Catalyst Conference tackles terminology

* Common terms can have different meanings in identity arena

Last week was the annual Catalyst Conference put on by the Burton Group, which remains the major marketplace of ideas in the identity arena.

After an opening session by Bob Blakley (Burton vice president and research director), which dealt mostly with the acquisition of Sun Microsystems by Oracle, he was joined onstage by his colleagues Lori Rowland (senior analyst), Mark Diodati (senior analyst), Gerry Gebel (vice president and service director), Ian Glazer (senior analyst), and Kevin Kampman (senior analyst) for a roundtable discussion on the state of the identity market. But the issue I took away from this discussion is also one we've talked about here from time to time over the years.

That's the issue of terminology -- what the terms we use actually mean. What the Burton folks revealed was that they would come back from conversations with their clients armed with the points that the clients felt would be important but would find, when they sat down to talk amongst themselves, that their clients were using well-known terms (e.g., role management, entitlement management, provisioning) with differences in meaning both slight and major.

Their conclusion was that this lack of standardized definitions was standing in the way of substantive discussions of the issues and usable solutions to those problems.

Interestingly, Brett McDowell, executive director of the Kantara Initiative, reached the same conclusion after a workshop held the day before the Burton analysts session, but held in conjunction with the Catalyst Conference. He found that many of the groups and organizations joining Kantara were using common terms -- but with very different meanings.

The problem really is twofold. On the one hand, vendor marketers are always looking for a term to describe their products and services that set them apart from their competition. If a term creates some "buzz" (nirvana for those marketers) then the competitors (and other vendors, even those remote from the particular niche) try to incorporate that term in descriptions of their products and services. Web services, service-oriented architecture and cloud computing are examples.

On the other hand groups come together (both within an organization as well as multi-enterprise workgroups) and describe problems, solutions and use cases they're involved in. They assign terms to common ideas, but these terms tend to be very specific to the problems they're discussing.

Frequently these terms get bandied about (perhaps by analysts, consultants or journalists) and the meanings are stretched even wider. Stretched so wide, with meanings so amorphous that the term itself is no longer useful.

I don't have an answer short of creating an organization charged with defining terms. If you've got an answer, I'd like to hear from you. If everyone agreed on the meaning of terms, then we could accelerate the rate of advancement of the technology exponentially.

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