The CMMI model of process planning and assessment has been very successful in some industry circles, essentially as a way for software suppliers to establish credibility. It is far, however, from having achieved the influence it deserves. It is, for example, not widely taught in universities, which in turn limits its attractiveness to industry. The most tempting explanation involves the substance of CMMI: that it prescribes processes that are too heavy. But in fact the basic ideas are elegant, they are not so complicated, and they have been shown to be compatible with flexible approaches to development, such as agile methods.
I think there is a simpler reason, of form rather than substance: the CMMI defining documents are atrociously written. Had they benefited from well-known techniques of effective technical writing, the approach would have been adopted much more widely. The obstacles to comprehension discourage many people and companies which could benefit from CMMI.
Defining the concepts
One of the first qualities you expect from a technical text is that it defines the basic notions. Take one of the important concepts of CMMI, “process area”. Not just important, but fundamental; you cannot understand anything about CMMI if you do not understand what a process area is. The glossary of the basic document (, page 449) defines it as
A cluster of related practices in an area that, when implemented collectively, satisfies a set of goals considered important for making improvement in that area.
The mangled syntax is not a good omen: contrary to what the sentence states, it is not the area that should be “implemented collectively”, but the practices. Let us ignore it and try to understand the intended definition. A process area is a collection of practices? A bit strange, but could make sense, provided the notion of “practice” is itself well defined. Before we look at that, we note that these are practices “in an area”. An area of what? Presumably, a process area, since no other kind of area is ever mentioned, and CMMI is about processes. But then a process area is… a collection of practices in a process area? Completely circular! (Not recursive: a meaningful recursive definition is one that defines simple cases directly and builds complex cases from them. A circular definition defines nothing.)
All that this is apparently saying is that if we already know what a process area is, CMMI adds the concept that a process area is characterized by a set of associated practices. This is actually a useful idea, but it does not give us a definition.
Let’s try to see if the definition of “practice” helps. The term itself does not have an entry in the glossary, a bit regrettable but not too worrying given that in CMMI there are two relevant kinds of practices: specific and generic. “Specific practice” is defined (page 461) as
An expected model component that is considered important in achieving the associated specific goal. (See also “process area” and “specific goal.”)
This statement introduces the important observation that in CMMI a practice is always related to a “goal” (another one of the key CMMI concepts); it is one of the ways to achieve that goal. But this is not a definition of “practice”! As to the phrase “an expected model component”, it simply tells us that practices, along with goals, are among the components of CMMI (“the model”), but that is a side remark, not a definition: we cannot define “practice” as meaning “model component”.
What is happening here is that the glossary does not give a definition at all; it simply relies on the ordinary English meaning of “practice”. Realizing this also helps us understand the definition of “process area”: it too is not a definition, but assumes that the reader already understands the words “process” and “area” from their ordinary meanings. It simply tells us that in CMMI a process area has a set of associated practices. But that is not what a glossary is for: the reader expects it to give precise definitions of the technical terms used in the document.
This misuse of the glossary is typical of what makes CMMI documents so ineffective. In technical discourse it is common to hijack words from ordinary language and give them a special meaning: the mathematical use of such words as “matrix” or “edge” (of a graph) denotes well-defined objects. But you have to explain such technical terms precisely, and be clear at each step whether you are using the plain-language meaning or the technical meaning. If you mix them up, you completely confuse the reader.
In fact any decent glossary should make the distinction explicit by underlining, in definitions, terms that have their own entries (as in: a cluster or related practices, assuming there is an entry for “practice”); then it is clear to the reader whether a word is used in its ordinary or technical sense. In an electronic version the underlined words can be links to the corresponding entries. It is hard to understand why the CMMI documents do not use this widely accepted convention.
Towards suitable definitions
Let us try our hand at what suitable definitions could have been for the two concepts just described; not a vacuous exercise since process area and practice are among the five or six core concepts of CMMI. (Candidates for the others are process, goal, institutionalization and assessment).
“Practice” is the more elementary concept. In fact it retains its essential meaning from ordinary language, but in the CMMI context a practice is related to a process and, as noted, is intended to satisfy a goal. What distinguishes a practice from a mere activity is that the practice is codified and repeatable. If a project occasionally decides to conduct a design review that is not a practice; a systematically observed daily Scrum meeting is a practice. Here is my take on defining “practice” in CMMI:
Practice: A process-related activity, repeatable as part of a plan, that helps achieve a stated goal.
CMMI has both generic practices, applicable to the process as a whole, and specific practices, applicable to a particular process area. From this definition we can easily derive definitions for both variants.
Now for “process area”. In discussing this concept above, there is one point I did not mention: the reason the CMMI documents can get away with the bizarre definition (or rather non-definition) cited is that if you ask what a process area really is you will immediately be given examples: configuration management, project planning, risk management, supplier agreement management… Then you get it. But examples are not a substitute for a definition, at least in a standard that is supposed to be precise and complete. Here is my attempt:
Process area: An important aspect of the process, characterized by a clearly identified set of issues and activities, and in CMMI by a set of applicable practices.
The definition of “specific practice” follows simply: a practice that is associated with a particular process area. Similarly, a “generic practice” is a practice not associated with any process area.
I’ll let you be the judge: which definitions do you prefer, these or the ones in the CMMI documents?
By the way, I can hear the cynical explanation: that the jargon and obscurity are intentional, the goal being to justify the need for experts that will interpret the sacred texts. Similar observations have been made to explain the complexity of certain programming languages. Maybe. But bad writing is common enough that we do not need to invoke a conspiracy in this case.
Training for the world championship of muddy writing
The absence of clear definitions of basic concepts is inexcusable. But the entire documents are written in government-committee-speak that erect barriers against comprehension. As an example among hundreds, take the following extract, the entire description of the generic practice GP2.2, “Establish and maintain the plan for performing the organizational training process“” , part of the Software CMM (a 729-page document!), , page 360:
This plan for performing the organizational training process differs from the tactical plan for organizational training described in a specific practice in this process area. The plan called for in this generic practice would address the comprehensive planning for all of the specific practices in this process area, from the establishment of strategic training needs all the way through to the assessment of the effectiveness of the organizational training effort. In contrast, the organizational training tactical plan called for in the specific practice would address the periodic planning for the delivery of individual training offerings.
Even to a good-willed reader the second and third sentences sound like gibberish. One can vaguely intuit that the practice just introduced is being distinguished from another, but which one, and how? Why the conditional phrases, “would address”? A plan either does or does not address its goals. And if it addresses them, what does it mean that a plan addresses a planning? Such tortured tautologies, in a high-school essay, would result in a firm request to clean up and resubmit.
In fact the text is trying to say something simple, which should have been expressed like this:
This practice is distinct from practice SP1.3, “Establish an Organizational Training Tactical Plan” (page 353). The present practice is strategic: it is covers planning the overall training process. SP1.3 is tactical: it covers the periodic planning of individual training activities.
(In the second sentence we could retain “from defining training needs all the way to assessing the effectiveness of training”, simplified of course from the corresponding phrase in the original, although I do not think it adds much.)
Again, which version do you prefer?
The first step in producing something decent was not even a matter of style but simple courtesy to the reader. The text compares a practice to another, but it is hard to find the target of the comparison: it is identified as the “tactical plan for organizational training” but that phrase does not appear anywhere else in the document! You have to guess that it is listed elsewhere as the “organizational training tactical plan”, search for that string, and cycle through its 14 occurrences to see which one is the definition. (To make things worse, the phrase “training tactical plan” also appears in the document — not very smart for what is supposed to be a precisely written standard.)
The right thing to do is to use the precise name, here SP1.3 — what good is it to introduce such code names throughout a document if it does not use them for reference? — and for good measure list the page number, since this is so easy to do with text processing tools.
In the CMMI chapter of my book Touch of Class (yes, an introductory programming textbook does contain an introduction to CMMI) I cited another extract from  (page 326):
The plan for performing the organizational process focus process, which is often called “the process-improvement plan,” differs from the process action plans described in specific practices in this process area. The plan called for in this generic practice addresses the comprehensive planning for all of the specific practices in this process area, from the establishment of organizational process needs all the way through to the incorporation of process-related experiences into the organizational process assets.
In this case the translation into text understandable by common mortals is left as an exercise for the reader.
With such uncanny ability to say in fifty words what would better be expressed in ten, it is not surprising that basic documents run into 729 pages and that understanding of CMMI by companies who feel compelled to adopt it requires an entire industry of commentators of the sacred word.
Well-defined concepts have simple names
The very name of the approach, “Capability Maturity Model Integration”, is already a sign of WMD (Word-Muddying Disease) at the terminal stage. I am not sure if anyone anywhere knows how to parse it correctly: is it the integration of a model of maturity of capability (right-associative interpretation)? Of several models? These and other variants do not make much sense, if only because in CMMI “capability” and “maturity” are alternatives, used respectively for the Continuous and Staged versions.
In fact the only word that seems really useful is “model”; the piling up of tetrasyllabic words with very broad meanings does not help suggest what the whole thing is about. “Integration”, for example, only makes sense if you are aware of the history of CMMI, which generalized the single CMM model to a family of models, but this history is hardly interesting to a newcomer. A name, especially a long one, should carry the basic notion.
A much better name would have been “Catalog of Assessable Process Practices”, which is even pronounceable as an acronym, and defines the key elements: the approach is based on recognized best practices; these practices apply to processes (of an organization); they must be subject to assessment (the most visible part of CMMI — the famous five levels — although not necessarily the most important one); and they are collected into a catalog. If “catalog” is felt too lowly, “collection” would also do.
Catalog of Assessable Process Practices: granted, it sounds less impressive than the accumulation of pretentious words making up the actual acronym. As is often the case in software engineering methods and tools, once you remove the hype you may be disappointed at first (“So that’s all that it was after all!”), and then you realize that the idea, although brought back down to more modest size, remains a good idea, and can be put to effective use.
At least if you explain it in English.
 CMMI Product Team: CMMI for Development, Version 1.3, Improving processes for developing better products and services, Technical Report CMU/SEI-2010-TR-033, Software Engineering Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, November 2010, available here.
 CMMI Product Team, ; CMMI for Systems Engineering/Software Engineering/Integrated Product and Process Development/Supplier Sourcing, Version 1.1, Staged Representation (CMMI-SE/SW/IPPD/SS, V1.1, Staged) (CMU/SEI-2002-TR-012). Software Engineering Institute, Carnegie Mellon University, 2002, available here.