. His newest are:

Ron serves as Executive Editor of and its flagship publication, Business Rules Journal. He is a sought-after speaker at conferences world-wide. More than 50,000 people have heard him speak; many more have attended his seminars and read his books.

Ron has served as Chair of the annual International Business Rules & Decisions Forum conference since 1997, now part of the Building Business Capability (BBC) conference where he serves as Co-Chair. He was a charter member of the Business Rules Group (BRG) in the 1980s, and an editor of its Business Motivation Model (BMM) standard and the Business Rules Manifesto. He is active in OMG standards development, with core involvement in SBVR.

Ron holds a BA from Rice University and an MS in information science from Illinois Institute of Technology. Find Ron's blog on For more information about Ron visit Tweets: @Ronald_G_Ross

Read All Articles by Ronald G. Ross
Gladys  S.W. Lam
Gladys S.W. Lam Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC , Publisher, Business Rules Journal and Executive Director, Building Business Capability (BBC)

Gladys S.W. Lam is a world-renowned authority on applied business rule techniques. She is Principal and Co-Founder of Business Rule Solutions, LLC (, the most recognized company world-wide for business rules and decision analysis. BRS provides methodology, publications, consulting services, and training. Ms. Lam is Co-Creator of IPSpeak, the BRS methodology including RuleSpeak®, DecisionSpeak and TableSpeak. She is Co-Founder of, a vertical community for professionals and home of Business Rules Journal. She co-authored Building Business Solutions, an IIBA® sponsored handbook on business analysis with business rules.

Ms. Lam is widely known for her lively, pragmatic style. She speaks internationally at conferences, public seminars and other professional events. She is also Executive Director of Building Business Capability (BBC) Conference, which includes the Business Rules & Decisions Forum and the Business Analysis Forum.

Ms. Lam is a world-renowned expert on business project management, having managed numerous projects that focus on the large-scale capture, analysis and management of business rules. She advises senior management of large companies on organizational issues and on business solutions to business problems. She has extensive experience in related areas, including BPM, structured business strategy, and managing and implementing information systems.

Ms. Lam is most recognized for her ability to identify the source of business issues, and for her effectiveness in developing pragmatic approaches to resolve them. She has gained a world-class reputation for fostering positive professional relationships with principals and support staff in projects. Ms. Lam graduated from the University of British Columbia with a B.S. in Computer Science.

Read All Articles by Gladys S.W. Lam
Subscribe to the eBRJ Newsletter
In The Spotlight
 Jim  Sinur
 John A. Zachman
The Issue Is THE ENTERPRISE By John A. Zachman Jan. 2017 | Vol. 18, Iss. 1

Online Interactive Training Series

In response to a great many requests, Business Rule Solutions now offers at-a-distance learning options. No travel, no backlogs, no hassles. Same great instructors, but with schedules, content and pricing designed to meet the special needs of busy professionals.