What we learned from implementing a business glossary

15 March 2021
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A business glossary is the foundation that creates a common understanding of your organization’s vocabulary and data. While the concept isn’t anything complex, the implementation can be quite daunting. In this article we provide the key lessons we’ve learned while implementing a business glossary use case at our clients.

Common business glossary challenges

Once you understand the value of building a business glossary, it’s only natural that a lot of questions arise: Where to start? Who will own and maintain the glossary? And how about the different terms and where to store it? How to create awareness and excitement throughout the organization?

If you want your data governance use case to be a success, getting your key stakeholders on board is crucial as they are the drivers of your business glossary. But as different stakeholders are involved, it can be challenging to not lose an overview of your Business glossary effort.

Let's take a closer look and elaborate on some key takeaways that we learned while tackling these challenges.

Defining your business terms: where to start?

The good news is that you probably don’t have to start from scratch. It’s very likely that various teams or departments already started describing their business terms. An alternative approach to find terms and definitions that are used at the organization is to have a look at external sources such as an important supplier. These lists are a perfect starting point for your company-wide business glossary.

The most important advice we can give is to start small and build your glossary gradually. Either start tackling it department by department, division by division or even use case by use case. Defining your Business glossary also does not have to be a standalone project. Another interesting approach, is to start within the scope of a bigger project. Imagine you’re implementing a new BI tool, a data warehouse or implementing a data catalog. This is the perfect time to start defining the business terms you come across.

Start small and build your business glossary gradually, either department by department, division by division or even use case by use case.

Before you actually start documenting terms, concepts and their definitions, we advise to create some definition guidelines and naming conventions. This will ensure your glossary stays consistent over time as it will be used by variety of people and in different departments. Also think about the granularity of the business terms you want to document. This can be hard to define and depends on your organization's context whether the additional layer of granularity still adds value to your glossary, from defining it at the level of a column where data is stored or more higher-level concepts.

And finally, as a good tool is the cornerstone of data management and data governance, it's recommended to store your business glossary in a centralized tool which can be accessed by anyone in the organization. Whether it's sufficient enough to store it on your organization's internal portal or use a dedicated tool such as Collibra, is up to you. In the end, the goal should be clear: easy access to your business glossary, assigning ownership and enabling your organization to maintain and contribute to its own business glossary.

Summary:

  • Don't start from a blank slate, start with what is publicly available or within your own organization
  • The pie is easier to digest if you cut it into pieces
  • A bigger project as leverage to start a business glossary
  • Naming and definition guidelines
  • Make your business glossary accessible and centrally available

How to embed your business glossary?

A business glossary is the answer to miscommunication and inefficiency and allows people from different backgrounds to speak the same language. Helping Business and IT employees springs to mind. But possibly even employees from HR and legal might use similar concepts but interpret them differently. In order to achieve this alignment, it's important that everyone are using the business glossary throughout the organization. Therefore, we need to make sure the business glossary lives and grows in your organization.

Take your time to decide on the kind of information you want to collect about your terms and to think about a process to create, validate and maintain your business terms. To implement it in such a way people in your organization can contribute to your glossary. For example, you can allow anyone in the organization to propose new business terms and design a whole approval or recertification process to make sure that the correct information is created and stays up-to-date. When everyone has the possibility to contribute, your business glossary will be more precise in the long term. Wikipedia is actually a great example of a huge knowledge database purely created by volunteers who are contributing to, editing and correcting its content over time.

Wikipedia is a great example of how everyone's contributions can result in a huge knowledge database. The same holds true for your business glossary.

You cannot gather the requirements for these kind of processes for the whole organization of course. As your Business glossary evolves more progressively, you can use the same approach in designing these processes. Get your requirements of the key stakeholders with whom you’re working with. While your business glossary evolves and when you onboard new stakeholders, take time to re-evaluate the processes that you have in place and further refine them if needed.

Next to involving your employees in the business glossary as part of a larger process, it's important to assign ownership to data. Depending on your operating model that can be defined at term, data category or division level. This is key in further embedding it in your organization as people will be more engaged when they become responsible of something. And other stakeholders will be more likely to trust the provided information. These owners can also function as key promotors in further embedding the business glossary to have a better understanding of what you can find and its purpose.

Remember that your business glossary is in an ever-changing mode. That's why embedding it in within your organization is crucial.

In the end, your business glossary will never be really complete. It will be in an ever-changing mode. Some terms might be defined differently over time or even completely disappear, while new terms can be identified as well. Embedding a process to ensure your business glossary remains up-to-date and being used is key if you want your business glossary to survive.

Summary:

  • Collaborate on the business glossary
  • Assign ownership
  • Take your time to define a process
  • Your business glossary will never be complete

See the forest for the trees: Analyze and visualize your glossary

Business glossaries tend to become very extensive, which makes it hard to oversee it and duplicates and synonyms will inevitably appear. A common example are business terms that are stored and named differently but refer to the same physical field. These need to be mapped so people can find similar information easily, no matter in which way they search for the term.

During the documentation exercise, synonyms will occur without you knowing it. A colleague in another department might document the same physical data using their terminology, while you’re using yours. Don’t worry! This is a good thing, your glossary is being used and becoming a success! In that case, a good tool that stores and consolidates the different glossaries in a central place might be helpful to spot duplicates visually and even automatically based on Machine Learning.

Don't forget to keep track of your business glossary progress from the beginning. Report on a series of KPIs that give an overview of your content in the business glossary and its status e.g. new, approved and obsolete business terms,... Also report on whether your business glossary is actively being used and whether you’re able to engage employees e.g. most/least searched business term, sequences in search behavior (e.g. are they ending up on a business term by navigating from the data stored in databases or reports?).

Tracking these KPIs will give you a close view how your business glossary is continuously evolving and if you are able to engage the employees to contribute to the business glossary which is key feedback if you want your Business glossary to succeed.

It goes without saying that a dedicated Data Governance tool can make your life easier to analyze your metadata and report on KPIs.

Summary:

  • Be aware of synonyms and duplicates
  • Track your business glossary by defining KPIs
  • Data governance tool as single source to analyze and report on metadata

Where to go from here?

You now know what a business glossary is, why it’s so valuable and hopefully our key lessons and takeaways for implementing it helped you on the right track. Still need help to get you started? We’re happy to help, so don't hesitate to reach out.