Disambiguation Beyond a Reasonable Doubt
Excerpted from: Business Knowledge Messaging: How to Avoid Business Miscommunication, by Ronald G. Ross, 2022.
I stipulate here and now it's impossible to be completely unambiguous with natural language and conversational communication in general. Hear me? That's not the goal in talking about reducing or eliminating ambiguity in messaging about business knowledge.
The practical goal is to wring out as much ambiguity as possible in formal messaging (including business rules and data) so that we can conduct business with minimum errors. In other words, we should seek to create text and data that is unambiguous beyond a reasonable doubt. (Yes, the law does have some important insights for business knowledge messaging. I'll get to that momentarily.)
Disambiguation should happen as early as possible, and as close as possible to those who hold the actual knowledge, preferably with the original business authors. Even if they don't get it perfect (and they often won't) that's by far the best way to minimize noise as the knowledge is disseminated. Yes, it does require focus, discipline, and a blueprint. But business has reached a tipping point with respect to business knowledge, so there is little choice going forward.
Wouldn't it be nice if we had interactive bots that could help us with this chore of disambiguation? Yes! I'll have more to say about that in an upcoming column.
Now you may have noticed I have said nothing whatsoever above about IT requirements. Don't they need shared vocabulary and ambiguity-free language? Yes, absolutely. Specifications for automated systems are definitely important. But to talk about the problem from that perspective is the tail wagging the dog. Disambiguation is first and foremost a business problem — and its scope is far larger than just IT requirements.
Informal Messaging vs. Formal Messaging
To explore how business clarity can be achieved, let's remind ourselves briefly about the differences between informal vs. formal messaging.
In effective informal messaging, key factors include:
- Implicit context. Participants share time and space with one another. They can assume they are more or less on the same 'hunt' together.
- Redundancy. Participants can try to say the same thing differently over and over until finally some version 'clicks'.
- Dialog. Participants can question other participants more or less interactively to eliminate gaps and misinterpretations.
- Prototyping. In agile development of products, requirements, or KPIs, prototyping is a form of, or aid to, dialog. Instead of just words, scenarios and visuals are used, partly or mostly. The prototype is often considered more or less a throw-away. You refine and iterate until some version finally 'catches'.
In formal messaging, none of these things work. Each formal message must:
- Define its own context.
- Avoid redundancy (which can introduce inconsistencies).
- Be as self-explanatory as possible (because there is no opportunity for dialog).
- Comprise a final product (because creating a new version, though often possible, is time-consuming and resource-intensive).
Formal messaging of knowledge to large numbers of people, possibly to readers never anticipated, is simply a different world.
This is no secret. The differences are well established, though often forgotten in an age of perpetual email, omni-present social media, and rapid prototyping. The main differentiators of formal messaging include the following:
- "When someone consults a [reference source] … there is no dialog element."
- "The information has to be as self-contained as possible, for it is impossible to predict the demands which may one day be made on it."
- "Accordingly, [the] language … is very different from that used in everyday conversation … it displays a much greater degree of organization, impersonality, and explicitness."
The Four Corners
A discipline highly experienced with formal messaging is the law. A basic principle for legal writing that no law student can easily escape is The Four Corners.
The Four Corners of an Instrument. A document's meaning should be derived from the document itself — i.e., from its language and all matters encompassed in it. According to this principle, information that does not appear in the document — such as the circumstances surrounding the document or the history of the parties signing it — must not be analyzed or relied upon to ascertain the document's meaning.
The Four Corners distills the essence of 'self-contained'. Expressed differently, there is to be no meaning outside the words the document includes — that is, the document must define its own context. You can't depend on any external clues. That's one reason legal documents — good ones anyway — always include definitions of terms.
There's a deeper reason for this principle as well. Consider contracts. "One of the important roles of a contract is memory … In business life, the original definers of the deal, and hence of the contract, move on and are replaced by people who do not know the deal except from the written documentation."
Let me ask you this. Is staff turnover a factor in your business? More attention to The Four Corners is an important step in reducing its impact. Think of formal messaging as a basic form of knowledge retention.
One last thought while we're on legal matters: If you prefer to live under the rule of law, you'd better hope that disambiguation can be achieved beyond reasonable doubt. I hope you'll think hard about that!
 David Crystal, How Languages Work, The Overlook Press: Peter Mayer Publishers, Inc. (2005), p. 465.
 Daniel M. Berry, Ph.D., Erik Kamsties, Ph.D., and Michael M. Krieger, Ph.D., J.D., Contract Drafting to Software Specification: Linguistic Sources of Ambiguity: A Handbook ["Ambiguity Handbook"], Version 1.0, (November 2003).
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