Common Business Term Problem Symptoms

Much of the information assets of an organization are captured in business glossaries which are the compendiums of business terms, their definitions and other properties that form the organization’s core business vocabulary. It is critical that these vocabularies are understandable, shareable and reliably consistent within a business context.  Unfortunately, this is often not the case.  There are several symptoms that indicate if these vocabularies are not fulfilling their purpose, thus leaving the business open to unnecessary and costly errors in both transactions and analytics. Major symptoms include:

Inconsistency of meaning within and/or across related business functions and units.

Many glossaries are created locally from the bottom up.  Intended to serve a local business context, inconsistencies and conflicts in meaning, and often structure, appear only when attempts to integrate business functions within the enterprise reveal important discrepancies, i.e. a glossary may be valid locally but not globally.  For example, the investigation into the 2010 San Bruno pipeline explosion that killed eight people ‘found that pipeline records were not accurate, complete, or verifiable.’ In particular, misinterpretation of the acronym ‘sml’ to mean ‘seamless’ from accounting department records and transfer of that misinterpretation to ‘PG&E’s all-important computerized database’ led PG&E to believe the pipeline had no welds when in fact it did as ultimately found in other engineering records.  This mis-identification was one of the root causes of the explosion and is a lesson on the importance of consistency of meaning for terms and acronyms.

Missing or inconsistent policies, management practices and standards.

In some organizations where business terms are highly localized, management and governance practices may be functionally limited although adequate for local purpose.  As organizations expand and become more complex, the overlap and interoperation of business functions increase, revealing disconnects and conflicts in merging business term usage. If business glossary management practices haven’t matured to meet the expansion, conflict and issue resolution and change management attempts will fail until policies, management practices and standards become congruent across the organization.

Non-alignment between business and the data that support the business.

Both transactional and analytic systems need to have accurate and precise implementations of business requirements. Negative indicators of mis- or non-alignment include ambiguities due to non-uniqueness where a term or its data derivative have multiple meanings and/or usage. Additionally, term meanings may be hidden, circular, obscure or entirely absent.

Breakdown in communications and sharing due to a lack of unified standards.

In 1999, NASA lost a $125-million Mars Climate Orbiter because engineers failed to convert from English to metric measurements in the exchange of vital data.  Specifically, ‘The navigation team at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) used the metric system of millimeters and meters in its calculations, while Lockheed Martin Astronautics in Denver, Colorado, which designed and built the spacecraft, provided crucial acceleration data in the English system of inches, feet, and pounds.‘  As in this example, achieving successful integration and interoperability of complex systems is strongly dependent on a common understanding and unification of the underlying standards that apply and control the information and components of these systems.

Some or All of the Above

The presence of any of these symptoms is a flag that effective business decisions and operations are at higher risk. The good news is the overall challenge of designing and managing business terms can be met.

Architectural and Operational Considerations for Managing  Business Terms

To have an effective business term management approach, several key concepts need to be included in the analysis and synthesis of a solution, as follows:

Integrating multiple glossaries

Complex business environments will most likely have multiple business glossaries.  Management and integration of these glossaries need to have defined policies, standards, processes, skills and technologies to handle this task.

Mapping business terms to data

Operational data needs to be consistent with and traceable to the originating business concepts and needs.

Adoption of a common business term concept across functional and organizational units.

The rationale for an organizational wide business term management approach needs to be understood and supported by all stakeholders.

Managing the evolving glossary

Growth, evolution and change is a constant factor in business that must be managed at both the business term and data levels.

Validation and Verification (Meaning and Structure)

The means to validate the meaning of business terms and verify their compliance to standards.

A Reliable Approach to Solving Business Term Management Issues

Having business term content, business term/data management infrastructure and business term management best practices are major elements required for a successful business term management solution.  Three core steps are necessary:

Step 1: Discovery

Understanding the complexity of an organization’s business vocabulary is essential. What is the nature of the variations in the organization’s collections of business terms?  What are the sources and users of the business terms and what constraints  on business term structure and content do they require? What are the overlaps and redundancies,  as well as the differences in form (i.e. datatype) and meaning of the terms? Which terms are critical to the organization? Is there an existing foundation of commonly shared terms or does that foundation have to be built or acquired? Is there a third-party reference source available to create a start to the business glossary effort by providing template common and industry terms?
Without answers to these and related questions, embarking on a journey to develop or improve a business vocabulary is driving a back-country road at night with the lights off.

Step 2: Management

Establishing goals and critical success factors, as well as policies, standards and management practices is the essence of sound management and governance.  It is not rocket science and excellent guidance can be found amongst industry sources such as CMMI’s Data Management Maturity Model
Establishing the goals for business term development and management with the participation of all stakeholders is one of the best ways to unify support across the organization. These goals are also the basis for defining the organization’s strategies.

Step 3: Infrastructure

Developing or acquiring the technological framework needed to support the integration and rationalization of existing legacy glossaries and hosting a unified glossary should not be the first step in this sequence, but the last. The requirements for this framework can be complex and this is likely to require a major investment. It is additionally important that the framework provides linkage of business terms to the organization’s data dictionary thus assuring alignment and traceability between the business and data domains. A mistake in the choice of infrastructure can defeat the best intentions of the organization. 

Working together, these steps enable organizations to rapidly harmonize the chaos of multiple, discontinuous and conflicting business term collections and establish alignment with the supporting data systems of the business.

Learn more at Sandhill Consultants’ Nov 21st webcast ‘Building a solid foundation for a Data Catalog with a Universal Business Glossary™’  featuring Len Silverston.