6. Conclusions to date

Business language analysis has been applied by the author to a number of situations in a variety of industries and organizations.  This experience has led to some interesting lessons and conclu-sions.

A common experience is that in any business domain we are likely to encounter a predominance of certain categories of information.  These dominant categories lead to addition of more specific concepts to the ontology in order to differentiate sets of terms that would otherwise form a long list under a single concept.  One such concept expansion was the result of an analysis of the budget office at a state university.  The budget office dealt almost exclusively with information in various forms.  The office collected information from other departments, performed various types of analysis, and created a variety of reports and information products for use by departments throughout the university.  This situation required a major expansion of the concepts related to information resources.

Information resource concepts were also added during analysis of language within the project management function in a consortium.  The emphasis on coordinating work among several par-ticipating companies and a large number of suppliers, and managing projects that spanned multi-ple years, presented a severe information management challenge.

Based on the two examples noted above, the concept of information resources was expanded to include the following concepts: identifiers, motivations (including values, opinions, purposes, conditions), proposals, decisions, rules (prescriptive, proscriptive, allowances, entitlements), descriptions, templates (including specifications, forms, models, checklists), characteristics, measurements (quantitative, qualitative, comparative), category sets, commitments, goals, history, relationships (including roles, situations, agreements (contractual and informal)), forecasts, and plans.  This set of concepts still may not be totally exhaustive.  However, once new concepts have been established within one domain, they become available in any subsequent domain where they might apply.

Another expansion and validation of the generic business concept structure came from an analysis of a customer relationship management project at a natural gas utility company.  It was not surprising that this domain forced an expansion of the concepts related to energy resources.  What was surprising was the need to greatly expand the granularity of concepts related to time-periods.  Over 1,200 terms were found in the analysis, and close to 20% had to do with discrete points and ranges of time.  Time itself was already included in the generic set, but this experience validated its value as a significant ontological concept.

Sometimes there are important business concepts that exist in a domain, but do not have explicit terminology that maps cleanly to them.  An example of this insight is found in the insurance in-dustry.  Analysis of insurance has led to the conclusion that the essence of the business is management of situations.  Actuarial analysis is largely about recognizing distinct situation types in which business and individuals can find themselves, and determining the likelihood of various outcomes resulting from types of situations.  Even though insurance people recognize this, and find it is a useful way to think about their business, there is a surprising lack of specific terminol-ogy that relates to client situations.

Language models can reveal the variable importance of the same concept from one domain to another.  Models from two different companies indicate the importance of contractual agreements in the insurance business.  In fact, many insurance terms are classified under both the concept of agreement and the concept of product.  This is because a policy, which is a contract, is actually the basic product of the insurance industry.  Without contracts, there is no business.  This is contrasted with a model done for a cellular telephone company, where there are very few terms that refer to contracts.  Contracts are rather casual pieces of paper that are signed upon commencement of service, and as many as 40% never make it from the retail distributor back to the appropriate corporate file.  Service, billing, and collections proceed unimpeded, so that contracts are truly not a major issue.  These diverging models provide strong indication of the types of objects needed by the respective industries.

A different kind of lesson from experience with business language analysis is the positive reaction that it evokes in business people.  There always seem to be significant insights, and great appreciation for this fresh view of language.  There is gratitude that information systems profes-sionals are willing to spend time to appreciate the unique meaning that infuses the language of the business.  There are also surprises for the domain experts at times.  A model prepared for an internal IBM group highlighted terminology from a mission statement that everyone had agreed to change but that was still present in source documents.  There was shock in the group when the model highlighted language that had become invisible to the participants in the business.

Information systems professionals who have been exposed to this approach are almost unanimous in their positive reaction.  The most common reaction is “If only we had followed this approach on my last project!  It would have saved untold misunderstanding and rework.”  They recognize that detailed understanding of language avoids a number of  common problems with information system development.  These problems include the cost of reworking inadequate requirements, the loss of credibility when delivered systems do match the needs of the business, the risk that projects will be so focused on the data processing “plumbing” that human communication and information needs will not be served, and the risk that analysts will drift off into a haze of abstractions that are too loosely coupled with the needs of the business.  The ultimate risk is that the form and operations of the business will be forced to conform to the resulting information system, instead of the other way around.