The case of the troublesome homograph

Confusion sometimes arises in our non-profit governance and management work where a word we use is assumed to have a particular meaning, but actually another meaning is intended. I think a case can be made for that to be the case with regard to the terms “business use case” and “business case“.

Here the word ‘case’ is used four times, with at least three (and arguably four) separate meanings:

  1. an argument or proposition
  2. an instance or example
  3. a business process
  4. a governance decision-making tool – a particular type of argument or rationale.

Polysemes and homographs

Polysemy is the capacity for a word or phrase to have multiple meanings
Polysemes are words possessing multiple meanings
Homonyms* are words that sound the same but have different meanings
Homographs are a subset of homonyms, describing words with the same spelling but more than one meaning e.g. mean/mean
Homophones are a subset of homonyms, describing words that sound the same but which have different spellings and meanings e.g. see/sea

Confusing narratives with arguments

We usually use the words adjacent to a polyseme or homograph to discern the particular meaning intended. e.g. legal case, brief case, case study, upper case, case load, hopeless case, etc.

When reading or hearing the terms “business case” and “business use case” however, that method could mislead us. While these two terms share two words, they refer to quite different things. As illustrated in the first chart below, a business case is essentially an argument or rationale for proposed action or inaction. A “business use case” however, is a description of processes used by actors to complete a task, usually in a digital environment. (Hence, ‘the case of the troublesome homograph‘.)

A related example of similar words being used for different purposes focuses on the word ‘story’. The use case is sometimes confused with a user story, and that in turn can be confused with the storylines method. The following chart seeks to further differentiate these, by outlining the steps and stages involved for each. (While at opposite ends of these charts, it is worth noting that the storyline method can be used to present a business case.)

Context and Meaning

While it is widely recognised that truth is a relative concept, it remains true that the words we use need to hold specific meanings in our work context. Otherwise, misunderstandings will occur, leading to risks that could have been avoided by adherence to standards, including nomenclature.

In another time, the difference between a narrative, a description, and an argument seemed clearer. While there is an important role for descriptions, and narrative approaches in many aspects of non-profit governance and management, directors and managers cannot rely on those methods for effective decision-making. Argument and evidence-based reasoning are the right tools for that job.

(*Not to be confused with Houyhnhnms. A fictional race of intelligent horses described in the last part of Jonathan Swift’s satirical 1726 novel Gulliver’s Travels. According to Wikipedia, Swift apparently intended all words of the Houyhnhnm language to echo the neighing of horses.)

See also:

System use case versus business use case

Business Case Body of Knowledge

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