I Column Like I CM:
They Ain’t Nothin’ ‘til I Call ‘em!

Dec 07, 2004

As an industry matures, a sure sign of growth is a desire to get its jargon cleaned up so customers understand what the companies are all talking about. It doesn't help sales if customers don't know the difference between a taxonomy strategy and a metadata manager, or a thesaurus and an ontology.

The challenge for CMS vendors is to get some control over marketing departments who think their name du jour will double sales and analyst firms who claim their newly-coined buzzwords will describe key industry trends next year. There is nothing wrong with creating new words for branding and marketing purposes, but it makes a company look foolish if they don't know the basic technical vocabulary of their own industry. The problem is that technical jargon is notoriously slippery and it is often difficult to determine whether a true meaning for a word even exists. It's like the three baseball umpires and their different approaches to the truth about pitches:

First umpire: I call 'em like I see 'em.
Second umpire: I call 'em like they are.
Third umpire: They ain't nothin' til I call 'em!

Since so much of ordinary language is subjective and relative, what is the best course of action for an enterprise? They should nail down the definitions that make the most sense for them in their own "controlled vocabulary," and collect similar words as "variant terms," but declare some of them to be "preferred terms." Is this a bit arbitrary? Absolutely. It may be that the boss gets to say what the preferred term will be, but it's better for communication and understanding to have a controlled--if imperfect--vocabulary than to work with no guidelines whatsoever.

Vocabulary Lessons
What about the content management industry as a whole? Who will speak up for a preferred term? A small group of CM professionals has started a CMS Community Wiki  with the intention of developing a standard glossary of CMS terms. The great thing about a wiki is its collaborative authoring potential. Like the great Wikipedia project, anyone who registers can suggest alternative definitions, or add variations on meaning. The glossary is open source, licensed under Creative Commons, and a work in progress.

It is unlikely that the CM community will ever have an editorial committee of professional peers to make the final decisions, a la the Academie Francaise, which rules on correct French. The content management industry is simply too diverse, with thousands of vendors and products, each with a marketing team. Some vendors have produced decent glossaries; take a look at those by Libertas Solutions (130 terms) and liveStoryboard (35 terms). AIIM  has a 50-term glossary on their Web site and their standards committees include the C19 Terminology Committee.

Hopefully the CM community can work together to create a substantial and authoritative glossary covering the CM world. Anyone interested in creating this tome should become involved at CMSWiki.com or another of the glossaries. Ideally, the community will end up using a glossary that is syndicated as a Web service to collaborating Web sites, so the glossary can also serve as an example of the CM best practices "reuse" and "single-source publishing." With a single-source for the defined terms and some means of publishing to different Web sites, we could practice what we preach.

What's an Ontology Again?
So what are you to do when your metadata manager asks what the keywords shall be to organize your content? Will you be able to understand the subtle differences between a Controlled Vocabulary, an Authority File, a Synonym Ring, a Taxonomy, a Thesaurus, and an Ontology? All of these are great tools for organizing your terms. They are critically important for your Web site's navigation hierarchy and to provide keywords for an advanced search engine.

If meanings are fuzzy, don't despair--try a CM glossary. Look up these technical terms and others like Web Services, Adapter, Preferred Term, and Variant Term, Reuse and Single-Source Publishing. If the definitions don't make sense to you, or you would like to add something, be proactive and contact those coordinating the glossary. Because, in the end, if we can't control our own professional jargon, why should any enterprise entrust us with theirs? As the mayor of River City says in The Music Man, "Mind your phraseology!"