Thursday, December 15, 2011

One Term, Many Meanings - Why Are We Surprised?

David Eddy kindly supplied me with the following military tale:

A true story heard around the Pentagon goes like this:

One reason the services have trouble operating jointly is that they don't speak the same language.

"secure a building" has been found to have the following meanings...
  • Navy would turn off the lights and lock the doors.
  • Army would occupy the building so no one could enter. 
  • Marines would assault the building, capture it, and defend it with suppressive fire and close combat. 
  • Air Force, on the other hand, would take out a three-year lease with an option to buy.

I think that we can all appreciate the humor in this, but must recognize that there is something deep and important about it.  But what is the moral in this tale?

The story shows that "secure a building" means different things to four different groups.  In each case the term refers to a different concept.  And in each case the concept is clearly defined.  The concepts are all very distinct - there is no chance of confusing them.

However, the four groups are all part of the same overall organization - the Armed Forces of the United States.  It is a common assumption that one organization is a monolithic semantic community.   The reality is that enterprises are often mosaics of different subcultures, who each see the enterprise through a different ontology.  At least, this is my observation.  I would like to find some research material on it, rather than anecdotes like the one quoted above.

The view that that enterprises are mosaics of subcultures also goes against the idea that there is a single data model - a "single reality", or a "single version of the truth" - that must underlie every enterprise.

Saying that the services "don't speak the same language" is a telling statement.  Rather than suggest that each service has its own view of the world - its own ontology - the fundamental difference is attributed to language.  This brings us back to the idea of the primacy of language over conception, and Wittgenstein's notion that language is the mirror of reality.  I believe these views are invalid, and that we need to "make our ideas clear" as Peirce said, and that language can as easily trick us as inform us. 

Perhaps the lesson for an analyst is not to be surprised when the same term is used to mean different things in the same enterprise.  Indeed, the analyst should be on guard for it when technical or unusual terms are used.  Homonyms can also indicate the existence of different concept systems, or ontologies.

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