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I like to pay attention to our language, because how we speak gives us clues about how we think.  In this case how we are failing to think about a subject.

There is one particular word, the use of which, really annoys me.  That word is:

Methodology

You hear methodology used a lot to describe a set of techniques, or an approach or way of working.

The problem is what they are describing is really just “a method”.

These people using methodology, when they should be using method, or approach, are just using a word that sounds more important than it needs to be, to make their approach, or method,  sound more important than it is.

It is wrong.  it also causes us to ignore something much more important.

Methodology should be the study of methods

Methodology is the only word in common usage that I come across regularly, that is an -ology, but that does NOT refer to the study of something.

Let me give you some examples of real ologies.  Sociology is the study of social systems.  Theology is the study of religions.   Oeneology is the study of wines.  Numerology is the study of the significance of numbers.  Biology is the study of physical life.   Aeroplanology is not the study or aeroplanes, but the study of insects and spores in the atmosphere (so I am told).  Cardiology is the study of the heart and its diseases. In all these examples, the -ology is the study of a topic.

If you would like more examples, there are many sites that list a whole load of -ologies and explain that they are the study of a topic.  Try here -ologies .  Good old Wikipedia describes the source of ologies and some alternative uses.   There is a a list of science ologies here.

Interestingly, one of these sites refered to methodology as “the study of order”.  Now that is a useful and interesting definition and one that I had not come across before.  It suggests it is the study of structures and ordering and approaches.  I will come back to this.

This lazy use of language stops us studying the methods we use.

The problem with thinking of a method, as a methodology, is that it stops is thinking about the study of methods.  It stops us studying the order and structure of our approaches.  It stops us looking across approaches to think about their similarities and differences.

I first came across this realisation in the preface to a book on an approach to software programme design back in 1985.  The book was called “Jackson Structured Design” and in the preface book, Michael Jackson (not that one), was lamenting that this lazy use of methodology stopped us studying methods.

As the time I had already been immersed in three different software development “methods”.  This was a fourth and we were also using another two on software R&D project I was managing.  I realised that I had already been thinking about the similarities amongst these approaches and where they addressed different parts of the software development cycle. It helped me understand how the techniques of one approach were tied together in a different way to that of another approach.   This helped me to appreciate which of these methods were more applicable in what circumstances and actually to pick and choose from amongst the techniques.  I had started to study the methods: I was doing methodology.

The more I talked about the methods, their similarities, differences and appropriate application, the more I seemed to be regarded as an expert in the subject.  et all i was doing was studying across a topic.  I was thinking about methodology in its real sense.

What about an approach that helps you choose the right method?

Nowadays, I study, and apply with my clients, various approaches and methods around their strategy, performance management and decision-making.  In every cases I will initially work with that client to sort out what sort of problems they have and help them devise the right approach from amongst the many available.

What do you call an approach that helps you choose the right method?  Is it a methodology?  No because that would be the study of methods.  Could it be a meta-method.  A method about methods.

[Explanation- At this point lets us be clear what the pre-fix ‘meta-‘ means and how it is used.  Meta- is used to mean about (its own category).  Meta-language is language that describes language (for instance the words verb, noun, pre-fix, are parts of language used to describe language.  For instance meta-data is data about data (for instance the data that describes the structure of a data base is meta data).    A meta-joke is a joke about jokes (for instance, “A man walked into a bar….  Ouch!)  get it?]

I am not sure ‘meta-method’ works here.  ‘Meta-methodology’ definitely does not work (An -ology about an -ology for goodness sake!).

I did think there might be an argument for the word methodology to be used, (with great care) when taking about an approach or method that helps you choose from amongst other approaches or methods.  On the other hand this is just a diagnostic process or method: a particular type of method used for diagnosis rather than, say, delivery of projects or writing software.

A diagnostic process is just another type of method (which is obvious when you study methods).

This use of a simple additional noun in front of method, to describe the type of method would help others as well.  For example, this is a software development method (or approach). This is a performance management method (or approach).  This is a strategy development approach as opposed to a strategy implementation approach or an approach to socialising your strategy.

I am convinced it is best to keep methodology, ONLY for the study of methods.  It is a big enough fight just to do that.

My plea to all who talk about methods and approaches and methodologies.

In conclusion…

  • Please, please, please, use ‘methodology’ ONLY when you actually mean the study of methods.
  • Please please, please just use ‘method’, or even ‘approach’, when you are talking about a set of techniques linked together in some order or sequence.
  • Please use words in from of your method that help describe what sort or class of method or approach you have.  This will help you and others think through the other options abailable to them.

This will mean that those of us who genuinely study methods, (methodologists?) will be able to use our word without it being polluted by those who just want their method or approach to sound more important than it really is.  It will take us one step further along the path of improving the quality of our conversation, the precision of our language and the effectiveness of our methods.

Thank you