Business Vocabulary: The Most Basic Requirement of All


Business Vocabulary: The Most Basic Requirement of AllStructured business vocabulary is a missing ingredient in most current approaches to developing requirements. This omission should greatly concern every business analyst. Indeed, business vocabulary is key to a whole range of fundamental challenges, including but not limited to capturing business rules. One reason is that business vocabulary, like data and business rules, lives on beyond the point of system implementation and deployment. There’s a solution – fact models. As explained in this article, a differential feature of fact models is fact types, the means to add elemental verbs to your business vocabulary.

Excerpted from Chapter 1, Business Rule Concepts: Getting to the Point of Knowledge
(3rd Ed.), by Ronald G. Ross, August 2009. ISBN 0-941049-07-8

Ask managers and workers in the business what they mean by requirements for developing software systems, and typically you get answers centered on features and functions, or on the look-and-feel of user interfaces. The answer “business vocabulary” (or “shared business vocabulary”) is almost never among the responses. Nonetheless, a shared, well-structured business vocabulary is indeed a kind of requirement.

A shared, well-structured business vocabulary, of course, is by no means the only kind of requirement necessary for software development. Without such a vocabulary, however, you cannot provide real meaning or coherency (sense) to all the others, especially to the business rules. For that reason, a shared, well-structured business vocabulary represents a fundamental kind of requirement.

A shared, well-structured business vocabulary literally provides meaning (semantics). This meaning, of course, is abstract. It might not be as obvious as what a system does or how the system looks on the outside. Just because something is less obvious, however, does not mean it is any less important. Break a bone, and see what happens to the body’s behavior. (I have, so I can speak with some authority!)

The problem is by no means limited to communication of requirements between business workers and IT. Indeed, in many organizations today, business workers from different parts of the organization often have trouble even talking to each other. Or to say this more accurately, they talk to each other, but they are not really communicating. They live in different semantic silos. As a consequence their know-how is un-reusable and un-retainable.

A well-managed, well-structured business vocabulary should be a central fixture of daily business activity. We believe it should be as accessible and as interactive as, say, spellcheck in Microsoft Word.

Developing and managing a shared, well-structured business vocabulary means capturing business know-how from the business-side workers and managers who possess it (or adopting it from some outside source or community of practice). The skills involved with distilling that business know-how are essential for business analysts. Every business analyst needs to know about fact models, the means to provide a robust blueprint for basic business vocabulary.

You also need appropriate business-level platforms to manage your business vocabulary. Such automated support is crucial to effective business communication and requirements, as well as to organizing large sets of business rules. You need special tooling for this purpose, which we call a general rulebook system (GRBS).

Bringing Verbs into the Structured Business Vocabulary

In a structured business vocabulary (a.k.a. fact model), the noun concepts are represented by terms. Their meaning is given by business definitions.

terms. Their meaning is given by business definitions. These noun concepts (terms) can be connected to each other much as ligaments connect bones in the human body. Connections between noun concepts are generally expressed using verbs and verb phrases. These noun-and-verb constructions are called wordings – phrases of predictable types that permit understandable sentences, especially expressing business rules, to be made about operational business know-how.

Why do you need standard verbs to express operational business know-how? How many business rules does your company of business area have? Hundreds? Thousands? How much consistency or coherency will there be across the set if verbs are selected randomly, as suits any given business analyst? Exactly the same answer applies if you substitute “requirements” or “day-to-day business communications” for “business rules”. The problem today, in other words, is one of scale and complexity.

Examples of wordings are given in the table. Note that each wording involves a verb or verb phrase (italicized in the table) to connect relevant terms. Selection of the best verbs and verb phrases to succinctly represent connections between noun concepts is fundamental to building a robust business vocabulary.

Wording for a Connection Between Noun Concepts

Sample Business Rule Statement Using the Wording

customer places order

A customer has always placed at least one order.

shipment is approved by employee

A shipment must be approved by at least two employees.

shipment includes order

A shipment must not include more than 10 orders.

Here are eight important observations about fact types:

  1. Wordings extend a standard business vocabulary in important ways. Most obvious is that wordings add standard verbs and verb phrases. Less obvious but equally important is that by connecting terms they bring structure to the business vocabulary. For this reason, we like to say structured business vocabulary.

  2. The sample wordings in the table actually represent types of connections, called fact types, rather than individual connections, called facts. For example, for customer places order an actual fact might be Global Supply, Inc. has placed the order A601288. Structured business vocabularies are generally more concerned with identifying fact types rather than actual facts.

  3. A fact type is always worded with a verb or verb phrase (wording); therefore fact types are often called verb concepts.

  4. In English and many other languages, every wording follows a strict subject-verb-object structure – for example, customer places order. The wording thus provides a building block for constructing sentences of arbitrary complexity that unambiguously express business rules or other kinds of know-how.

  5. A fact type does not imply or establish any business rule on its own, nor does any associated wording. For example, the wording customer places order creates no business rule. It would be inappropriate to express a wording as: A customer has always placed at least one order. This latter statement is more than a fact type – it expresses a business rule pertaining to the fact type.

  6. Verbs (e.g., places) used in wordings do not represent or label any action, task, or process per se (e.g., place order). Any such operation represents a different aspect of business activity – the power or “muscle” aspect. Think of a structured business vocabulary as providing the most appropriate way to organize knowledge about the results (or potential results) of such operations. By most appropriate, I mean anomaly-free and semantically-clear. In other words, a business vocabulary organizes what we can know as the results of operational processes or transforms taking place in the business.

  7. A majority of connections of core interest for structured business vocabularies involve exactly two terms – e.g., customer places order. Connections involving more than two terms, however, are sometimes appropriate (e.g., person visits city on date). It’s also possible for a wording to concern only a single term (e.g., shipment is completed).

  8. In formal logic, each wording represents a predicate. More precisely, a wording represents the meaning of a predicate. Although not directly important for practitioners, this point is a crucial one for platform engineers and others concerned with tooling and formalisms.

Ronald G. Ross

Author: Ronald G. Ross - Featured Speaker,   Ron is also Co-Founder & Principal, Business Rule Solutions, LLC
Chair, Business Rule Forum, BBC Conference 2011.

For more about the author, see

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zarfman posted on Saturday, July 23, 2011 1:41 AM


I must admit that I don’t under stand the concept of business vocabulary.

From what I’ve observed, disciplines like accounting, finance, sales, marketing each have to some extent their own jargon or vocabulary.

Are you suggesting a single business vocabulary the various disciplines, perhaps something like Esperanto? Perhaps I've wandered off course.


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