I first came across the word “disambiguation” at a weekend workshop called Ontology in Science. (There is so much that’s just wrong about what I just admitted, but never mind.) I like this word a lot because it makes people ask, “for goodness sake, what are you talking about?” But disambiguation is a serious word, especially in science. It means “to remove ambiguity.” Once you learn that there is a word for getting rid of ambiguity, you begin to realize how much ambiguity there is in the world, especially when people communicate. And it seems to me that the smarter the people and the more complex the topic, the more disambiguation is necessary.

A real-life example of disambiguation gone awry is a 1950s trial in Great Britain. Derek Bentley was tried for murder after his accomplice, who was a minor, allegedly shot a policeman during a burglary. Bentley was accused of yelling “Let him have it, Chris” before the fatal shot was fired. Did he mean “shoot him!” as the prosecution claimed? Or, did he mean “give it [the gun] to him [the policeman],” as the defense argued?*

Fortunately, most disambiguation does not have such life-altering consequences. My favorite statements to disambiguate are those that contain two separate, not necessarily related, thoughts. For example, here is a common statement in industry: “I don’t have time to do what I know is necessary; I only have time to do it quickly.” Does that mean the results will be inaccurate? Or just incomplete? I have previously written about the genesis of kerfuffles (links to a dead page), so I won’t say more on this point.

I heard another statement recently that needs disambiguation: “Serendipity is antagonized by process-oriented organizations.” Does it mean that profitable accidents don’t happen when scientists follow defined processes? Or does it mean that when processes are defined, scientific creativity is suppressed? As I heard it, the statement was intended to denigrate the value of process definition in pharmaceutical R&D. I understand where this sentiment comes from. Many of us have had to deal with processes gone bad. In fact, I recently stumbled upon a great animated cartoon of a truly mesmerizing process.

But my own experience with process definition is that there is no substitute for a well designed and implemented process to free scientists and their staffs from low-value mundane activities. The challenge is to understand the process thoroughly and to formalize it carefully and correctly.

Formalizing a process is a true test of disambiguation. First, identify all the subtasks. Then, arrange the subtasks in a hierarchy. Consider inputs, outputs, and deliverables for each. Once these entities and their interrelationships are worked out, define performance metrics, timelines of critical milestones, and governance strategies. Failure to disambiguate the process, that is, to determine what needs to be done, how it is to be done, and when it is considered finished, is a reason why processes go wild.

Admittedly, process formalization in the pharmaceutical industry has opponents. Many scientists resist the very idea that a scientific process can be formalized. To them, science is an artistic endeavor that should not be managed professionally. Even those who admit to the importance of process formalization can have an extraordinarily difficult time achieving consensus on what indicates the successful completion of a task. And, while many inputs can be defined, it is often difficult to align the inputs and outputs for related, but separate, processes so that their meaning is clear to all stakeholders.
So, on-the-job disambiguation is an important skill to develop, and, like anything else, practice makes perfect. But beware where you practice! I offer some dos and don’ts from my own experience:

  • Don’t disambiguate outloud a statement made by your significant other. ‘Nuff said.
  • Do attempt to disambiguate statements made by your children, but beware that you will be given a look suggesting that the nursing home can’t be far along.
  • Do practice your disambiguation skills in front of your pet, preferably a dog. A wagging tail can be a remarkable confidence booster. And it is very unlikely that you will get a similar look of adoration from your vice president of research.

Be sure read the next Pharma of the Future? blog entry: A Drug Is Not a Jet Plane, or Is It? If you missed the last posting, click on over to: Origins of Pharma of the Future?

* Derrick Bentley and his accomplice were convicted of murder. The jury believed that the statement “Let him have it, Chris” was intended to incite the younger man to shoot (however, there is doubt those words were ever said). Bentley was hanged in 1953, just 3 months after the bungled break-in. The shooter went to jail and was released after 10 years. In 1998, Bentley was granted a full pardon, posthumously.