Confessions of a Concept Modeler

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Click to learn more about author Ronald G. Ross.

This is the first part of a three part series: Part Two is Creating Concept Models and Part Three is The Structure of Concept Models.

We work with clients across a wide variety of industry sectors and, within those sectors, subject areas often new to us. You can probably guess some of the main sectors: insurance, finance, pharmaceuticals, retail, computer services, government. But many you probably would not guess: car racing equipment, electrical transmission, flight upgrade exchanges, immunology, railroads, subscription services, maritime services, luxury car dealerships, trucking, patent offices, weapon laboratories, NATO, and many others.

Time and time again, clients have expressed surprise and admiration for how quickly outside consultants can get up to speed on the client’s rich business knowledge. In a matter of days or a week or two the consultants are able to ask insightful, probing, and highly fruitful questions. It makes them sound quite knowledgeable. Clients often say somehow the consultants seem to know their business better than they do.

I confess it’s a trick of sorts. If you have a blueprint to the business knowledge – well-defined and carefully structured – I believe anyone with a bit of deliberate care can quickly bootstrap their way to asking the right questions in the right ways. It all comes down to the terms and wordings you use to form questions and to record the answers; that is, to structured communication and disambiguation.

Your concept model gives you a way to talk with subject matter experts in a way you’ve never had before. I’m not saying it’s easy – there are many thorny questions lurking in business knowledge and legacy vocabularies. Rather, I’m saying the concept model will put you directly on the fast path to clarity. It’s structure that gets you there.

A concept model addresses the all-too-common problem of people talking over each other, or past each other. It’s about reaching shared understanding – getting everyone on the same page about their knowledge.

A pragmatic approach to creating a concept model, and the business knowledge blueprint of which it is part, requires three fundamental ingredients:

  1. Road-tested techniques for forming, naming, defining, and disambiguating concepts. You must be prepared with best practices to tackle the challenge of making the fuzzy part of concepts unfuzzy.

  2. An inventory of patterns for how concepts can relate to one another – elements of structure. Elements of structure are critical. Elements of structure include classification, categorization and verb concepts.

  3. A comprehensive set of guidelines for crafting precise, business-friendly definitions. These guidelines are not coincidental. A business knowledge blueprint will not be consumable by business people without solid definitions of terms.

In short, a concept model will:

  • Guide you in asking the right questions.
  • Help you achieve business clarity.
  • Show you how the pieces all fit together.
  • Make you sound smart.

Extracted from Business Knowledge Blueprints: Enabling Your Data to Speak the Language of the Business, by Ronald G. Ross, 2020. Download Chapter 4 free.

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