Are You Suffering Acronymitis?

The acronym, a beloved tool of lazy typists everywhere.  And market driven economics, too.  Not to mention Tweets and Facebook posts.  Space is at a premium.  Time is money after all.  And for goodness sakes, who wants to type out  I n t e r n a t i o n a l   I n s t i t u t e   o f   B u s i n e s s   A n a l y s i s,  when just IIBA will do, thank you very much.  Ah, relief.  So nice to have shortcuts, right?   Or… maybe not.

Physics teaches us that for every reduction in energy in one location, there’s an expense somewhere else.  In a closed system, energy is net zero.  In the information space, the space of communications, of messages and memes, in the space of the BA (another acronym), where there is literally a price placed on the effectiveness of our messaging, then the costs of messages lost, packets dropped, is steep.

So fellow BAs, query me this.  What happens when we save ourselves some time, and perhaps our wrists from tendonitis, by not typing all those long strings of text, and we fall back on our beloved TLAs  (three letter acronyms).  Do we insure transparency, clarity and openness?  Or do we, inadvertently, sometimes add to a terminology problem that has been identified numerous times in organizational development circles; namely, the problem of “lingo”, of insider specialized language forming a barrier of entry to those “outside” the inner circle, in this case, let’s be clear, the barrier to business people entering the inner sanctum of IT (information technology).

I mean let’s face it, besides the fields of science and medicine and perhaps NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), what other industry besides IT (their industry name is even an acronym!) carves out these abbreviations for themselves at a rate faster than the space shuttle heading towards the ISS (international space station)?

Now, it may appear I’m on a rant or a rampage here, and perhaps I am, because sometimes these acronyms really annoy me.  Especially when they are even pronounced as a new word, instead of three letters.  The most egregious case being SME (subject matter expert) which gets pronounced as “smeee”.  The first time I heard that at an IIBA chapter meeting, I thought someone sneezed.  What the heck is that?  I mean, I’m used to the acronym SME, but do we have to actually say “smeee”?   It’s sounds less like an important business stakeholder that we need to listen to, and more like a disease we want to run from.  And don’t even get me started on the pronunciation of BABOK.  Oy vey!

But here’s the flip side.  There are times when these terms actually clarify and elucidate and improve communications, and ultimately our requirements documents and other deliverables.  So let’s define those cases and be clear.

  1. Acronyms are useful when ALL participants already understand what they mean. It would be silly to type out “Information Technology” when IT is universally understood.   There are some abbreviations that are in such common currency, it makes sense to use them.
  2. Some acronyms are very unique to a line of business. Business loves its shorthand, too.  If you’re dealing with a group of stakeholders, and they are frequently using abbreviations, then that’s their language, and if you need to communicate with them, then by all means use them.  However, remember that you need to convey meaning to folks on the other side of a transom, let’s say the software developers or testers, and they may have no clue what these acronyms mean.
  3. Shorthand abbreviations are very useful when creating diagrams and flowcharts or any other type of visual that requires labels underneath icons.  Inevitably, the acronym fits better as a label than the expanded version.  In these cases, use them by all means, but provide a clear key or dictionary on the visual diagram so consumers of the document have an immediate reference point.

So, my fellow BAs, next time you interview SMEs for requirements of an MDM project, and IT offers three SaaS options that leverage SOA in the EC2 infrastructure and the executives tell you to get some BI and BPM in place ASAP, don’t worry.  Just keep Wikipedia and by your side, and smile.  You’ll be able to decipher it all, and help all sides know what the heck they’re talking about, even if they don’t!

>> Track of All Those Acronyms

Commonly BAs will use a glossary to keep track of and share organizational terminology. Laura’s glossary template is one of many included in the Business Analyst Template Toolkit. In the Toolkit, all of the requirements templates are fully annotated and editable by you, giving you a great starting point for starting your next business analyst project or formalizing your work samples.

Click here to learn more about the BA Template Toolkit

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  1. Brendan Quinn says

    I created a reference document for my current employer which has a section I titled The Acronomicon – currently about three times as large as the official company acronym list and growing.

    • Curtis Michelson says

      “The Acronomicon” Sounds like a blockbuster film of epic proportions! Love it. thanks for sharing Brendan.

  2. Curtis Michelson says

    Eric, are you kidding me? 23,000 acronyms in use in a company? OMG! LOL!


  3. I love this article! I found this situation even worse when you have to work in a bilingual environment, since acronyms usually exist in both languages. One place I used to work had a intranet site to document all acronyms in use across the company; there was over 23 000 (!) English acronyms available, plus their counterpart in French. There are often situations where someone is talking about ABC (which means 1 in English), but others think he’s talking about 2 (because they refer to the French meaning of the same ABC acronym).

    I don’t need to say that I usually don’t use acronyms in my documents (the auto-correct option in Ms Word is useful for that).

  4. This is one of the best article I’ve read!

  5. Curtis Michelson says

    Mark, I think you’ve hit on the perfect criteria for ELU (excessive lingo usage) – have your significant other listen in on a business meeting and attempt a translation! nice one.

  6. Great article! I remember my first job at a large corporation – I spent the first month with a huge headache as I tried to learn the acronyms and lingo and then translate them within real-time conversations. It was a different language. 🙂

    It’s so easy to use lingo and acronyms and, after frequent use, to forget that they are not part of the everyday English language. 🙂 If you doubt that you use them, simply have a work-related conversation with a co-worker within earshot of your significant other…and then ask them how much they actually understood.

    Thanks for the reminder of the importance of making sure our audiences all have the same understanding of critical terms. Communication is imperfect and very context-based…and thus we need to make sure we are experts at doing it well!

  7. Hey Curtis,

    Thanks for a great article! We’ve just cited it on our press page at:

    The STANDS4 team

  8. Curtis Michelson says

    Mel, if you could (legally) share a clip from that 21 page document, it would be most fun to read. 21 pages?!!! What does that say about government? I’m afraid to ask. 😉

  9. Mel Pugh says

    I am recently diagnosed! I just got a position with a government contractor — they’ve had the same contract for 9ish years. The acronyms list on the “helpful links” site is 21 pages long. I spent the first week job shadowing and getting to know the development team — I understood everything they said except the nouns!

  10. This article is A.O.K.

  11. Curtis Michelson says

    Thanks Aarron, glad you enjoyed it! I had fun writing it, too. You make a great point about moving between business units in an enterprise. Indeed, it’s not just the translating from business to tech, it’s between all the silos and factions.

  12. ROTFLMAO, you gave me a good laugh Curtis! All you say is very true. As a Consultant, when I go into a new client one of the first things I have to learn is their “lingo”, including TLAs. I don’t think I have ever been in an organization that doesn’t have acronyms. I wonder if it is possible to get through a day without using any acronym, even outside of work?!?!? You did elude to a great skill of a BA in communication. When going from one business unit within an organization, be careful not to use acronyms of the other business unit. As any good communicator will tell you, to ensure your audience understands, explain any acroynm before you use it. One of the tasks of a BA is to be a translator, this is usually to translate business needs to a technical team and technical constraints to the business needs. In order to be a great translator you need to speak the same language as the people to which you are speaking, including using acronyms they understand. Don’t use technical acronyms with the business team or business acronyms with the technical team, unless you explain the acronym first. Great article Curtis!

  13. Curtis Michelson says

    I’d love to hear your favorite TLAs, or any personal experience of enterprise acronymitis.

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