Crafting Great Business Definitions: Getting at the Essence of Things

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Click to learn more about author Ronald G. Ross.

In this first post of a four-part series about crafting great business definitions, I explain what a definition should and should not cover. The key is getting to the essence of the concept you want to define

How important can it be to define concepts well? Consider this real example from NATO: What’s the meaning of enemy? The definition could literally be a matter of life or death. And with autonomy increasing on the battlefield these days, the meaning is increasingly important for machines too.

Crafting good definitions is an acquired skill, not a natural talent. Here are some fundamental notions about definitions that every professional should know.

The Definition of Definition

For human consumption, I frankly don’t think there’s any improving on the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary (MWUD) definition of definition: “A word or phrase expressing the essential nature of a thing or class of things, an answer to the question “What is x?” or “What is an x?”

Why even try? That brings us to the first critical guideline for definitions.

Basic Guideline for Definitions: Don’t create your own definition if a good one is already available from a reputable source.

Digging Deeper: By reputable source, I mean natural-language dictionaries or high-quality, widely-used business glossaries. I don’t mean data dictionaries.

Note carefully that the MWUD definition asks, “What is an x?” It does not ask any of the following:

  • What does an x do?
  • What is the function of an x?
  • What is the purpose of an x?
  • What can an x be used for?
  • What is the relevance of an x?

When you answer any of these questions, you’re not focusing on what something is. It’s easy to go astray. Here is an example from some client work at an electrical utility:

Control area: an electrical region that regulates its generation of energy in order to balance load and maintain planned interchange schedules with other control areas and assists in controlling the frequency of the interconnected system

The phrase in order to is a dead giveaway. What follows that phrase is a description of the purpose or relevance of control area. Put that information in a comment or clarification if you like, but don’t include it in the definition. Here’s a revised version of the definition focusing on just the what. (It’s also better because it’s shorter.)

Control area: an electrical region that regulates its generation of energy

Essence Definitions

The key phrase in MWUD’s definition of definition above is essential nature. A good definition is one that conveys the essence of a thing. It’s an essence definition.

Judged on this basis, the MWUD definition of definition is an excellent one. It conveys just the essence of definition.

Digging Deeper: It’s not quite right to say the definition of a concept is the meaning of the concept. That meaning (concept) is in your mind. Correctly, a definition expresses the meaning of a concept. A definition stands for that meaning (just like a term does).

You can literally think of a good definition as a long synonym for the term designating the concept. Think of a term and a definition simply as two alternative ways to represent a concept — one relatively short for use in communication, and one longer, to express the meaning of the concept.

Like any synonym, a good definition for a term should (in theory) be substitutable for that term in any business communication you write. Although not necessarily a good practice for crafting readable sentences(!), such potential substitution does provide insight into how definitions should “play” in sentences.

Suppose that you were forced to substitute the definition for a term in a sentence. To keep the sentence as readable as possible, you would need to shed all unnecessary baggage from the definition — that is, any reference to role, function, purpose, usage, or relevance. An essence definition is as short as possible. For example, bachelor means unmarried man. More words are not better!

Digging Deeper: Try out such substitution for yourself or your team. We’ve found it works well in several regards. First, it can illustrate the shortcomings of rambling definitions. Second, it tests whether the definition captures your intended meaning. If the sentence with the substituted definition fails to convey the meaning you had in mind, something is wrong with the definition.

In keeping with natural-language dictionary practices, we include an article (e.g., an) at the beginning of definitions. For example, the definition of bachelor would be an unmarried man. Simply strip off the article when you substitute.

Because a definition simply expresses the meaning of a concept and should be substitutable in any sentence, the definition itself should not be given as a complete sentence. Sentences express propositions (hopefully meaningful ones), which are usually about how two or more concepts relate. Sentences (like the ones you’re reading right now) express more complex knowledge than just the essence of a concept. Concepts are simply building blocks for business knowledge.

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

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