Before you get to far into it this article is not about the Semantic Web! Rather this article is going to pull together a number of discussions and thoughts about the way we use words, the way we define things and how we talk about content management and related subjects. Do people in your organization ever get into misunderstandings based on their use of language -- particular words, phrases and acronyms?

It’s All About Semantics!

Language is of course hugely important, it is one of the key differentiators between ourselves and other tool using great apes. One of the wondrous and complex facets of language is the way we can ascribe different meanings to the same term or word even if we are speaking the same base language.

Often within our organizations we find ourselves in roles where we need to speak multiple specialist dialects of our natural language (in my case English). For example when I worked in the IT division of Canadian Tire Corporation my dialect was ‘IT-speak’ but I was working on many projects with people who spoke ‘Project Management-speak’ or ‘Retail-speak’. Due to this phenomena one of the project’s I worked on was adding an enterprise wide glossary to the intranet, so that definitions for terms could be posted, worked on and agreed upon. This is a simple way of engineering an ‘interface’ between business people (retail specialists) and IT people (technology specialists). 

The Wikipedia definition of ‘Semantics’ states: “Linguistic semantics is the study of meaning that is used by humans to express themselves through language” -- so avoiding some of the interface problems and misunderstandings at work is about semantics because it is all about the meanings ascribed to the words we use to communicate our ideas.

The Content Management Angle

The events which bring Content Management into this discussion started over a year ago with a largely online discussion between members of the CM / ECM “blogosphere” (content management cognoscenti?) including Laurence Hart (@piewords), Peter Monks (@pmonks) and Lee Dallas (@ldallasBMOC) as key protagonists, among many others.  Positions might be quickly summarized thus:

  • Peter -- ECM is dead
  • Laurence -- ECM needs redefining 
  • Lee -- The E in ECM needs carefully defining

I apologize to all concerned if those positions are not entirely accurate but I am sure they will chime in via the comments if I have grossly misrepresented things!

A couple of weeks ago at the AIIM Info360 conference in Washington D.C. we rekindled the conversation, and last week it started doing the rounds again on Twitter.

In my write up of the AIIM conference I had a little rant about my dislike of the term ‘Social Collaboration’ and then Oscar Berg (@oscarberg) wrote an excellent article here on CMSWire which used that term in its title. I commented on that article, which by the way is excellent in its content, and then we had another big twitter discussion about ‘social’. 

Then Laurence, in a twitter posting, linked to an article on an Enterprise Architecture blog where the author was discussing how people misuse that term too!

It’s Still All About the Semantics

At some point one of the individuals involved in all these conversations suggested we were getting lost in the semantics, as in, we are worrying too much about the words, and not about the meaning of them, and the way we explain the subject matter to people. I would agree but I would also add that our use of language is incredibly important when discussing Content Management related subject matter with people outside our particular field of expertise.

In my presentation for the AIIM conference, I referenced Prof. Michael Sutton who, in a report to the 2008 International Conference on Knowledge Management noted that he had assembled a library of over 100 different documented definitions of the term Knowledge Management. 

This example amply illustrates the problem -- If we cannot agree on clear definitions of key concepts among ourselves (the KM, Information Management and Content Management professionals) how will we ever describe the benefits of our approaches to managing knowledge, information and content to the non-specialist business people for whom we should be creating additional value?

Context is King

The plain English movement also complains about the use of technical language and acronyms, and abbreviations. However these too have their place. Abbreviations were invented to ease the burden of written communication (letters) while acronyms, especially our beloved TLA’s have evolved alongside the codes used by early telegraph and radio operators. Take a look at this Real Story Group page for some definitions of content management related acronyms: CM vs DM vs KM vs DAM vs SCM vs DRM -- Which One is Right for You?

Normally when we are discussing content management related issues, the saying ‘content is king’ will appear somewhere, in this case I would say that should be ‘context is king’!

For example, in my first career as a military communications specialist, ECM stood for Electronic Counter-Measures (chaff and jammers -- look them up on Google). In my current role it stands for Enterprise Content Management, but here in the financial district of Toronto, it also stands for Equity Capital Markets, and if you’re a auto mechanic it is Engine Control Module !

The bottom line is that our use of technical language, TLA’s and specific definitions must be highly 'embedded' in our current context. 

What This Means for Our Projects

This contextuality means that we must ensure that whether we are running content management projects, intranet projects, collaboration projects or social networking projects, we have agreed definitions of what all the terms we are using mean to everyone involved.

All stakeholders must be using a shared, common lexicon; for example it does not matter what I think ECM should mean from the outside looking in, as long as all stakeholders within the organization or the project boundary have an agreed understanding of what they understand the term to mean. 

This shared understanding is key, we will never be able to successfully progress any collaboration or any project whatever their size and shape if we don’t have a common language we all understand.

Editor's Note: You may also be interested in State of the ECM Industry 2011 Part 2: Social Business, SharePoint, Spending.