Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

Projects Overview (Explanations)
Global Strategies Project (Explanations)

Method: strategy naming

Global Strategies Project


1. Strategy names and keywords

In keeping with the Encyclopedia's catholic and inclusive approach to recognizing strategies, the editors have made every attempt to include the widest possible range of potential strategies, subject to being able to provide them with appropriate names.

Refining and supplementing strategy names is a significant and continuous exercise in the editorial process. Names may be adjusted countless times during the evolution of a strategy entry, in response to receipt of major new documentation, or the text of an organization's brochure collected from a conference, or a chance conversation, a newspaper headline or book title, etc. In the context of the database, this naming process is vital because the principal words in the names are indexed as keywords, individually and also within subject groupings. Keywords correspond to unique subject classes and subclasses (described in Note 4.1 Subject classification of strategies). A computer programme is used to reallocate strategies to categories whenever a significant number of thesaurus modifications have been made.

Intelligent and comprehensive keyword indexing enables more powerful interrogation of the database (search and retrieval) and enhances the editors' ability to cross-relate strategies (Note 3.6).

2. Misnamed strategies: ends or means

Just as there is a range of ways in which strategies can be defined (Note 3.1), so there is great variation and little consistency in the way strategies are named by the international community. In part this is due to confusion between strategy, tactic, action programme, goal and objective, to the extent that it is even considered useful to establish and maintain such distinctions.

For example, "Consensus" (or "Reaching consensus") is not a strategy but an objective. "Building consensus" is readily understood, although still somewhat dubious as a strategy title. Better is "Supporting consensus process", "Using consensus decision-making" or, even stronger, "Ensuring consensus decisions".

Similarly, "Spreading the Word of God" expresses a goal more than a strategic action, although in this case the goal more precisely defines the domain of activity and the means of achieving it. It is acceptable as a strategy title. So is "Playing sport", which focuses on the action whilst lacking any true strategic dimension.

Approaches or disciplines can also be confused with strategies. The call for integrated planning has become a popular response to the environment and development challenges of the post-Rio era. Whilst adequate to describe an approach, "integrated planning" as a strategy is unsatisfactory without an additional descriptor (especially since both "integrating" and "planning" separately can only qualify as "portmanteau" strategies, having little cohesive content of their own but conveniently grouping narrower strategies see point 15 below). Appropriate formulations of strategies concerned with integrated planning would be "Integrating environmental and economic planning" or "Applying integrated planning to watershed management".

3. Misnamed strategies: confusion with subject

As with the naming of problems to which strategies are designed to respond (see also Note 3.2 in Section PZ, Volume 1), strategy names are in practice often confused with the descriptor for a subject area or even an area of professional expertise. Thus "Nursing", even "Nursing sick children", is not a well-named strategy, whereas "Providing adequate nursing services" or "Training paediatric nurses" is.

Because any strategic element may be effectively absent from the budgeted programme of action of an institution, efforts to identify the strategy pursued may simply be associated with the programme name. Typically this will be described as a "youth action programme" or a "peace programme". The emphasis will be placed on what is being done rather than any strategic sense of the reasons for doing it one way rather than another, or at all.

4. Misnamed strategies: shorthand descriptions

As with the lack of precision concerning problem names, such confusion arises in part from shorthand expressions by which strategic responses are identified in the media and in political debate. Examples include: "Defusing explosive intelligence books" ("Refuting ethnic differences in intelligence") , "Snuffing out the famous" ("Targeting anti-smoking activity"), "Globalize or die" ("Internationalizing business"), "Manacle long-armed mafias" ("Fighting cross-border corruption").

In a period when policies shift rapidly in response to public opinion and the other pressures of crisis management, there is frequently little continuity to strategy. Cynically, strategy may only be thought of by practitioners in terms of what a group claims to be doing at a particular moment, irrespective of the direction it was pursuing the day before, or of that it may pursue on the following day.

5. Necessary action dimension: recognizing the "stasis trap"

Misnaming strategies and the use of shorthand descriptors easily leads to a situation where any action dimension or implication is absent from the strategy name. This might be called a "stasis trap". "Passive resistance" or "Conflict resolution" do not properly qualify as strategies until they are acted upon. In the corresponding case with respect to problems, the name used in practice was often drained of any negativity suggestive of the problematic nature of the problem (eg organizations addressing problems of "women" or "morality"). The problem then became a subject of consideration that did not suggest the need for any response.

The challenge is therefore to adapt strategy names to highlight the action dimension on which they are based.

6. Use of the gerund form in strategy names

In order to avoid the "stasis trap" in strategy naming, it was decided to make systematic use of the gerund form. This requires that every strategy name contain a gerund, preferably in the first word. Examples include: "Combatting desertification", "Beautifying the landscape", or "Repealing unjust laws". In such cases the gerund functions as an "action operator" on the substantive domain identified thereafter.

Where useful, alternative names have been provided using non-gerund forms, especially if these are common shorthand descriptors for the strategy identified. In exceptional cases, however, where use of the gerund would be totally artificial, non-gerund forms have been used as the primary name.

Clearly in some situations use of the gerund form may appear unnecessarily artificial. As an editorial discipline however, it provides a very useful guideline against which to test the many loose phrases used in documents of the international community that imply some form of strategic initiative.

7. Current use of the gerund form by the international community

It is surprising to note the number of recent international documents describing the strategies of an organization that adopt the gerund form. It is not clear what forces have encouraged independent organizations to favour this form.

One striking example is a document prepared for the 50th Anniversary celebrations of the United Nations in 1995 (1). This lists some 50 accomplishments of the United Nations since its founding in 1945. All are described with the use of a leading gerund. For example: "Maintaining peace and security", "Empowering the voiceless", "Eradicating smallpox", "Orienting economic policy toward social need" and "Protecting consumers' health".

Another interesting example is the World Development Report of the World Bank. The 1994 edition identifies many strategies using the gerund form for most section and paragraph headings.

This practice was much less in evidence in the 1991 and 1990 reports, comprising around 10 percent of headings. Prior to that time there was only rare use of the gerund form for section headings.

The UNDP discussion paper Public Sector Management, Governance, and Sustainable Human Development (New York, UNDP, 1995) has as headings in Chapter 1 on "Sustainable Human Development: Challenges and Cornerstones" the following strategies: "Reforming economic systems", "Eliminating poverty", "Encouraging social integration", "Improving agricultural performance", "Providing employment", "Protecting the environment" and "Slowing population growth".

It is possible that increasing use of the gerund form, particularly by UN agencies, is inspired by the accepted language of international conference resolutions. These typically have paragraphs starting with highlighted gerunds. For example: Considering..., Noting..., Recognizing..., Recalling, etc.

However, even when the gerund form is not used to imply a strategy, another form of the verb is. The strategic plan of the International Family Planning Association (2) begins every paragraph point with an imperative***? verb, viz "ensure...", "examine...", "inform...", etc. In the field of strategies for sustainable living and livelihoods so, largely, does Global Action Plan's Household EcoTeam Workbook, which conveys a programme of sustainable lifestyle practices for people in their daily life (3), UNEP's The Clean & Green Earth Manual for community environmental action (4), IUCN/IIED's Strategies for National Sustainable Development (5), and Caring for the Earth, the IUCN/UNEP/WWF global guidelines for sustainable living (6).

8. Avoiding overly long names

Naturally, the longer a strategy name is, the more precise and "correct" it can become. However, this is often at the expense of comprehensibility. "Strengthening capacity-building of non-governmental organizations involved in community development" remains almost as comprehensive when formulated "Strengthening community development organizations". This strategy could perhaps be subtitled "Building capacity within community-based NGOs" or, if there seems to be other ways of "strengthening" such organizations, by containing the notion of "capacity building" as one of a set of narrower strategies. In this way, examination of long titles may reveal multiple strategies which under the best of circumstances could then be broken down into a number of component strategies.

The analytical challenge of identifying components of mixed strategies is made more difficult with double-barrelled titles, usually containing the word "and" where there are two or more subjects, verbs, or worst, clauses. Diplomatic and aristocratic-sounding names which seem to go on for half-an-hour may say little or even define themselves out of existence. The prize for length and impossibility of definition goes to one of the programmes of the International Labour Organization, which aims to "assist member States to design national social and economic policies that generate productive and freely chosen employment and reduce poverty whilst at the same time responding to the changes brought about by structural adjustment and technological progress." (ILO, Programme and Budget for the Biennium 1992-93, p. 60-2).

The excessive length and precision of long strategy titles may also belie a tentativeness. When examined, this in turn may betray a lack of clarity or certainty about the precise nature of the strategy. Agenda 21, taken as a whole provides many examples of verbose and "fluffy" strategies the sort waiting to be filled or firmed up. This is not in itself a criticism of Agenda 21, rather an indication of the suggestive rather than definitive nature of the document, understandable bearing in mind its application to the entire planet with its diverse communities and regions (see also Note 3.1, which notes with respect that a tactic at the global level may be perceived locally as a strategy with a far greater degree of conditionality and uncertainty attached because of the need to address the full complexity of local circumstances).

Strategies with long names incapable of abbreviation have been tentatively assigned to Section SE meaning they are complex expressions of detailed strategies, applied in particular circumstances which usually require further definition. (The otherrelated way of using Section SE is for sets or series of basically identical strategies applied under different circumstances.) This classification is appropriate for many Agenda 21 strategies and most arising out of detailed organizational agendas and programmes.

9. Strategy naming by the Institute of Cultural Affairs

The early work of the Institute of Cultural Affairs (see Note 2.3) involved considerable attention to a naming convention for strategies. In addition to using a leading gerund, the names they developed were constrained to three words. For example: "Redirecting resource flow", "Maintaining personal dignity", "Intentionalizing popular songs". The titles also reflect the results of a struggle to use vocabulary creatively to make distinctions, especially using gerunds, which are motivating and empowering.

Despite the vast scope of their work in this area, the results were primarily for internal use within that organization. They therefore permitted themselves to make use of neologisms or uncommon forms in the naming of strategies. The language (or jargon) that they developed has in fact been subsequently studied as a formative force on their work as a worldwide community development organization.

The initial stages of this Encyclopedia project on documenting strategies (1984-86) was designed to benefit from the work of ICA. Efforts were made to incorporate the strategies that they identified into the database (Note 3.4). Exceptional uses of words, of significance to ICA alone, were modified. Understandable variants have been kept, even if somewhat unusual. This terminology is however more striking in detailed problems lacking text. As editorial work permits, such names are reviewed and related to non-ICA names for the same strategies, often with the latter becoming a secondary name.

10. Language-determined distinctions

A language such as English offers many opportunities to the international community for naming apparently distinct strategies. Variants may be used in naming the same strategy, notably in the effective choice of gerund. A new variant may add a quality or flavour which offers greater hope of mobilizing political forces or distinguishing a new strategic focus from one perceived to have failed in the past.

It is extremely difficult to determine in a particular case whether a variant is establishing a significant distinction or is merely a synonym employed for public relations effect. Some variants could be usefully interpreted as making a quite significant operational distinction -- a distinction that merits recognition. However, those choosing to use the variant in any particular case may be quite insensitive to this distinction in the strategy that they are implementing. It may in fact be to their advantage to blur the distinction, implying that their strategy is more than it in fact is.

The editorial dilemma is then whether to preserve a valuable functional distinction or to combine strategy names which fail to acknowledge the distinction in practice.

11. Priority of names

Where more than one name is assigned to a strategy in this volume, the name given first may be arbitrary except where one name more clearly carries the notion of strategic action or is much shorter. Complicated phrasing, no matter how technically correct, or jargonistic expressions, no matter their current popularity, are rarely given as main titles where a simple, readily understood alternative exists. Also more comprehensive names will be given priority over a more limited or detailed expression of the strategy.

12. Combining strategies

To restrain proliferation of strategies in the database, especially in the absence of adequate information, closely related strategies may be held as a single strategy, but with a string of (indexed) names for these various different strategies. These can later be split off into separate strategies when this is justified (see also Note 4.2).

Alternatively, single names may be allowed to hold diverse interpretations. Documentation relating to, or arising, from the FAO, the Vatican, The Grameen Bank, producers of agricultural chemicals, owners of banana plantations, kangaroo "harvesters", algal biochemists, and self-help groups of subsistence fisherfolkmay indicate that they are involved with the strategy of "Increasing food production". Clearly, there is value in holding the space for questions raised by such a juxtaposition of advocates for a single strategy, contrasting approaches to which can be illustrated by example in the "Implementation" paragraph.

13. Detecting duplicates

Because of the subtlety of the distinctions, detecting and eliminating duplicates in the database can be challenging. As with problems, the question that must be asked is whether very different names are referring to the same strategy, to different aspects of the same strategy, or to different strategies. And even if they are referring to distinct strategies, is it appropriate to reflect this distinction by attaching such names to different filing numbers thus multiplying the number of variants in the database?

One common form of duplicate is two identical or near identical strategies, one expressed with positive wording (goal or solution emphasis) and the other expressed in the negative (problem emphasis). "Increasing literacy" and "Reducing illiteracy" is one very obvious pair. "Promoting cartels" and "Avoiding free competition" is perhaps less obvious.

14. Positive/negative duplicates

Positive/negative duplicate pairs reflect the underlying value polarities which are the ground of strategies (and problems see Note 3.2). Strategies named with direct reference to problems usually with a forceful, antagonistic, gerund plus a negative subject, eg combatting unemployment, overcoming AIDS, limiting family breakdown are now tending to be displaced by more fashionable positive, vision-driven expressions, comprised of a "facilitating", "harmonizing" or "growing" gerund plus a positive subject, eg "Enabling full employment", "Promoting safe sex" or "Supporting family values".

The choice of positive or negative wording of a strategy may be unconscious and is itself reflective of style, nature and age of organization or individual. The language chosen for a strategy name may also take account of political correctness or other attitudes with respect to use of confrontational as opposed to affirmative, positive phrasing.

The editorial position with respect to positive/negative pairs is that they are the same strategy, albeit that they may be undertaken by constituencies which differ in style.

15. Portmanteau strategies

Some strategies in the database exist primarily to hold a collection of sub-strategies. Such "portmanteau" strategies are characterized by having little or no text and a number of narrower strategies, usually containing text. Such groupings may be seen as reasonably "permanent" (stable within foreseeable understandings). Such is the case with series of strategies, where the "daughter" strategies are identical to the "mother" except for the fact that they operate in distinct domains, as with "Improving international (environmental/commercial/maritime/treaty/...) law".

Alternatively, portmanteau strategies may be created more for the purpose of convenient containers, capable of holding and transporting their contents to a more suitable destination in the database, as yet unknown or perhaps even uncreated. The logic of such a group is not always so obvious. It may be simply founded upon its members sharing a distinctive gerund (eg "Amplifying..." or "Assuaging...") which subsequent research may indeed confirm as a strategy in its own right. Or the group may be a temporary phenomenon, eventually dispersing in the light of new information or closer inspection, just as the initial exercise of grouping pieces of a jigsaw according to gross similarities in colour or texture eventually leads to finer groupings according to the higher order patterns so revealed.

16. "Strategy-less" names

There are many strategies in the database awaiting description. This begs the question of whether these could be "empty" strategies a strategy without any true content, but just a name. This possibility is increased through the practice of "computer-aided" creation of strategy names from problem names and organization texts (Note 3.8). Strategies which have been created in this way exist as potentials rather than because of genuine documentary evidence of their existence.

The editorial attitude to the existence of strategy-less names has been a benign one. Until there is firm evidence to the contrary,even flimsy strategies are tolerated, though coded to indicate their more questionable status. This has enabled many unusual "proto-strategies" to be held as names within the database whilst suspending judgement as to their actual existence.

17. "Name-less strategies"

The opposite dilemma to the "strategy-less name" is the "name-less strategy". Just because there is no label for a strategy, does not mean that the strategy does not exist ("The name that can be named is not the Eternal Name.": Tao Te Ching I). The dimensions of what cannot be captured by a naming exercise of this nature should not be overlooked.

18. Further work on strategy terminology

Of potential interest in relation to further work on strategy terminology is the initiative of Henry G Burger to produce "a transitive cladistic for solving physical and social problems ... The dictionary analyzes a quarter-million world-listings by their processes, branches them binarily to pinpoint the concepts, thus sequentially tracing causes to their effects." (7). It distinguishes the components of every action (transitive) verb in most dictionaries.

Highly critical of the linearity of Roget's Thesaurus, Burger claims that by focusing on transitive verbs there is a built in emphasis on how action may be undertaken to solve problems. Solutions to problems are stored in language. He has developed a presentation to highlight this which contains a "quarter-million problems and solutions of behaviour and goals". The question remains however as to the degree to which the distinctions between similar strategies made with such linguistic devices are really meaningful, however much the subtle differences in emphasis are suggestive of potential significance which merits further investigation.


1. The United Nations at 50: Recognizing the Achievements (Fiftieth Anniversary Secretariat, UN, New York, 1994)

2. Vision 2000, Strategic Plan (London, IPPF, 1993)

3. Household EcoTeam Workbook (first published New York 1990, GAP International, Stockholm, various language editions)

4. The Clean & Green Earth Manual: community guide to environmental action (Rogers, Adam (ed), UNEP, Nairobi, in press)

5. Strategies for National Sustainable Development: a handbook for their planning and implementation (Carew-Reid, Jeremy et al, London, Earthscan, IUCN/IIED, 1994)

6. Caring for the Earth: a strategy for sustainable living (Gland, IUCN/UNEP/WWF, 1991)

7. The Wordtree: a transitive cladistic for solving physical and social problems (Henry G Burger, Kansas, Merriam, 1984)

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential