Semantic Interoperability: Stories & Cases

Preamble

For all intents and purposes, digital transformation has opened the door to syntactic interoperability… and thus raised the issue of the semantic one.

Cooked Semantics (Urs Fisher)

To put the issue in perspective, languages combine four levels of interpretation:

  • Syntax: how terms can be organized.
  • Lexical: meaning of terms independently of syntactic constructs.
  • Semantic: meaning of terms in syntactic constructs.
  • Pragmatic: semantics in context of use.
Languages levels of interpretation

At first, semantic networks (aka conceptual graphs) appear to provide the answer; but that’s assuming flat ontologies (aka thesaurus) within which all semantics are defined at the same level. That would go against the objective of bringing the semantics of business domains and systems architectures under a single conceptual roof. The problem and a solution can be expounded taking users stories and use cases for examples.

Crossing stories & cases

Beside the difference in perspectives, users stories and use cases stand at a methodological crossroad, the former focused on natural language, the latter on modeling. Using ontologies to ensure semantic interoperability is to enhance both traceability and transparency while making room for their combination if and when called for.

Set at the inception of software engineering processes, users’ stories and use cases mark an inflexion point between business requirements and supporting systems functionalities: where and when are determined (a) the nature of interfaces between business processes and systems components and, (b) how to proceed with development models, iterative or model based.

Users’ stories are part and parcel of Agile development model, their backbone, engine, and fuel. But as far as Agile is concerned, users’ stories introduce a dilemma: once being told stories are meant to be directly and iteratively put down in code; documenting them in words would bring back traditional requirements and phased development. Hence the benefits of sorting out and writing up the intrinsic elements of stories as to ensure the continuity and consistency of engineering processes, whether directly to code, or through the mediation of use cases.

To that end semantic interoperability would have to be achieved for actors, events, and activities.

Actors & Events

Whatever architectures or modeling methodologies, actors and events are sitting on systems’ fences, which calls for semantics common to enterprise organization and business processes on one side of the fence, supporting systems on the other side.

To begin with events, the distinction between external and internal ones is straightforward for use cases, because their purpose is precisely to describe the exchanges between systems and environments. Not so for users stories because at their stage the part to be played by supporting systems is still undecided, and by consequence the distinction between external and internal events.

With regard to actors, and to avoid any ambiguity, a semantic distinction could be maintained between roles, defined by organizations, and actors (UML parlance), for roles as enacted by agents interacting with systems. While roles and actors are meant to converge with analysis, understandings may initially differ across the fence between users stories and use cases, to be reconciled at the end of the day.

Representations should support the semantic distinctions as well as trace their convergence.

That would enable use cases and users stories to share overlapping yet consistent semantics for primary actors and external events:

  • Across stories: actors contributing to different stories affected by the same events.
  • Along processes: use cases set for actors and events defined in stories.
  • Across time-frames: actors and events first introduced by use cases before being refined by “pre-sequel” users stories.

Such ontology-based representations are to support full iterative as well as parallel developments independently of the type of methods, diagrams or documents used by projects.

activities

Users’ stories and use cases are set in different perspectives, business processes for the former, supporting systems for the latter. As already noted, their scopes overlap for events and actors which can be defined upfront providing a double distinction between roles (enterprise view) and actors (systems view), and between external and internal events.

Activities raise more difficulties because they are meant to be defined and refined across the whole of engineering processes:

  • From business operations as described by users to business functions as conceived by stakeholders.
  • From business logic as defined in business processes to their realization as defined in diagram sequences.
  • From functional requirements (e.g users authentication or authorization) to quality of service.
  • From primitives dealing with integrity constraints to business policies managed through rules engines.

To begin with, if activities have to be consistently defined for both users’ stories and use cases, their footprint should tally the description of actors and events stipulated above; taking a leaf from Aristotle rule of the three units, activity units should therefore:

  • Be triggered by a single event initiated by a single primary actor.
  • Be located into a single physical space with all resources at hand.
  • Timed by a single clock controlling accesses to all resources.

On that basis, the refinement of descriptions could go according to the nature of requirements: business (users’ stories), or functional and quality of service (use cases) .

Activities (execution units) should be tally with roles, events, and location.
Use cases wrap computation independent activities into transactions.

As far as ontologies are concerned, the objective is to ensure the continuity and consistency of representations independently of modeling tools and methodologies. For activities appearing in users stories and use cases, that would require:

  • The description of activities in relation with their business background, their execution in processes, and the corresponding functions already supported by systems.
  • The progressive refinement of roles (users, devices, other systems), location, and resources (objects or surrogates).
  • An unified definition of alternatives in stories (branches) and use cases (extension points)

The last point is of particular importance as it will determine how business and functional rules are to be defined and control implemented.

Knitting semantics: symbolic representations

The scope and complexity of semantic interoperability can be illustrated a contrario by a simple activity (checking out) described at different levels with different methods (process, use case, user story), possibly by different people at different time.

The Check-out activity is first introduced at business level (process), next a specific application is developed with agile (user story), and then extended for variants according to channels (use case).

Semantic interoperability between projects, domains, and methods.

Assuming unfettered naming (otherwise semantic interoperability would be a windfall), three parties can be mentioned under various monikers for renters, drivers, and customers.

In a flat semantic context renter could be defined as a subtype of customer, itself a subtype of party. But that option would contradict the neutrality objective as there is no reason to assume a modeling consensus across domains, methods, and time.

  • The ontological kernel defines parties and actors, as roles associated to agents (organization level).
  • Enterprises define customers as parties (business model).
  • Business unit can defines renters in reference to customers (business process) or directly as a subtype of role (user story).
  • The distinction between renters and drivers can be introduced upfront or with use cases’ actors.

That would ensure semantic interoperability across modeling paradigms and business domains, and along time and transformations.

Probing semantics: metonymies and metaphors

Once established in-depth foundations, and assuming built-in basic logic and lexical operators, semantic interoperability is to be carried out with two basic linguistic contraptions: metonymies and metaphors .

Metonymies and metaphors are linguistic constructs used to substitute a word (or a phrase) by another without altering its meaning, respectively through extensions and intensions, the former standing for the actual set of objects and behaviors, the latter for the set of features that characterize these instances.

Metonymy relies on contiguity to substitute target terms for source ones, contiguity being defined with regard to their respective extensions. For instance, given that US Presidents reside at the White House, Washington DC, each term can be used instead.

Metonymy use physical or functional proximity (full line) to match extensions (dashed line)

Metaphor uses similarity to substitute target terms for source ones, similarity being defined with regard to a shared subset of features, with leftovers taken out of the picture.

Metaphor uses similarity to match descriptions

Compared to basic thesaurus operators for synonymy, antonymy, and homonymy, which are set at lexical level, metonymy and metaphor operate at conceptual level, the former using set of instances (extensions) to probe semantics, the latter using descriptions (intensions).

Applied to users stories and use cases:

  • Metonymies: terms would be probed with regard to actual sets of objects, actors, events, and execution paths (data from operations) or mined from digital environments.
  • Metaphors: terms for stories, cases, actors, events, and activities would be probed with regard to the structure and behavior of associated descriptions (intensions).

Compared to the shallow one set at thesaurus level for terms, deep semantic interoperability encompasses all ontological dimensions, from actual instances to categories, aspects, and concepts. As such it can take full advantage of digital transformation and deep learning technologies.

further reading

Squared Outline: Cases vs Stories

Use cases and users’ stories being the two major approaches to requirements, outlining their respective scope and purpose should put projects on a sound basis.

Cases & Stories

To that end requirements should be neatly classified with regard to scope (enterprise or system) and level (architectures or processes).

  • Users stories are set at enterprise level independently of the part played by supporting systems.
  • Use cases cut across users stories and consider only the part played by supporting systems.
  • Business stories put users stories (and therefore processes) into the broader perspective of business models.
  • Business cases put use cases (and therefore applications) into the broader perspective of systems capabilities.

Position on that simple grid should the be used to identify stakeholders and pick between an engineering model, agile or phased.

FURTHER READING

Focus: Users’ Stories & Use Cases

Preamble

Agile and phased development solutions are meant to solve different problems and therefore differ with artifacts and activities; that can be illustrated by requirements, understood as dialogs for the former, etched statements for the latter.

Kara_Walker_mural2
Running Stories (Kara Walker)

Ignoring that distinction is to make stories stutter from hiccupped iterations, or phases sputter along ripped milestones.

Agile & Phased Tell Different Stories Differently

As illustrated by ill-famed waterfall, assuming that requirements can be fully set upfront often put projects at the hazards of premature commitments; conversely, giving free rein to expectations could put requirements on collision courses.

That apparent dilemma can generally be worked out by setting apart business outlines from users’ stories, the latter to be scripted and coded on the fly (agile), the former analysed and documented as a basis for further developments (phased). To that end project managers must avoid a double slip:

  • Mission creep: happens when users’ stories are mixed with business models.
  • Jump to conclusions: happens when enterprise business cases prevail over the specifics of users’ concerns.

Interestingly, the distinction between purposes (users concerns vs business functions) can be set along one between language semantics (natural vs modeling).

Semantics: Capture vs Analysis

Beyond methodological contexts (agile or phased), a clear distinction should be made between requirements capture (c) and modeling (m): contrary to the former which translates sequential specifications from natural to programming (p) languages without breaking syntactic and semantic continuity, the latter carries out a double translation for dimension (sequence vs layout) and language (natural vs modeling.)

Scratch_lang
Semantic continuity (c>p) and discontinuity (c>m>p)

The continuity between natural and programming languages is at the root of the agile development model, enabling users’ stories to be iteratively captured and developed into code without intermediate translations.

That’s not the case with modeling languages, because abstractions introduce a discontinuity. As a corollary, requirements analysis is to require some intermediate models in order to document translations.

The importance of discontinuity can be neatly demonstrated by the use of specialization and generalization in models: the former taking into account new features to characterize occurrences (semantic continuity), the latter consolidating the meaning of features already defined (semantic discontinuity).

Confusion may arise when users’ stories are understood as a documented basis for further developments; and that confusion between outcomes (coding vs modeling) is often compounded by one between intents (users concerns vs business cases).

Concerns: Users’ Stories vs Business Cases

As noted above, users’ stories can be continuously developed into code because a semantic continuity can be built between natural and programming languages statements. That necessary condition is not a sufficient one because users’ stories have also to stand as complete and exclusive basis for applications.

Such a complete and exclusive mapping to application is de-facto guaranteed by continuous and incremental development, independently of the business value of stories. Not so with intermediate models which, given the semantic discontinuity, may create back-doors for broader concerns, e.g when some features are redefined through generalization. Hence the benefits of a clarity of purpose:

  • Users’ stories stand for specific requirements meant to be captured and coded by increments. Documentation should be limited to application maintenance and not confused with analysis models.
  • Use cases should be introduced when stories are to be consolidated or broader concerns factored out , e.g the consolidation of features or business cases.

Sorting out the specifics of users concerns while keeping them in line with business models is at the core of business analysts job description. Since that distinction is seldom directly given in requirements, it could be made easier if aligned on modeling options: stories and specialization for users concerns, models and generalization for business features.

From Stories to Cases

The generalization of digital environments entails structural and operational adjustments within enterprise architectures.

At enterprise level the integration of homogeneous digital flows and heterogeneous symbolic representations can be achieved through enterprise architectures and profiled ontologies. But that undertaking is contingent on the way requirements are first dealt with, namely how the specifics of users’ needs are intertwined with business designs.

As suggested above, modeling schemes could help to distinguish as well as consolidate users narratives and business outlooks, capturing the former with users’ stories and the latter with use cases models.

Scratch_USC1
Use cases describe the part played by systems taking into account all supported stories.

That would neatly align means (part played by supporting systems) with ends (users’ stories vs business cases):

  • Users’ stories describe specific objectives independently of the part played by supporting systems.
  • Use cases describe the part played by systems taking into account all supported stories.

It must be stressed that this correspondence is not a coincidence: the consolidation of users’ stories into broader business objectives becomes a necessity when supporting systems are taken into account, which is best done with use cases.

Aligning Stories with Cases

Stories and models are orthogonal descriptions, the former being sequenced, the latter laid out; it ensues that correspondences can only be carried out for individuals uniformly identified (#) at enterprise and systems level, specifically: roles (aka actors), events, business objects, and execution units.

Scratch_US2C
Crossing cases with stories: events, roles, business objects, and execution units must be uniformly and consistently identified (#) .

It must be noted that this principle is supposed to apply independently of the architectures or methodologies considered.

With continuity and consistency of identities achieved at architecture level, the semantic discontinuity between users’ stories and models (classes or use cases) can be managed providing a clear distinction is maintained between:

  • Modeling abstractions, introduced by requirements analysis and applied to artifacts identified at architecture level.
  • The semantics of attributes and operations, defined by users’ stories and directly mapped to classes or use cases features.
Scratch_USC3
From Capture to Analysis: Abstractions introduce a semantic discontinuity

Finally, stories and cases need to be anchored to epics and enterprise architecture.

Business Cases & Enterprise Stories

Likening epics to enterprise stories would neatly frame the panoply of solutions:

  • At process level users’ stories and use cases would be focused respectively on specific business concerns and supporting applications.
  • At architecture level business stories (aka epics) and business cases (aka plots) would deal respectively with business models and objectives,  and supporting systems capabilities.
Cases & Stories

That would provide a simple yet principled basis for enterprise architectures governance.

Further Reading

External Links