On March 27, 1977, two Boeing 747 passenger aircraft collided on the Spanish island of Tenerife, one of the Canary Islands, in the deadliest accident in aviation history. 583 people perished.

Like the Titanic, a multitude of causes converged into the disaster. A terrorist bomb at a another airport, an overstretched small regional facility, a flight crew pressed for time, fog … but one theme recurs in discussions of the accident: language.

Think about the word “takeoff.” Many of us are air travelers, and we might think we know what that word means. But the fact is, unless you are a pilot, you probably don’t. Not with the precision to use it operationally. And on that day in the Canary Islands, the flight crew and air traffic control were also tragically unclear on exactly what they meant by the word “takeoff.”

The Tenerife disaster resulted in a number of changes to international aviation, including increasing standardization of the civil aviation vocabulary, sometimes called ICAO Standard Phraseology. (Disclaimer: I am no aviation expert.) While it’s impossible to know how much this has contributed to aviation safety, the number of air accidents continues to decline. And I for one am glad that there is this commitment to rigor and precision in the shared semantics of the world’s airways.

IT management, on the other hand…

One of the often-cited benefits of the IT Infrastructure Library is that it is helping to standardize IT terminology and practice. And perhaps it is on some fronts. Comprehensive, authoritative research on that question is lacking, as far as I can tell. But I have some data that indicate considerable differences in how people define a number of widely used IT management terms.

This data comes from two different sources: In November, I had the privilege of organizing a BrightTalk panel discussion on the topic of “Service Catalog vs. Portfolio: Are we Clear Yet?” As part of this webinar, we asked a few questions exploring people’s definitions. Second, at the start of this year I took the opportunity in my Unified Demand Management survey to examine some similar themes:

  1. What is an “IT Service”?
  2. Is an “Application” a kind of “IT Service”?
  3. What is a “Request for Change”?

I’ll let you follow the webinar links above if you want the numbers, but the bottom line for me was continued confirmation that there is little industry consensus on these matters, which touch on some of the most fundamental aspects of IT service management.

There are no shortage of opinions on what the terminology should be. For example, ITIL does not delve into data architecture much, but does provide some very unambiguous guidance at least on the app/service relationship, to quote: “One of the most common mistakes is to use the application portfolio as the service portfolio.” And yet, in my research, I found that the folks doing DevOps and Kanban (for my money the more advanced shops), are MORE likely to adopt the “application as service” terminology.

Similarly, in both surveys I asked whether an IT service was based on a production system or was something the service desk provided on request, and got an interesting mix of alternatives:

The interesting thing in the chart above was that on the BrightTalk webinar, one of the senior folks on the panel firmly believed that production system was the correct answer. ITIL generally bears him out in this.

Finally, the Request for Change data was striking in that it indicated many respondents are increasingly using the Request for Change to request new system functionality, which raises interesting questions about the relationship of Change and Demand Management.

In conclusion – whenever someone says to you, “that’s just a matter of semantics,” say “semantics matter.” In Tenerife, 583 people perished because semantics – meaning – mattered. And as IT systems become more pervasive, I think the semantics of IT are crucial.

Image from Wikipedia.

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