Bill Hackos, PhD
Vice President, Comtech Services, Inc.

During my recent consulting visits, I’ve found that people agonize over the definitions of terms. In my opinion, agonizing over definitions is a huge waste of time. Contributing to the confusion, many of us don’t properly distinguish among key terms (a definition problem itself in each of these concepts is appropriate. Such an understanding could save a lot of time and confusion.

We look up words in the dictionary to determine usage. The dictionary is actually a description of how the English language is used today. We consult the dictionary to learn under what circumstances English speakers use a word. New words typically enter the language through usage by a small group of speakers and may either come into general usage or die out. Words entering the language in this way are initially regarded as slang until they become accepted for more general use.

A good example is the word “cool,” meaning great, fine, or excellent. I never use the word cool in this way, but many younger people use it freely. Technical words that originate spontaneously in this way are known as jargon. An example of jargon is “mouse” (for a computer mouse), which has now become general usage but is not in dictionaries published prior to the mid-1980s.

Scientists and technical people define new terms to facilitate communication in their fields. Physicists are famous for adopting simple words to specific scientific definitions. Words like force, energy, momentum, inertia, string, or nucleus. Newer terms are defined as well, such as neutron, proton, and electron. These are not general usage terms and are defined precisely to facilitate communication among physicists. Physicists don’t concern themselves with general usage. Instead they refer to the “physics” definition.

When groups of people agree on the definitions of terms, they develop a terminology. Information developers have created a rich terminology. We use terms like file, font, PDF, HTML, draft, header, footer, and a host of other terms that are known to all writers but not to those outside the special community.

What does all this mean to us? We should not let definitions distract us from our real work. I have had several enterprise content-management (ECM) consulting projects in which days or even weeks were spent by my clients agonizing over what is “business critical information.” They appear to believe in some kind of “universal” distinction between business critical information and non-business critical information. In reality, we can define business critical information any way that suits our needs and then move on because we’re creating a definition, not applying standard usage.

We can define terms dynamically as well as statically. Sometimes a definition is based on activity rather than static qualities. In the absence of an official uniform or direct observation of activity, we can’t distinguish people’s occupations. A policeman, fireman, or physicist is identified by his or her activity rather than some intrinsic physical qualities. The same is true for business critical information. We can’t look at an email, letter, spreadsheet, policy, or procedure in isolation to determine if it is business critical. But if information is necessary for the success of our company, we may classify it as business critical, if we have defined the term dynamically.

I’ve seen the same thing with other information-development terms. What is single sourcing? What is usability testing? Document management? Content management? Validation? Heuristic evaluation? Verification? These terms can be anything we define them to be in a specific context. My advice—”Let’s get past definitions and get on with information development.”