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Information Management: Charting the Course:
Meaning and Shades of Meaning

  Column published in DM Review Magazine
May 2002 Issue
  By Bill Inmon

Note: The idea for this article originated from a recent discussion I had with Steve Westmoreland of Bonneville Power Authority, Portland, Oregon, and my brother-in-law, Dr. David Glass, Lyme, New Hampshire.

Organizations have always struggled with the confusion that arises when various parts of the organization use different names to identify the same item. For example, production control may call an item a widget. Marketing may call it the Blue Bomber, and sales speaks of it as the secret weapon. To the accounting department, it is pq-9981-qt. It seems that everyone is speaking a different language.

Unfortunately, the results of such a conversation can lead to serious business consequences. The wrong part is shipped. The wrong part is put into inventory. The wrong part is advertised. This miscommunication carries real and potentially very negative business consequences.

There are some apparently simple solutions to this problem. From the technician's perspective, it seems simple to mandate that everyone speak the same language, but standardization of nomenclature across an organization is very difficult to accomplish.

In light of the profound resistance to standardization of nomenclature, should there even be an attempt at standardization? Surprisingly, the answer is that standardization of nomenclature across the organization is something that probably should not succeed.

To understand why, consider the medical profession. In medical school, physicians learn technical and Latin names for diseases, medications and parts of the body. The nurses that work at hospitals may have their own terminology for these same things, and patients may have completely different terms for illnesses and injuries. When viewed from the outside, the medical profession appears to be a nomenclature jumble.

However, there are good reasons for not requiring standardization of medical nomenclature. Mandating that everyone use a common vocabulary for medical purposes refutes the culture, education and background of everyone - doctors, nurses, pharmacists and consumers. It is like passing a law that the wind can only blow from the east. The legislature may be able to pass such a law, but enforcing the law is another matter altogether. Lots of luck trying to get the west wind to cooperate.

There is a second reason why standardization is a bad idea. Standardization assumes that things can, in fact, be standardized. Such an assumption is faulty. Consider the word "revenue." Accounting, sales and marketing all talk about revenue. Everyone thinks they understand what the others are saying; but when examined more closely, it is found that everyone is, in fact, speaking a different language that only confuses what is being said. Accounting is talking about booked revenue - revenue that can be accrued to the balance sheet. Sales is talking about actual cash received for goods or services, which is not the same as booked revenue. Marketing is talking about committed revenue, which includes revenue that is committed but not yet received. Committed revenue is not the same as booked revenue which is also not the same as actual cash revenue. At the end of the quarter, the organization finds that:

  • Booked revenue is $1,870,000
  • Cash revenue is $2,542,000
  • Committed revenue is $3,453,000

It is no wonder there is much confusion around the reports that the different groups prepare for management.

The truth is that there is no consistent definition of revenue; corporations need different definitions of revenue in order to do business. Thus, when the technician talks about standardizing the language of people, it is unrealistic to think that technology will actually cause language and nomenclature to become standardized.

However, just because standardization is a bad idea does not mean that nothing should be done. Quite the contrary. The technician should look to mediate the difference in nomenclature rather than mitigate it. One good way is by creating an equivalency dictionary. The equivalency dictionary contains words and definitions, but it is not a standard dictionary. It does not contain many words, and every word has at least one equivalency. For example, there might be a term "box." Box has a definition: a container made of disposable or reusable material that is designed to hold goods for transport or storage. The box also has several equivalencies and an indication of where those equivalencies are commonly used. For example, "box" may have the following equivalencies: crate, used by shipping; case, used by shop floor management; bin, used by bulk stores management; frame, used by engineering; and tin, used by English offices.

As long as the equivalencies are perfect, an equivalency dictionary works just fine. The complications arise when the equivalency is valid in certain cases but does not hold true in other cases. Here the equivalency dictionary becomes complex and challenging.

For example, a crate is a box in most circumstances, except when a shipment container is plastic or rubber; or the crate is a box except when received by the shipping dock; or the crate is always a box, but a box is not always a crate. The equivalency dictionary delineates the circumstances where there is and is not an equivalency between terms. These conditions are an integral part of an equivalency dictionary.

Thus, the bad news is that an equivalency dictionary is notoriously complicated. The good news is that the equivalency dictionary only needs to contain relatively few items.

An equivalency dictionary is good for defining precise meanings and shades of meaning, enabling clear conversations between management and workers. The equivalency dictionary sets the stage for addressing the problem of different corporate nomenclature and recognizes the reality that standardizing nomenclature is an impossible task.


For more information on related topics visit the following related portals...
Data Quality.

Bill Inmon is universally recognized as the father of the data warehouse. He has more than 35 years of database technology management experience and data warehouse design expertise. His books have been translated into nine languages. He is known globally for his seminars on developing data warehouses and has been a keynote speaker for many major computing associations. For more information, visit www.inmongif.com and www.inmoncif.com. Inmon may be reached at (303) 681-6772.

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