Aligning Multiple Definitions: Guidelines for Building World-Class Business Glossaries

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

Extracted fromHow to Define Business Terms in Plain English:  A Primer, Ronald G. Ross, 2016 (free download).   http://www.brsolutions.com/b_ipspeakprimers.php

A good business definition is not only good because it is clear and concise, but because it holds a clear, exclusive position within its full set of peers — i.e., the glossary for your business vocabulary. This discussion outlines five basic guidelines for ensuring the quality of a glossary holistically, focusing on avoiding naming anomalies, subtle redundancies, and avoiding circularities. Find out how you can become world-class at communicating the meaning of your business concepts. Part of the secret is a clear focus on seed concepts.

Guideline 1  The definition of a qualified term should not depart in kind from the meaning of the term that has been qualified.

Discussion: Suppose a term has been defined; now a qualified version of that same term is being defined. The qualified term should never be defined as something fundamentally different in kind from the term that has been qualified. Otherwise, misunderstanding and miscommunication almost always result.

Example: capability, organizational capability

Definition (capability): an ability that enables something to achieve some goal(s) or objective(s)

Poor definition (organizational capability): a function internal to an organization comprising people, processes, technologies, information, and knowledge that enables the achievement of business goals and objectives

The former definition defines a capability as an ability. The latter definition defines an organizational capability as a function. A function, however, is not an ability. The definitions show a fundamental mismatch in kind between the concepts being defined.

Revised definition (organizational capability): a capability internal to an organization comprising people, processes, technologies, information, and knowledge that enables the achievement of business goals and objectives

In the revised definition, capability has been substituted for function. The meaning of the business concept organizational capability now aligns naturally and intuitively with the meaning of the broader business concept, capability. Organizational capability is simply a special kind of capability, perhaps one of many.

Note that this revised definition includes the phrase that enables the achievement of business goals and objectives, which seems simply to echo what the definition of capability already says. That observation leads to the next guideline.

Guideline 2  The definition of a qualified term should not repeat (or conflict with) text in the definition of the underlying term.

Discussion: Suppose a term has been defined; now a qualified version of that same term is being defined. The two terms are appropriately aligned in kind; that is, the kick-off word of the definition for the latter term is the former term itself. In that case there is no need to repeat text in the definition of the qualified term that already appears in the definition of the underlying term. That meaning applies intrinsically. Repeating it opens the door to divergence.

Example: capability, organizational capability

Definition (capability): an ability that enables something to achieve some goal(s) or objective(s)

Poor definition (organizational capability): a capability internal to an organization that comprises people, processes, technologies, information, and knowledge and that enables the achievement of business goals and objectives

The definition of the qualified term organizational capability properly uses the kick-off word capability. The definition of capability includes the phrase enables something to achieve some goal(s) or objective(s). The sense of that phrase is repeated in the definition of the qualified term. Assuming there is no subtle difference in meaning imposed by the word business in that definition (an important assumption that should be validated carefully), the corresponding phrase in the definition of the qualified term is redundant. The phrase should be removed.

Revised definition (organizational capability): a capability internal to an organization that comprises people, processes, technologies, information, and knowledge

The careful reader will note this revised definition remains somewhat ambiguous. What does the phrase that comprises people, processes, technologies, information, and knowledge actually modify?  Does it modify capability or organization?   The target noun for every modifying phrase should be crystal clear.

Revised definition (organizational capability): a capability that is internal to an organization and that comprises people, processes, technologies, information, and knowledge

This second revised definition features insertion of an and before the phrase that comprises people, processes, technologies, information, and knowledge. Now the definition is clear that the target noun is capability, not organization. In addition, to balance the definition structurally and further clarify what is being modified, that is has been inserted before the phrase internal to an organization.

Guideline 3  A definition of a term, or some significant part of that definition, should not be repeated in the definition of another term.

Discussion:  The meaning of each term in a vocabulary should be single-sourced — in other words, specified in one and only one place. Repetition of text expressing the same meaning in different definitions opens the door to unintended or undetected divergence in that meaning and to unnecessary and counterproductive questioning of the corresponding definitions.

Example: process, process model

Definition (process): a set of activities whose sequence is designed to produce some desired result

Poor definition (process model): a representation, usually visual, of the sequential flow among a set of activities

The definition of process includes the core notion set of activities (having) sequence. This same notion is repeated in the definition of process model. Assuming there is no subtle difference in meaning imposed by the word flow in the latter definition (an important assumption that should be validated carefully), the corresponding phrase in the definition of process model is redundant.  It should be removed. Such repetition is undesirable because it opens the door to divergence of the definitions. The difference in wording might also be taken as indicating something different is meant than simply process.

Revised definition (process model): a representation, usually visual, of a process

The phrase the sequential flow among a set of activities has been replaced by the term process in this definition of process model. The meaning of that phrase is already expressed in the definition of process. To highlight the appearance of defined terms in definitional text, special notation such as capitalization and/or colored font can be useful.

Definition with colorized term & capitalization (process model): a representation, usually visual, of a Process

Guideline 4  The definition of a compound term should not depart in meaning from that of the underlying terms taken collectively.

Discussion:  Suppose two or more terms have been defined; now another term is being defined that is simply those same terms taken together. The meaning of such a compound term should not depart from the collective meaning of the two or more compounded terms individually. Otherwise, misunderstanding and miscommunication can result. Also, the definitions of the two or more compounded terms should not be repeated for the compound term. To do so invites divergence.

Example: process, model, process model

Definition (process): a set of activities whose sequence is designed to produce some desired result

Definition (model): a representation and simplification of reality created to provide insight or understanding for some audience

Poor definition (process model): a representation, usually visual, of a Process

If model is defined, and process is defined, is a process model really something more than those two terms taken together?   The fact that process model has been defined with words beyond just process and model suggests it might.

Assuming there is no subtle difference in meaning imposed by the phrase usually visual in the definition of process model (an important assumption that should be validated carefully), the term model can be substituted in that definition. Indicating that a process model is a representation is redundant. According to the definition of model all models are representations.

Revised definition (process model): a Model of a Process

Note: A process model is usually visual.

This revised definition simply references the two compounded terms model and process. The meaning of the concept process model now aligns naturally and intuitively with the meanings of the underlying concepts, process and model. The additional phrase usually visual has been included as a note.

Guideline 5  A set of definitions should not be circular.

Discussion:  A set of two definitions is circular if both definitions embed the term for the other concept. A set of three or more definitions is circular if each definition embeds the term for the next. There is no good starting point for understanding such a set of concepts. Circular sets of definitions always embody one or more faulty assumptions.

Example: business requirement, initiative, stakeholder

Definition in a circular set (business requirement): a need or demand required of a solution by some stakeholder(s)

Definition in a circular set (initiative): specific projects, programs, or actions undertaken to satisfy business requirements

Definition in a circular set (stakeholder): a person or organization with an interest or concern in an initiative

These three definitions are circular. The definition of business requirement references stakeholder, whose definition in turn references initiative, whose definition — coming full circle — references business requirement. Circularities cause confusion and are simply unnecessary. A business vocabulary includes only a tiny fraction of the words in a natural language like English, so circularities can be easily avoided.

Resolving circularities requires careful analysis of the definitions involved. If you had to start from scratch, which concept is most basic?  Conceptually, where would you start in building up the sum of the knowledge that the business vocabulary represents?

The suspect definition in the circularity above is the one for business requirement. Maybe no stakeholder wants to own or be seen as originator of some business requirement. Does that fact make the business requirement not a business requirement?   No.   And if not business requirement what would you call such a thing?

So the phrase by some stakeholder(s) should be removed from the definition of business requirement.

revised definition (business requirement): a need or demand required of a solution

This definition captures the essence of the concept. It also breaks the circularity among the three original definitions.

Definitions of concepts such as initiative and stakeholder that reference other terms should ultimately trace back to seed concepts. A seed concept is one whose meaning depends on no other concept defined within the vocabulary that includes it. Its definition therefore embeds no other terms included within that vocabulary. All words in the definition of a seed concept take their meanings from definitions in a common natural-language dictionary. Seed concepts are fundamental building blocks of business vocabularies.

For further information, please visit BRSolutions.com     

# # #

Standard citation for this article:


citations icon
Ronald G. Ross , "Aligning Multiple Definitions: Guidelines for Building World-Class Business Glossaries" Business Rules Journal Vol. 18, No. 9, (Sep. 2017)
URL: http://www.brcommunity.com/a2017/b921.html

About our Contributor:


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 IPSpeak 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 BRCommunity.com 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 http://www.brsolutions.com/category/blog/. For more information about Ron visit www.RonRoss.info. Tweets: @Ronald_G_Ross

Read All Articles by Ronald G. Ross
Subscribe to the eBRJ Newsletter
In The Spotlight
 Silvie  Spreeuwenberg
 Jim  Sinur

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.