"Speaking the same language"--the importance of having a glossary of "commonly used terms" or "jargon" when implementing a project management methodology and managing projects

Jane E. Morgan, Management Consultant/Trainer, FI Group Inc.

The aim of this paper is to illustrate the importance of having clear and unambiguous definitions for project management terms (“jargon”) and principles that are being introduced or used on an enterprisewide level and to also highlight the role that jargon and glossaries play both as a communication tool and as a cultural identifier.

Glossaries of commonly used jargon, including product names, lifecycles, etc., play a vital part in the implementation and subsequent use of a Project Management Methodology (PMM) within many organizations. They also serve as a pivotal communication tool at both the enterprise and project levels and are a key component in communications with outside vendors tasked with supporting a project. Ineffective communication is one of the key reasons for project failure and can cost a company a significant amount of time and money. A well-constructed, accurate glossary helps ensure that both internally produced deliverables and those from external sources are produced according to consistent definitions and meet project requirements.

Many organizations, particularly those that have long-established project management traditions, may have implemented or attempted to implement multiple methodologies over the years. In addition, these companies bring in new employees who have had exposure to methodologies other than the ones that are in place at the hiring company. The result is the creation of a “multilanguage environment”—everyone using terms that they understand differently, where there is no consistent set of definitions within the context of the particular organization or methodology. It is almost as though people are speaking different languages—which, in effect, they are! Commonly used terms such as “GAP Analysis” and “Milestone” that may seem clear upon first hearing or reading, often mean one thing within one company and have a slightly different meaning in another company or to individuals within the same company. Herein lies the potential for confusion and breakdown in communication. For example, a project team member may be asked to write a “project brief” and produces an overall synopsis of the product, without the requisite financial information that justifies doing the project in the first place. The requestor sees the work as incomplete and may wonder about the competence level of the writer. In reality, the different understanding of what should have been included in the brief may be simply the result of a failure to define the term “project brief,” or a failure to communicate this term effectively within the organization, so that everyone is working with a common definition.

The paper will first explore the linguistic roots of glossaries, showing their context within the field of linguistics and their role in communication in general. The critical role of organizational specific “jargon” and the importance of this in methodology or doctrine implementation, will be highlighted through an overview of the British Army's methodology/doctrine implementation effort, where “speaking a different language” or not using the terms can be literally a matter of life and death. The paper will use the British Army example as a springboard for examination of several leading corporations’ experiences with creating and implementing glossaries and the impact their introduction and use (or lack of) has had on PMM implementation and overall project success. It will also examine the pivotal role that PMM training can play as a first-level introduction and dissemination tool for glossaries. It will present the value of clear, unambiguous definitions of terms and thus provide the basis for a business case for obtaining the resources needed to produce a glossary.

The paper will explore basic glossary construction and format, hard copy and electronic format dissemination, as well as configuration management and language evolution issues that inevitably occur as a methodology or organizational doctrine matures.

Glossaries and Jargon—The Linguistic Link

Understanding the roots of glossaries and jargon is key to understanding the significant role they play in human interaction in an organization. After all, the workplace is merely a mirror of society as a whole and the role of language in both societies is the same: communication. David Crystal (1992) defines language as “The systematic conventional use of sounds, signs or written symbols in a human society for communication and self-expression.”

The scientific study of languages is known as Linguistics and within that we find multiple subdisciplines. Our focus will be on the subdiscipline of Sociolinguistics. Sociolinguistics is the study of how language is used within society and includes such things as Jargon and Language Planning.


“In virtually every recognized profession, a special vocabulary evolves to meet the special needs of the profession,” (Akmajian, 1997). This special or technical vocabulary is known as “jargon.” Jargon is not limited to professional groups but also exists in what we might term “special interest groups.” Jargon is used more for facilitating communication between specialized groups rather than for excluding others, although sometimes that can and does occur! Webster's 3rd New International Dictionary defines jargon as “pretentious or unnecessarily obscure and esoteric terminology” and I am sure those not privy to its use might agree. The shared use of jargon is often the basis for a feeling of group solidarity with the accompanying feeling that those who do not use the jargon are not part of this “elite” group.

Language Planning

Language Planning involves formal and informal activities to change the way people use language. The formal definition of Language Planning is “the deliberate efforts to influence the behavior of others with regard to acquisition, structure or functional allocation of their language codes” (Cooper, 1989). Typically, this type of behavior is found at the national level; for example, the French Language Academy whose goal it is to preserve the integrity of the French language by preventing the influx of non-French words. However, more informal systems of Language Planning can also be found within organizations both corporate and other, where there is an attempt to control the terminology used within that environment: construction, law or, in this case, project management.

The role of a Glossary (dictionary) is to gather all the jargon in one location and to define, in as simple and precise a way as possible, the most frequently occurring terms. A well-constructed glossary gives clear and simple definitions of terms that communicate the basic and essential meaning in nontechnical language. The goal is to facilitate both understanding on a conceptual level and communication on a linguistic level as well as to create a vocabulary that can be learnt. A learnt vocabulary has two functions “The communicative function of giving expression to ideas…and a social function of conferring prestige upon its users.” (Hayakawa). A Glossary of Terms or jargon is the basis of a lingua franca (a language that crosses boundaries) within an organization, sort of an Esperanto with a difference! Obviously, for our corporate “society” to function effectively, we all need to have access to and be speaking the same language.

Jargon—A Vital Component of Military Doctrine Implementation

During my research for this paper, I found that nowhere was the language-methodology-implementation-link so clear and so vital than in the military. Virtually no environment depends more on clear, unambiguous language and communication than the battlefield, where misunderstandings and errors may mean the loss of one's life. Similarly, nowhere is having a clear methodology or doctrine more important if one's mission (project) is to be successful. All the issues we encounter in the corporate organizational structure, where we are attempting to implement a Project Management Methodology, can be seen in exaggerated form in the following highlight of the British Army Military Doctrine implementation effort.

The British Army's “Military Doctrine of Manoeuvrist Approach,” issued to all officers in the army of the rank of captain and above, was first established in 1989. Its aim was to “establish the framework of understanding of the approach to warfare in order to provide the foundation for its practical application.” For the first time in the army's history, it established guidelines or principles above just the “tactical” or “how to” level, and established a true “methodology” in corporate organizational terms, an underpinning to the tactical tools and plans. This military Doctrine or methodology is a tool for ensuring “project success” by defining and then implementing the concept of “Military Effectiveness.” Doctrine, once developed is communicated through understanding and instruction, both tactical and conceptual. Part of the training involves learning and understanding doctrine-specific jargon so that when an order is given, it is understood. A significant part of the doctrine development effort focused on the definition of standard terms or jargon. The key to widespread understanding and use of these terms lies in dissemination and training. General Macarthur's statement makes the consequences of lack of training and common understanding very clear: “In no other profession are the penalties for employing untrained personnel so appalling and so irrevocable as in the military.”

A clear parallel to be drawn with corporate organizational methodologies such as project management methodologies is the level from which the doctrine emanates, from where it is supported and how it is translated throughout the organization. The higher the level of support and buy-in within an organization, clarity of purpose and clear definition of terms, the more a methodology or doctrine will permeate the organization as a whole and the greater its chances of success. In the case of the British Army, this doctrine is introduced at the top-most tier and is layered down to the lowest tactical level.

Military Effectiveness and Military Doctrine

Military effectiveness (equivalent to effectiveness in the marketplace) is defined as “Fighting Power,” which “defines an Army's ability to fight” (British Army). Fighting Power has three components: the Conceptual component (the thought process), where we find the Principles of War, Military Doctrine and Development; the Physical component (the means to fight), which includes manpower, logistics, and training; and finally the Moral component (the ability to get people to fight), which includes leadership, motivation, and management.

“Military Doctrine is a formal expression of military knowledge and thought that the Army accepts as being relevant at a given time, which covers the nature of current and future conflicts, the preparation of the army for such conflicts, and the methods of engaging in them to achieve success” (British Army, Doctrinal Aide Memoire). The function of Doctrine is to “establish the framework of understanding of the approach to warfare”—not as a set of rules but to provide direction as an aid to understanding” (British Army, Design for Military Operations).

The highest-level doctrine is Military Doctrine, which issued by the Chief of the General Staff (CGS). It is based directly upon Government policy manifest primarily in the Government “White Papers” but is designed for the Army. Its goal is to providing understanding. It is unclassified and readily available.

The second level is Higher Level Doctrine, which covers “the conduct of operations at all levels and with the operational level of conflict.” Its focus is understanding and instruction, although the emphasis is on instruction.

The final level, Tactical Doctrine, provides most of the doctrinal instruction within the army. Its goal is to ensure that all commanders have a common foundation of understanding for planning, regardless of what their particular specialty may be. The focus is on instruction and training. It is here, for example, that we find the Army Field manuals.

Jargon and Glossaries

Specific definitions of terms and jargon start at the highest level of the component tree with Conceptual definitions:

Manoeuvrist Approach: To break the enemy's will to fight and the cohesion of his fighting power and to attack weakness (e.g., logistics).

Pre-emption. To seize an opportunity, often fleeting, before he does, in order to deny him the ability to bring his strengths to bear.

Mission. Clear concise statement of the task and its purpose.

Purpose/Intent. Why the mission needs to be accomplished.

And filter down to Tactical Tasks:

Advance to Contact. To seek to gain or reestablish contact with the enemy.

Assault. Short violent attack against local objective closing with the enemy in hand-to-hand fighting.

Block. Deny enemy access to a given area or to prevent advance in a given area.

Capture. To gain possession of a position or terrain with or without force (see also seize).

Withdraw. Disengage from the enemy when in contact with the enemy.

Doctrine and Glossary Development and Dissemination

The scope of work for the doctrinal effort involved writing, disseminating, and training. The total time frame for the effort, which is ongoing, is anticipated to be 8–12 years. This is offset by the fact that the doctrine will likely affect the Army for the next 50 years. The predecessor to the current doctrine was the Attritional Approach, which was in place from 1910 to the 1980s and which “aimed to defeat the enemy by incremental destruction of his fighting power and largely attacked enemy strength (e.g., his tank formation).” The current doctrine was instituted because it was believed that NATO would lose a conventional war using the existing doctrine.

Exhibit 1. Military Doctrine Pyramid

Military Doctrine Pyramid

The project stages were as follows:

1992: Project Start

1992–1994: Draft and agree Terms of Reference, define organizational structure and stakeholders (users e.g., Staff College, collective training units and divisional HQs)

1994–97: Write most of New Hierarchy and do initial launch Dissemination. Education and training provided with priority on main users. Refinement of previously written materials

1999–2001: Doctrine and glossaries in use and under review. Organizational structure reduced to reflect maintenance mode

The doctrine and accompanying glossaries are disseminated largely in hard copy format, although videotapes, CD-ROMs, and other forms of multimedia presentations are becoming more widespread.

Project Management Methodology Glossary Components

Moving from military doctrine implementation to general project management methodologies, we can see the presence of glossaries in most of the commonly used project management approaches.

A Guide to the Project Management Body of Knowledge (PMBOK® Guide), which describes the sum of knowledge within the profession of project management, contains a fairly extensive glossary. Similarly, each publication offered by the Project Management Institute; for example, Quality Management for Projects & Programs (Ireland, 1991) contains a section on terms and definitions. These glossaries define project management terms found within the publications in everyday language, which aid the reader in understanding the contents of the publication, as well as giving them the building blocks of the language spoken within the project world.

In the case of the PMBOK® Guide, a full page is devoted to explanation of the inclusions and exclusions of the glossary plus common acronyms, e.g., ACWP (Actual Cost of Work Performed) and BAC (Budget At Completion).

PRINCE 2 (Projects IN Controlled Environments) methodology, established in its original form by the CCTA (Central Computer and Telecommunications Agency) in 1989, is the defacto standard for projects in the U.K. and is gaining wide acceptance here in the U.S. PRINCE 2 has its own particular core jargon, which is listed in the form of a Glossary in the main PRINCE 2 methodology manual “Managing Successful Projects with PRINCE 2.”

Excerpts of this glossary include some PRINCE specific terms such as:

Business Case. Information that describes the justification for setting up and continuing a PRINCE project. It provides the reasons (and answers the question “Why”?) for the project. It is updated at key points throughout the project.

Executive. The Chairperson of the Project Board, representing the Customer.

Quality. The totality of features and characteristics of a product or service that bear on its ability to satisfy stated and implied needs.

While much of the terminology or jargon is consistent from one methodology to another, there are key differences and these can be highlighted by the use of glossaries. These potential variations in language used can be a challenge to organizations, which have implemented various methodologies or which employ project managers with exposure to other methodologies. The challenge is, of course, to ensure common usage and understanding of terms within the corporate culture at a given time.

Key Corporations’ Experiences With Methodology Introduction and Glossary Creation/Management

In my work as a management consultant/trainer for the FI Group for several key U.S. corporations, I have had the opportunity to observe and to participate in methodology implementation, glossary creation/dissemination, and to see the impact and outcomes of these efforts. The follow will profile several clients’ experiences. No names have been given to maintain confidentiality.

Corporation “A”

This corporation adopted and refined two prevailing methodologies, the PMBOK® Guide and PRINCE 2. They are two years into the implementation effort. Their methodology implementation and dissemination was endorsed at a high level and given funding and prioritization to enable the methodology to be written. The documentation included a methodology manual, training materials, wall charts, quick reference guides, and a glossary of terms (found at the back of the methodology).

The high-level buy-in and commitment to training and methodology implementation has meant that this company has been quite successful in making the methodology part of daily project management practice. A key element of this is the understanding of methodology-specific terminology and the development of a common project management language within the organization. During training, time is spent with participants familiarizing them with the terminology. A quick reference guide and most important, daily usage of the language as they manage projects, keeps them “fluent.”

In addition to the glossary, there is a brief listing of terms that are included and excluded. Included terms include those that are “unique to project management” (e.g., scope planning, work breakdown structure) and terms related to project scope management. Excluded from the glossary are terms whose use in project management does not differ in any material way from everyday use and compound terms, whose meaning is clear from the combined meanings of the component parts.

Excerpted entries include:

Activity Definition. Identifying the specific activities that must be performed in order to produce the various project products.

Change Control Board. A formal constituted group of stakeholders responsible for approving or rejecting requested changes to the project baseline.

Checkpoint Report. A progress report based on the information gathered at a status meeting, which is given by a team to the Project Manager, and provides reporting data as defined in the Project Initiation Document.

Glossaries and the methodology are maintained by the PMO (project management office) in both hard copy and electronic formats. As the methodology implementation effort continues to evolve, key terms will be added or modified, as the working language of the project environment demands it.

Corporation “B”

Corporation “B” is in the beginning stages of implementing a series of best practice tools based on the PRINCE 2 methodology. The company is adopting these practices on a limited level (i.e., not companywide), and does not as yet have high-level endorsement for them. In addition, these tools have not been customized for the corporation specifically.

Methodology implementation efforts are based currently on three-day training sessions to lower-level management. Currently no formal glossary exists, although a substantial part of the training effort is centered on explanation of terms. At this point “speakers of the language” number perhaps 10–15. Based on this, it will take some time before the terminology becomes widely used within this particular corporate environment. A glossary is due to be created soon and this will be included in hard-copy format with all training materials.

The challenge is in allowing the best practices and the terminology to “take root” and for the currently trained personnel to not lose fluency in them. Some ideas being considered are brown-bag lunches, where actual project experiences will be discussed using the language/jargon specific to the best practices.

Corporation “C”

Until recently, corporation “C” had only adopted a formal approach to implementing the PRINCE 2 methodology. Employees received PRINCE 2 training and also took the Practitioner examination at the end of the training. The corporation utilized the PRINCE 2 glossary and terms as their “language of choice” for projects.

Corporation C has recently begun implementing a global program that includes a delivery methodology based on both PRINCE and the PMBOK® Guide. In addition, it is including company internal processes, procedures, forms, documentation standards and checklists for actions corresponding to the status of the project in its lifecycle (from project mandate to project closure). Each checklist has a glossary section (approximately 10 entries) and a more formal glossary is being considered as a future component of the PM assimilation training course. Glossaries are in electronic format only, in a central repository on a central server with (web) intranet front end. They can be printed as desired and are updated regularly.

Given the high level of commitment to a methodology implementation and glossary effort and the resources directed to this, this corporation is well on its way to creating a single-language project management environment. The key will be to ensure that the PRINCE/PMBOK® Guide terminology is communicated to those who originally received training in a “PRINCE only” environment.

Corporation “D”

This corporation offered PRINCE 2 training without certification to about 100 of its IS employees, with the PRINCE glossary forming the foundation of the terminology used. The methodology implementation effort is not being directed from a high level within the organization and participants are customizing this methodology for their specific areas, both in terms of usage and definition of terms. The short-term effects will be easy to manage but the long-term consequences of creating a multilingual project environment will get more difficult to handle as time goes on. The results may include confusion on scope requirements or misunderstandings between project players if departments need to interface on projects and if definitions are not consistent throughout the organization.

The Broader Issues of Glossary Use for Methodology Implementation and Project Management

Language and Glossaries provide the linking mechanism between Corporate Values, Methodology Implementation, and Training within an organization. As many corporations have discovered, it pays to invest the time and effort in funding methodology and glossary development efforts in order to create the desired project environment. The cost of not doing so can be thousands of dollars in wasted training and employee time. The critical component to getting funding is that the methodology be embraced and introduced at the highest possible level within an organization, so that it filters down to all levels.

As with any language, it is impossible to stop its evolution. Daily usage of project management terms, regardless of methodology type, dissemination through training and documentation and usage by individuals will, over time, result in the gradual evolution of terms as people find more concise ways of expressing themselves.

The key is to ensure that whatever the prevailing methodology, the project team members be versed in the current terminology and that there be, at the very least, a short glossary of commonly used terms to avoid misunderstandings. Establishing an effective configuration management system to handle the evolution of both the methodology and the language is essential. The format, while overwhelmingly paper-based at the moment, is starting to evolve into electronic formats available to employees in multiple locations and these are more easily maintainable.

PMM training can play a vital role in the dissemination of both the methodology and the key terms that a methodology relies on. Quick reference cards, with a methodology flow on one side and a glossary on the other can be introduced and used as a tool during training and then used as an aide-memoire.

Vendors or other stakeholders should be privy to any corporate specific terminology and ideally the effort should be coordinated from a Project Support Organization to ensure consistency. This form of “Language Planning” will facilitate the long-term methodology implementation goals and the short-term communication requirements of a project. The goal of having a project environment where everyone “speaks the same language” thus becomes much more attainable.

Special thanks to Major Rod Williams, Blandford Camp, British Army for all his help and information for this paper.


Akmajian, Demers. (1997). An introduction to language and communication. MIT Press.

British Army. (1996). The Application of Force. British Army.

British Army. (1996). Dissemination of Army Doctrine—Annex C. British Army.

British Army. (1998). Army Doctrina! Aide Memoire—Issue 3.0: Jan 98. British Army.

British Army. (1996). Design for Military Operations—The British Military Doctrine—Army code 7145. British Army.

CCTA. (1996). Managing successful projects with PRINCE 2. Central Computing and Telecommunication Agency, U.K.

Cooper, Robert L. (1989). Language planning and social change. Cambridge University Press.

Crystal, David.(1997). The Cambridge encyclopedia of language, second edition. Cambridge University Press.

Hale, Bob, & Wright, Crispin. (1997). A companion guide to the philosophy of language. Blackwell Silzer, Peter, TESOL and Applied Linguistics. School of Intercultural Studies. Biola University.

Hayakawa, S.I. Language in thought and action.

Ireland, Lewis R. (1991). Quality management for projects & programs. Upper Darby, PA: Project Management Institute.

PMI Standards Committee. (1996). A guide to the project management body of knowledge (PMBOK® guide). Upper Darby, PA: Project Management Institute.

Proceedings of the Project Management Institute Annual Seminars & Symposium
September 7–16, 2000 • Houston, Texas, USA



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