Clarifying Complexity and Mud Fudge Cake


The delivery of goods and services by the public, private and even not-for-profit sectors is no longer simple.

Goods and service providers are no longer safe to just adhere to tried and tested practices, such as make widget x or program y, market it through traditional push advertising and make a profit or tell the constituency ‘job done’. They now need to adhere to and exceed an ever changing global standard of best practice, analyse every element of their product for perfection and value adds, develop branding and disclaimers, and engage their customers through a huge array of marketing and social media ploys. It cannot be easy – and yet it was inevitable.

There seem to be many factors contributing to this complexity, but we – as humans – seem to be drawn toward over-complexity like a chocoholic toward a triple layer mud fudge cake.

‘Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting topped with chocolate shavings’, uploaded to flikr by misocrazy, 8 March 2009, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, and sourced from Wikipedia at
‘Chocolate cake with chocolate frosting topped with chocolate shavings’, uploaded to flikr by misocrazy, 8 March 2009, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license, and sourced from Wikipedia at

(Hmmmm. It’s hard to move past the thought of that. Ok moving on…) Be it due to capitalism’s neverending push into new markets and market dimensions, or the exponentially increasing capabilities of technology, we just can’t resist looking for loopholes and making things difficult.

As our world (or the first world) has industrialised and the majority of the population has no longer been tied to the land to produce their food, workers have been able to specialise in slimmer and more focused professions. Health management has been sliced into smaller and smaller specialisations, as has education, natural resource management and any other area of expertise you can imagine. It is not such a surprise that whole teams of government departments can be taken up with one single piece of legislation. It’s not necessarily a bad thing either. Think about cancer research – further specialisation also means further depth of knowledge and hopefully eventually a cure.

So where am I going with this? In the context of this blog I suppose the paths I could take are plentiful. The need to be clear on business goals and value chains so people do not get so bogged down in the minutiae that they forget the purpose they are trying to achieve. The need to document and synthesis processes so that outcomes do not get high-jacked by unnecessary steps, timeframes and red tape. Or the need to be clear, where this complexity is warranted, on exactly what we mean when we say one thing and what mechanisms can help.

Today I choose the latter because – although this can be perceived at minutiae and pedantic – I would like to talk about corporate dictionaries.

Have you ever been in a meeting where two or more people have spent a significant amount of time in heated disagreement going around in circles until finally a third party steps in to clarify, or a magic word is uttered, and they realise they are saying the same thing using different words? I’m sure we all have. Or have you ever been reading your company’s policy on one matter or another and got stuck on one word, thinking, ‘yes, but what do they mean?’.  Or perhaps you (assuming you are a subject matter expert) have engaged a specialist in another area to provide you with advice – someone from IT or finance – and the words you have used meant something entirely different to them which got this engagement into all sorts of confusion?

So often these delays come down to a matter of definition and whether you personally love or get frustrated by terminology debates, clear definitions do matter and in the long run save time.

For example, “unregulated flows” means something totally different depending on whether you work in the water sector (ie physically uncontrolled flows of water) or finance (legislatively uncontrolled flows of money). Even people working in the same sector but in different jurisdictions can use the same words for different thing, which can make for all sorts of fun and games in inter jurisdictional negotiations!

What I am today calling corporate dictionaries can come under many names. A glossary, taxonomy, encyclopaedia or – my personal favourite – a body of knowledge. They are all centralised repositories of defined terms and whatever you call yours should be catchy enough for it to become central to your organisation. After all, the policies and rules, which underpin how the specialist parts of your organisation run, mean nothing if they mean different things to different people. Key concepts need definition. There is the potential for corporate glossaries to become quite funky and cool if you were to take them a step further too and actually model the relationships of these words together in a concept or fact model, or in a similar way to the visual thesaurus.

In terms of what you actually put in your corporate dictionary, Wikipedia under ‘Dictionary’ talks about the split between “general” dictionaries and “specialised” dictionaries (as well as other types of dictionaries that don’t fit in either category, such as bilingual ones). I’m obviously focussing on specialised dictionaries today, because unless you are a publishing business, there is no value and a huge waste of resource in your staff rewriting a general dictionary (eg the Macquarie English dictionary).

There is a lot of value in capturing a specialised dictionary for your organisation’s area/s of expertise though. Specialised dictionaries really serve two purposes. Firstly, they identify the concepts that are relevant to a business area and therefore provide scope. This is useful for helping to define the scope of projects, programmes and expertise. Secondly, they explain the terminology and meaning associated with each concept, and in the correct context.

Corporate dictionaries are about capturing key corporate information, providing clarity in communications and enabling relative certainty about compliance with policies, rules and agreements.

In fact, while we’re talking about rules and agreements, it is the legal world that does corporate dictionaries so well. Any piece of legislation or any document you could care to look at has an “interpretation” section. Lawyers, who are used to court cases turning on the definition of single words, are aware that clear terminology is very important. However, the downside of the dictionaries being fixed in such documents is that they are not able to be easily updated when omissions and clarifications are required. A contract variation or an act amendment is unlikely to occur just to fix a few definitions.

I am legally trained, I love to write and I am an admirer of the English language and so it is fitting that I see the importance of clear and central repositories of specialised definitions. However even I do have some fears about such glossaries. And that takes us back to the complexity dilemma again. I worry that as we get better at managing the complexity we have already developed, we create the capacity for even greater complexity in the future. I guess it’s the same as anything in this space.

Recognising this does at least make one thing clear.  A corporate dictionary – although a key tool for improving efficiencies and outcomes – will never be perfect or complete and so it is best to record them in a working, living way.

What do you think?

Should all organisations have a single centralised corporate dictionary? And do you think the increasing complexity of society is a good or bad thing?

What do you think?