Ambiguity and Its Cure
Excerpted from: Business Knowledge Messaging: How to Avoid Business Miscommunication, by Ronald G. Ross, 2022.
Here's one of my favorite examples of ambiguity: "The chicken is ready to eat." Maybe you've seen it as a cartoon. Picture a chicken sitting at a dinner table with a napkin tied around its neck, knife and fork at the ready, and a hungry look on its face. Unlikely, but the interpretation can't be ruled out entirely.
Or how about this: "Gasoline must not be sold to anyone in a glass container." Now why would anyone be at a gas station in a glass container (or anywhere else)?
Ambiguity arises when there is more than one possible interpretation of a statement (or communication of any kind, including a question).
The examples above are amusing, but the problem is very real. Ambiguity lurks everywhere in human discourse. You can easily argue it's actually a feature of natural language, not a bug — one that gives rise to the incredible flexibility and beauty of language.
It probably also has survival value. If you're a cave dweller and someone shouts "Bear!" it doesn't matter too much that 'bear' has multiple meanings or that the person might have actually meant 'bare'. It would definitely get your attention, and maybe save your life.
But these days we live and work in a society whose total knowledge is many, many, many orders of magnitude larger than any one person or group could possibly hold in their heads. Our 'hunting' — the way we make our living these days — is very dependent on communication of knowledge among 'hunting' (and larger) groups. As a consequence, in the Knowledge Age we are not just the beneficiaries of knowledge, we are prisoners to the way in which it is communicated.
Look at it this way. Informal dialog and communication clues (e.g., body language and groans) are largely inelastic, but knowledge is growing exponentially. It doesn't take a genius to see that's a problem.
Unlike the cave dweller who yells "Bear!" to their small clan, we simply can't achieve the same effect yelling "Charge!" to our hundreds of suppliers and thousands of customers for our newest electronic widget. Fashionable agile practices notwithstanding, we have reached the limits of informal messaging. It's great; it works well when agile 'hunting' groups can do a specific task. But it just doesn't scale.
That's the problem we face today: inelastic engagement. If you're drowning in a daily deluge of emails, you know exactly what I mean. That's why it's important to talk about ambiguity in formal messaging about business knowledge.
Ambiguity in Proper Context
Discussions about ambiguity can quickly and easily go off the rails. It's the kind of topic that naturally attracts philosophers, academics … and deeply-focused software engineers. (Just put a post about it out on social media and see for yourself.) So, it is very important that I communicate the specific context I intend for discussing 'ambiguity'.
Let me be very clear: I am not talking about identifying ambiguity in all human discourse or natural language as a whole. I stipulate here and now that's impossible. Without context or definitions, no human or machine will ever be able to disambiguate something like 'big time change'. (Does it mean 'change on a massive scale' or 'producer of massive jetlag'?) Let's move on then.
So, I am always careful to say "messaging about business knowledge." What's unique about a business (or enterprise)? To state more or less the obvious:
- It has a mission and the authority to establish strategy and policies for itself.
- It has agency over and above all the individuals or groups interacting within it. By 'agency' I mean authority to exert power. It is not simply a community of peers, no matter how 'flat' its hierarchy.
- It is usually much larger — often by many, many orders of magnitude — than the maximum size of an optimal hunting group (often taken to be 7–8 people). If a business succeeds, sooner or later it is likely to face the problem of scale.
- It needs to marshal the unique, often deep knowledge it holds, or has available to it, to achieve its business goals and objectives.
Business is the qualified context I always mean when I talk about 'ambiguity' with respect to business knowledge messaging.
A first and fundamental step that a business (or some part of it) can take to diminish ambiguity is to control its vocabulary in formal messaging. By 'control its vocabulary', I mean two very specific things:
- Every term has one and only one meaning. Generally, 'one meaning' means just one definition. (If a term does have multiple definitions, they must be stipulated to mean exactly the same thing.)
- If a word cannot have just one meaning, then its use must be disambiguated by context. For example, let's suppose within your scope of discourse, some people use 'pool' to mean swimming pool, but others use it to mean the game of pool. Neither side will give up on its use of 'pool' or switch to a new term. Then in formal messages the appropriate context must be specified — i.e., the terms 'pool [swimming]' and 'pool [table game]' must be used. (Appropriate tooling could obviously help a lot here!)
These are key notions of a structured business vocabulary or glossary. Ambiguity-free messaging about business knowledge requires a concept model, a business knowledge blueprint.
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