Monday, June 23, 2008

Homogeneous Business Vocabulary?

Nick Malik asks whether a common vocabulary is a blessing or curse.

Who benefits from a common vocabulary - whose agenda is it? IT architects tend to like a common vocabulary because it means they can more easily use the same systems and data stores; bureaucrats tend to like a common vocabulary because it means they can impose the same kinds of procedures and performance targets.

Let's look at the bureaucratic agenda first. In the old days, the bus company had passengers, hospitals had patients, prisons had prisoners, and universities had students. Now they are all supposed to be regarded as "customers", and driven by the same things: "choice" and "customer satisfaction". This reframing has had mixed results - perhaps a few beneficial effects in places, but also some damaging or absurd consequences.

Meanwhile, IT organizations want to deploy similar solutions across a range of business domains. Here are a few examples picked at random.

Meanwhile, IT architects are often lumpers rather than splitters, and so they like to produce information models with a relatively small number of highly generalized objects like PARTY, which mean absolutely nothing to a real business person.

So in some enterprises, and especially in the public sector, the IT architects may be aligned with the central bureaucrats against the line-of-business. Maybe sometimes there really is a good reason for the diversity of business vocabulary, not just idiot managers being obstinate.

With a stratified Service-Oriented Architecture, it becomes possible to get the best of both worlds - building some highly generic services in one layer, which support a range of different specialized and context-specific ontologies in the layer above. So it becomes possible to accommodate a broader range of requirements without imposing a common vocabulary. Of course this raises some complexity issues, which many IT architects would prefer not to have to deal with. For more on these complexity issues, see the Asymmetric Design blog.

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