Friday, December 9, 2011

Definition as Content and Container

We often use terms without fully thinking out how we are using them - particularly if abstraction is involved.  The other day I was looking at a data modeling tool, and asked a colleague "What did you put into the definition?".  It suddenly occurred to me that I was not talking about the content of the definition, but about the definition field into which I could type the content.

After thinking about it some more, I realized that the definition field is a container which we are free to use as we want (at least in the tool I was working with).  So an immediate question is, how do we want to structure what goes into this field (e.g. with section headings) and what metadata about the definition do we want to put in (e.g. what person last updated it)?  

Of course, the more sophisticated tools have these separate elements of the definition more explicitly segregated.  The "definition" is a set of smaller containers inside a bigger container. Perhaps this might mean that a different set of questions arises, such as the order in which we develop content in this set of smaller containers.  Or perhaps such questions depend on the actual set of containers that are exposed to use in each of these tools.  Either way, I think questions arise.

It is good to be concerned about how to develop good definitional content, quite apart from what this content is stored in.  However, the fact that some kind of container exists (whether simple or complex) means that we have to be concerned with the management of the container also.  Since both container and content are signified by the term "definition" there is ample scope for confusion here.  

I do not think this is being pedantic.  Information Knowledge Management is difficult because it is dealing with things that are inherently abstract and immaterial.  It means we really have to think our way through it, and it is easy to make mistakes.  Keeping in mind that there is a distinction between container and content may help us to avoid a few of these mistakes.

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