Words may be the single most useful tool we have as humans to effectively communicate with one another. Words allow us to describe how we are feeling and what we are thinking. Every word means something different, heck, we even have dictionaries to define the meaning of each and every word. So why then are there certain words that nobody can quite pinpoint the correct definition?
The inspiration for this article came about recently while talking with a prospect. The prospect wanted to know if Ei Dynamics was a “Business Intelligence” product. I had to pause and think for a minute and eventually retorted, “I guess that depends on what your definition of ‘Business Intelligence’ is. Why don’t you tell me what your definition and understanding of this term is, and then I’ll tell you if we fit into your definition.” We don’t classify our product as a “Business Intelligence” solution, but it certainly has functions and capabilities found in business intelligence solutions. The term “Business Intelligence” has morphed into such a generic term that I had to determine what the prospect’s definition of the word was before I could provide a reasonable answer.
Words On Fire = Distorted Meanings
Maybe it happens in all types of industries, but for some reason it seems like the IT industry is notorious for coming up with words and phrases to describe a process, a software class or a type of functionality. Then if it catches fire, the industry distorts the term to the point where nobody understands what it means any faster than you can blink. Sales and marketing people are wizards at doing this. As soon as a new word or phrase catches fire, they try to find any angle or possible opportunity to incorporate it into their product literature wherever possible. For example, when web based applications were all the rage several years ago, all of a sudden every application on the market incorporated the term “Web Enabled”. Some companies would create a help file and display it in HTML through a web browser and claim their application was “Web Enabled”. The problem is that when companies do this, it distorts the meaning of a word and makes it difficult for the end users to know what a term really means and how to differentiate one solution from another.
The following is my top list of technology words that I think have become “Clouded” (pun intended).
Business Intelligence — The term business intelligence (BI) was originally coined by a researcher at IBM in the 1950s. In the 1980s with the evolution of modern database systems, data warehouses and executive information systems, the term gained more steam. The Gartner Group brought the term into the mainstream in the 1990s, and the term soon covered a broad area range of functions focused around technologies such as data integration, data quality, data warehousing, master data management, text and content analytics.
I originally associated the term “Business Intelligence” with report writers like Crystal Reports and financial analysis tools like Lotus 123 and Microsoft Excel. But as soon as the term became mainstream, everyone wanted to claim that they did BI. I knew the term was doomed when low level business executives who barely knew how to turn on their computer were throwing the term around like cheap hors d’oeuvres at a cocktail party. Today almost every vendor in the market claims to have BI capabilities. Seriously, just randomly select 10 vendors of almost any business software and read their literature, and I guarantee you will find the term “Business Intelligence” intertwined into their product information at some level. I guess since almost every application on the market stores some type of data, provides output on that data and has some type of reporting capability, technically all applications do BI. But where does that leave those of us truly looking for a BI tool? How do we differentiate hyperbole from substance? Basically, when a term is used ubiquitously by everyone it becomes meaningless and, in my opinion, that is what has happened to the term Business Intelligence.
Cloud Computing — This term really took off in the mid 2000s after Amazon started offering virtual servers hosted on their “Cloud Computing” platform. Basically, you could lease a server just like the one sitting in the closet in your office … anytime, anywhere and for only a few minutes or indefinitely. They called it “the cloud” because you didn’t know where the physical server actually resided (nor did you care). It was as if the server was “up in the clouds”. You knew it was there, but you couldn’t see it or touch it. Amazon threw lots of marketing dollars around this service and the term “Cloud Computing”, and soon it was the new hot word. Eventually, everyone wanted to jump on the “Cloud Computing” bandwagon. SalesForce.com who originally marketed themselves as a SAAS (Software as a Service) solution, started referring their web CRM service as a cloud based system. Citrix, whose core product offering hadn’t changed in almost 20 years, started to refer to their product as a “Cloud” based solution. Today most people equate “The Cloud” with anything being on the internet or being accessible via an internet connection. This broad definition has significantly modified the essence of the original definition and has certainly “clouded” the meaning.
Today when people ask us if Ei Dynamics is cloud based, I have to ask what their definition of “Cloud Based” means. There are so many different connotations of this term that it’s impossible to know what someone is referring to anymore without qualifying his/her definition of the term. Here are some common ways people think of the “Cloud” today…
- Anything delivered through a web browser
- Any access to data remotely via an internet connection
- Ability to access a server via a RDP or Citrix connection
- Any web based software such as Gmail, SalesFoce.com, Office 365
Workflow — Ei Dynamics is actually marketed and sold as a workflow solution, so this term is really personal in nature to me. I take it personally because when the term is misused or misrepresented, it directly affects our ability to articulate to prospective buyers what we do and how we differentiate from other solutions.
At Ei Dynamics we define workflow as the implementation of technology to systematically eliminate or reduce the manual and repetitive processing associated with a defined business process. We sometimes even refer to workflow as the robotization of business processes.
Unfortunately, in the software world – because the allure of automation is so strong and because workflow software has traditionally been associated with providing a framework from which business processes can be automated – many vendors and marketers include this term within their marketing and sales literature because it carries positive connotations. As a result of the overuse of the word to describe almost everything remotely associated with automation, the word has become significantly degraded. I even recently saw a promotional email from a major accounting software vendor who was promoting the fact that the ability to print a report from within their system was an aspect of how their software offered a workflow solution. Not sure if I’d go as far as claiming false advertising, but you make your own conclusion.
ERP — Per Wikipedia, in 1990 Gartner Group first employed the acronym ERP as an extension of material requirements planning (MRP), later manufacturing resource planning and computer-integrated manufacturing. Without supplanting these terms, ERP came to represent a larger whole, reflecting the evolution of application integration beyond manufacturing. Not all ERP packages were developed from a manufacturing core. Vendors variously began with accounting, maintenance and human resources. By the mid–1990s ERP systems addressed all core functions of an enterprise. Beyond corporations, governments and non–profit organizations also began to use ERP systems.
Today the term ERP is essentially an acronym for any and all “accounting software”. Once Quickbooks started marketing their software as an ERP system, the term ERP basically became generalized. I’ve included this word as one that has become “clouded” because in the past when someone said they had an ERP system it actually carried some weight and status and evoked thoughts such as big company, sophisticated, complicated operations. Now basically your $100 copy of Quickbooks is an ERP system.
Unfortunately, it appears where money and business are concerned, nothing is sacred when it comes to words and their meaning. People have time and time again proven they will twist, manipulate and distort words without impunity if it provides them some type of competitive advantage. The result is that words get distorted over time, they lose their meaning, consumers become confused and new words are created to restore meaning and clarity.