Controlled Vocabulary

Introduction

Language is a powerful thing, it’s not only a prime medium of expression, but it in turn shapes concepts and thinking – terminology frames concepts and makes some ideas more expressible and others less so – it emphasizes or diminishes in turn. Some ideas flow naturally from the syntax and terminology of the language in use and others are not even expressible.

In real terms an argument or proposal resonates better if it is expressed in the dominant terminology, and seems weaker and off-key if it doesn’t, and due to concision effects and psychological set, it allows or limits innovation.

Inconsistent use of jargon and terminology results in higher cost of translation and localization, less effective training and education materials, and raises the cost of product support.

The Foundational Nature of Language

From an Organizational Psychology point of view, Language in the form of endemic jargon, special terms and terminology, and accepted forms of speech and protocol are part of the social structure of an organization.

For example, Chao (1994) proposes six dimensions of Organizational Socialization:

  1. History

  2. Language

  3. Politics

  4. People

  5. Organizational Goals and Values

  6. Performance Proficiency

Language deserves a special mention though because it is through language itself that the other dimensions are expressed and how strongly they are communicated. Historical narratives are elevated or decreased in prominence according to the terminology used to relate them, and so too are the organizational politics detailed and distributed according to the rules and parameters of internal language.

Organizational goals are couched in terms of organizational metaphors, and proficiency itself is measured according to articles of the organizational terminology.

Language thus forms part of what topics are allowable by means of both the “correct” protocols, but also at a more fundamental level by means of the terminology itself.

In this sense, Single-Loop Learning and Type I homeostatic systems in an organization (Argyris1987) are strongly influenced and delimited by the vocabulary that is allowable.

User Experience

A major part of user satisfaction is the feeling of confidence they feel in the product (whether that be using a transit system or a software suite), and in many cases also the degree to which use requires mental computation. Unwelcome processing or decision-making requirements result in low satisfaction.

A major part of this in turn is the continuity of the information architecture – the way terms confirm expectations and make sense, and are used where and when expected. While most suppliers of products take care about simple things such as a hyperlink anchor text being immediately visible on the landing page, many do not consider how multiple designers and engineers may use different text for the same meaning in different parts of the product, its documentation, its sales collateral, its training, and in communication related to the product.

Encountering terminology in unfamiliar context undermines and attenuates information scent, and reduces the user’s confidence and overall satisfaction.

OD & L10N/I18N

Cost-effective Internationalization (I18N) and Localization (L10N) depend on the source language usage being tightly controlled and not having a significant degree of equivocation and ambiguity. The more a single term is used for multiple meanings or multiple terms used for the same meaning, the higher the complexity of translation, the higher the bulk of terms to be translated, and the lower the coherence of the final translated text.

Machine Translation is powerless to fix this, and simply multiplies the variances – requiring lengthy and costly human involvement each time.

Inconsistent terminology equates to duplicated effort and difficulties when it comes to translation of product, documentation, and training materials – greatly increasing the complexity, time, and cost of translation. Creating meaningful Translation Memories when the terminology is overlapping and inconsistent is very difficult, and tends to lead to an even worse degree of inconsistency in all the translated languages.

Likewise, training becomes more costly and less effective when terminology is used with any significant degree of variation in meaning.

Knowledge Management

Most Knowledge-bases rely on keyword searches, and the more sophisticated systems also use tagging, which at heart is still a keyword search and in its best form gathers tags from a Folksonomy.

Unfortunately the power of search-engines in this situation results in very high retrieval but low precision. This results in infoglut and lower search effectiveness, and thus a significant impediment to use of Knowledge-bases to augment knowledge-workers such as customer-support staff, and lowers effective re-use of knowledge.

Since a major component of cost-reduction and quality-improvement in customer-support hinges on use of knowledge-bases, terminology control is a significant factor.

Branding and Market Mastery

Part of gaining mastery or dominating a market niche is having a degree of control over the terminology and therefore the expressible concepts – The degree of influence one player has over the terminology translates directly into their freedom of movement within the domain, the cost incurred in terms of effort to thrive, and the extent to which discourse tends to be channeled in their favor.

At the very least, a clear brand and value proposition relies on message consistency across the many external communications an organization makes – be they the deliberate marketing efforts, training materials, or even HR recruiting information. The terminology used by Recruiters should for example be consistent with those of Sales and Training Materials, and so on. Any one department or group that injects noise will reduce the brand coherence and effectiveness.

Gaining Control

Influence over terminology is not something one can beg, buy, or steal – it can only be attained by thought leadership. In other words, good knowledge management practices around intellectual expression.

It is determined by who is disseminating authoritative information, who provides attractive ideas, and who is leading in thought value – and who gets to saturate the frame of reference and the concept terrain.

An early step in gaining more control over the influence of language is to formalize usage and to self-consciously construct a lexicon detailing what terms mean and where they are used, and it sets the stage for searchable knowledge-bases, single-sourced documentation, and consistent branding.

A low-cost approach is to establish an internal terminology wiki along the lines of wikipedia, and to build and refine a corporate lexicon in three phases of limited crowdsourcing:

  1. Open invitation to internal staff

  2. Invitation to business partners (and industry luminaries) to contribute

  3. Invitation to customers to contribute

Step 1 requires some preparation to identify people who are influential in terminology as well as obtaining buy-in from content-owners and domain experts.

Steps 2&3 are a Marketing bonanza that yield many spinoff benefits.

Making the terminology visible in this manner is not just a step in protecting against erosion of meaningful terminology but also forms part of a knowledge-management approach to organizational-learning.

Conclusion

If an organization is inconsistent in its use of terminology and language, if it vacillates on meaning and implication, if terminology is used hesitantly and passively – then the information scent attenuates, and the audience becomes uncertain and less likely to agree with the message or see the source as trustworthy or authoritative. In addition it leads to escalating costs and loss of effectiveness in training & development, and significant barriers to cost-effective translation & localization.

To get in a position where you influence the discourse and the frame of reference in your market niche you must settle on a controlled vocabulary, use it strongly, and use it consistently over every part of your products, documentation, and communications.

The place to start is inside the company – to practice, refine, and then deliver.

Addendum

Two areas I left out but deserve mention are the effects on Content Management and Health &Safety.
Inconsistent terminology can be a significant safety risk, and this is a topic that deserves its own paper.

Please contribute to my self-knowledge and take this 1-minute survey that tells me what my blog tells you about me. – Completely anonymous.


Bibliography

Argyris C & Schön D (1987) Argyris C & Schön D. “What is an organization that it may learn”. (1987) : .

Chao G, O’Leary-Kelly A, Wolf S et al. (1994) Chao G, O’Leary-Kelly A, Wolf S et al.. “Organizational socialization : its content and consequences”. Journal of Applied Psychology (1994) 79: pp. 730-749.

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Matthew Loxton is a Knowledge Management professional and holds a Master’s degree in Knowledge Management from the University of Canberra. Mr. Loxton has extensive international experience and is currently available as a Knowledge Management consultant or as a permanent employee at an organization that wishes to put knowledge to work.

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