A Hunger for Meaning

 Posted by on Jan 14, 2010  Add comments
Jan 142010

The other day, Ron Blitstein posted here about the term “SOA”:

The term “SOA” has become very confusing and possesses all the clarity of Web 2.0 (another term that drives me to distraction).

There are a number of words and phrases that I believe confuse those of us in enterprise architecture and/or systems development. The phrases that have most bothered me for the past few years are use cases, nonfunctional requirements, and lights on applications.

Let me start with use cases. My old friend James Robertson, one of the deans of requirements engineering, says that he has found nearly 40 different definitions of use case in modern systems literature. I can’t say that I have come up with that many, but I can say that the term is so frequently used and in so many ways that it has become “a distinction with a difference.” I think that the reason people use the term use case so often is that it means whatever they want it to mean. We have “business use cases,” “user use cases,” and “activity use cases.” From now on, whenever I hear someone use the term use case, I’m going to ask precisely what they mean. You might try that yourself if you’re confused.

Nonfunctional is another term that I think isn’t very useful. It makes you think that nonfunctional requirements are those that don’t do anything. Quite the contrary, nonfunctional are the systems functions that no system can do without: security, reliability, accessibility, and availability. Perhaps a better term would be prefunctional or superfunctional. I used to work for one of the large telephone companies; it used to describe itself as the folks that gave us the dial tone. We know today that nothing can function with nonfunctional requirements.

Then there is lights on. Lights on is often used to describe that boring set of functions that just has to be there but that are not “strategic” for competitive purposes. The last year has shown that lights on ought better to be called “lights off.” If the lights on business capabilities — like the nonfunctional technological capabilities — are not there, organizations cease to exist. Car companies have to make, market, and service cars; banks have to remain solvent and make loans; and media companies have to produce products that someone is willing to buy.

Like empty calories, empty terms and phrases create a hunger for meaning. Worse yet, terms that mean pretty much the opposite from what they sound like confuse both the listener and the speaker. In the spirit of the season, I resolve this year to more careful with my choice of words and with my responses to the bad communication habits of my friends and coworkers.


Ken Orr

Ken Orr is a Fellow of the Cutter Business Technology Council and Government & Public Sector practice and a Senior Consultant with Cutter Consortium's Data Insight & Social BI, Business Technology Strategies, and Business & Enterprise Architecture Practices.


  2 Responses to “A Hunger for Meaning”

  1. […] Pro Tweets New blog post: A Hunger for Meaning http://blog.cutter.com/2010/01/14/a-hunger-for-meaning/ cuttertweets – Thu 14 Jan 19:38 0 votes All Things […]

  2. Ken,

    This was more interesting. Especially the part on use cases, I didn’t realise it was used so broadly and in various contexts. As a student I tend to think of them solely in terms of UML. Thank you for sharing.

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