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Same Data, Different Meaning: Why You Need a Governed Business Glossary

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We, as humans, but also as employees of organizations, speak different languages and come from different cultures. But even when we speak the seemingly same language, we can have different dialects and use different words for the same things. My wife and I are both from Austria but we are from different regions. Even though we both speak German and Austria is a small country, we also use different regional dialects which caused some confusion – especially with our written conversations – in the beginning. For example, we use the word “netta” which relates to the German word for “nur” (English: “only”) in my dialect but the German word for “nicht” (English: “not”) in her dialect. This is setup for a potential communication disaster if you’re not aware of it.

In the business world, we also use different synonyms for the same terms but also have a different perspective on a business term depending on the line of business we work in. The context plays a big role for terms and definitions.

As an example, in finance, a “counterparty” is a legal entity: it means the other party in a financial transaction. However, in technology, it could mean a financial platform to create a peer-to-peer application on the bitcoin “blockchain.” Or to make it even simpler: the term “customer” in a sales organization could mean something very different than the term “customer” for an accounting organization.

Dimensions of a Business Glossary

All the above leads to different dimensions we need to be aware of when creating a business glossary. In my above examples, I have three dimensions, but there could be many more:

  • geography/region and culture
  • business unit
  • context

All of this may sound obvious. But if that’s the case, then why do so many businesses fail to have such a list?

Pitfalls of Failing to Govern Your Business Glossary

There are certain pitfalls that companies fall into by creating and using business glossaries and not governing them. Looking at those dimensions of glossaries mentioned above, there can be different terms but also different definitions used for the same assets within an organization. If business units work in a vacuum, and departmental silos do not consider the big picture and the impact and relations to the rest of the organization, the lack of governance will eventually become an issue for company-wide initiatives. This is also why any data governance program requires company-wide buy-in from all business stakeholders.

It’s Time to Speak the Same Language

A business glossary is a living body that is constantly changing and evolving. It is important to have an established governance process on the creation of a company-wide business glossary which entails not only terms and definition, but also responsibilities, rules, and policies. You must also establish data lineage of those data assets as described in my colleague Stan’s blog post “Data Lineage: Not Just a Bigger Mop.” This process also involves collaboration and communication between lines of business and working groups to agree on an enterprise-wide business glossary. Having said that, using the right technology to support this collaboration and processes is essential for a successful data governance program and to enable all stakeholders to speak the same “language.”

Andreas worked in software solutions for data management for most of his career. At Collibra as a Product Specialist and PreSales Engineer he is involved in design and delivery of enterprise data governance solutions. Prior to joining Collibra, he was responsible for designing, developing and delivering EDM solutions at major financial services enterprises. Andreas has started his career as a Software Entrepreneur in Austria and has a bachelor degree in Business Informatics.