4.1 Terms and concepts

Two things are needed for a complete model of business meaning.  These two basic dimensions are the lexicon of terms actually in use by the business, and an ontology of concepts that help sort out the meaning of the terms that are discovered by language analysis.

A business lexicon is the set of actual terms used within a particular human activity system, where a term can be a word or a set of words.  A term, along with its meaning, constitutes a lexical unit.  See Sidebar 1 for a summary of some of the semantic relationships that can be used to understand one lexical unit with respect to others in the same body of language.

Sidebar 1

There can be many types of semantic relationships among lexical units.  These include (but are by no means limited to):

  • Congruence
    • Synonymy ¬– The meaning of two terms is identical.
    • Hyponymy – The meaning of one term fully includes the meaning of another term.  
    • Compatibility – The meaning of two terms is overlapping, but not identical.
    • Incompatibility – The meaning of two terms is completely disjoint.
  • Opposites
    • Complementaries ¬– Two terms divide some conceptual domain into mutually exclusive compartments
    • Antonyms ¬– Two terms are on opposite ends of a gradable range.
    • Directional opposition ¬– Two terms indicating opposite potential paths of a body in motion.
  • Configurations
    • Proportional series ¬– Sets of terms that share common traits.
    • Hierarchies
      • Branching  – Hierarchies with possibly multiple nodes at each level.
        • Taxonomies – Classification based on a single rule of differentiation at each level of the hierarchy.
        • Meronomies – Assemblies of components
          • Part/whole – Things that are naturally divisible into expected parts
          • Piece/whole – Things that can be divided randomly into pieces
      • Non-branching – Hierarchies with only one node at each level.

End of sidebar 1

The semantic relationships listed above, along with the basic definition of lexical unit, come from the field of lexical semantics.   This list is not exhaustive, but it does indicate that, within the study of business terminology, there is a much richer set of relationships than simply homonyms, synonyms, and hierarchical relationships.  In particular, it is interesting to note that taxonomy is a very specialized type of relationship, and that a well-formed taxonomy is much rarer than most analysts would generally imagine.

As opposed to the terms that are found in common use within any environment, including a business environment, an ontology is a set of abstract concepts that defines the areas of common interest within a particular community.  In a philosophical sense an ontology is “a theory of what the world is, or contains”.    The scope of an ontology can be:
     • Global – Concepts common to all human beings, or all members of a culture.  Examples include Roget's Thesaurus and the Dewey Decimal System.
     • Business – Concepts that are common to the world of commerce and enterprise interaction generally.
     • Domain-specific – Concepts specific to a particular industry, profession, company, or work group.

These concepts may be taken for granted, and essentially invisible to the people who harbor them.  It is the task of the business language analyst to articulate this largely-unspoken ontology, and to ensure that the information systems reflect the important concepts of the business users.  In Side-bar 2 there is a discussion of how human beings form mental categories, and how this process extends into business concepts.

Sidebar 2

Categories are basic to human cognition.  George Lakoff  provides a valuable and entertaining survey of empirical and theoretical studies in the field of category theory.  Cross-cultural evi-dence points to common mechanisms for forming categories, and expanding the set of categories to accommodate more complex situations.  Base-level categories (e.g. the genus level in the bio-logical taxonomy) are the most intuitive for people to discriminate.  It is easier to differentiate a cow from a fish than it is to group a cow and a whale together as mammals.  Similarly different species of whale or different varieties of pig may be difficult for the non-expert to distinguish.

Categories have prototypical members and peripheral members.  The peripheral members start to edge off into conceptual areas that eventually require the formation of new categories.  Idealized conceptual models (ICMs), are patterns of concepts that define a particular category.  Through various methods of extension, radial categories are formed.  These radial categories share fewer and fewer of the patterns of concepts that the prototypical pattern exhibits.

End of Sidebar 2

As an example of a business-oriented ICM, consider the category product.  If we were to define the fundamental concepts that surround the prototypical idea of product, they would probably include:
     • A typical product is the output of an industrial process.
     • It is composed of discrete, physical units.
     • It is sold for money.
     • It is consumable.
     • It has a producer
     • It has a specific target set of consumers.
In the following ICM, the canonical idea of product is extended in various directions.

We could argue whether the central category that represents “product” for us is more prototypically a car or a box of cereal.  There's no question, however, that the radial categories have something in common with the basic concept, while departing from it in various significant ways.  Is a service a product?  What about a leased 56KB line?  What about a monthly fixed-rate pricing scheme for a 56KB communications circuit? Is documentation a product in its own right?  Or information in the form of a financial derivative?

The following set of concepts arises from consideration of the kinds of things with which any business needs to concern itself:

     • People - including both individuals and organizations
     • Resources - material, energy, skills, money, and information
     • Processes - events, end-to-end processes, functions and discrete actions,
     • Results - the products and services that are the reason to be in business
     • Locations - physical geography, and logical points such as accounts and network addresses
     • Time periods - the standard concept of time

This is just one of many possible ways of dividing the conceptual space at a high level.  Another published scheme divides the business world into resources, processes, and organizations.   Still another scheme has the following top-level set of divisions:  Party, contract or agreement, prod-uct, resource, event, location, and account.

There is no absolute best way to make this kind of classification.  Concerns that appear at the top of one list are bound to appear elsewhere on someone else’s.  For example, in our scheme, one type of resource is an information resource, while a type of information resource is a relationship, of which there are many that a business has to manage.  One particular kind of relationship is a role, which brings together individuals or organizations on one side and some function or set of functions on the other.  This puts the concept of role three levels down from the top of our scheme, while in another scheme, role might be at the very top of the conceptual taxonomy, be-cause it is such a powerful concept.  Another type of complex relationship is a situation, which is an identifiable state of affairs that demands resolution.  There is actually an academic discipline called situation theory, which forms the basis of its own logic system.   Clearly a case could be made that situation should be a first-order concept.  The point is that information is immune to the law of gravity.  The top is somewhat arbitrary.

Business concepts do not stand alone.  Instead, they link together in naturally occurring patterns.  These patterns appear in organizations of all kinds, across industry boundaries.  Concept patterns form a semantic network  of interrelationships.  Here are examples of typical concept relation-ships:  Resources are transformed by processes that are triggered by events and invoke functions, discrete actions, and flows of material and information.  People and organizations play various roles that are responsible for various functions.  Processes create results, which in turn may be-come resources.  Figure 3 is an example of one fragment of the overall semantic net of generic business concepts:

Figure 3

The article does not present an exhaustive catalog of business concepts and their interrelation-ships.  This is partly due to space limitations, and partly because, as noted above, there is more than one way to divide the conceptual space.  More importantly, it is impossible to be exhaustive.  As soon as we move into a more specific industry or enterprise environment it becomes necessary to extend the generic concepts to account for the information that is most important in that context.  The top level of Figure 4 shows a generic concept network extended by a more specific network.

The main purpose for articulating the patterns of a business ontology is to provide a set of templates for organizing the specific terms that we encounter in the jargon of work groups and professional specialties.  Through this linkage into templates, or patterns of conceptual relationships, the business terms themselves begin to form patterns of meaning and relationships that are unique to a specific business situation and community of communicators within a human activity system. 

Figure 4
The set of terminology patterns forms a model of meaning that can be linked to various technical artifacts from the solution domain of information systems.  This provides traceability from im-plementation back to business meaning, and from unique domain language back to powerful generic templates.  This complete set of linkages is shown in Figure 4.