Getting business staff to deliver their definitions

Mark Atkins, Intraversed


Getting business staff to deliver their definitions

If you're in charge of getting definitions from your business, whether it's to proceed with a project or to build a glossary, you may have encountered some difficulty.

It's not uncommon.

Actually, it's pretty common.

We talk a lot about why you need a glossary, why you need great definitions, how definitions impact project success, information quality and tech spend... but today, we're getting into the gritty of it. How do you actually get those business staff to write their definitions??

Maybe you sent around the excel sheet and all you heard in return was crickets.

Maybe you sent out your Collibra invites and no one responds.

Maybe you've mentioned they should have some workshops, but nothing seems to eventuate.

Everyone's too busy, and not engaged enough to prioritise this work.

Yep, it's a hard sell.

Here's our advice on what to do, and stop doing, to get those definitions written.

No more excel spreadsheets

We've met many IT staff who, being used to spreadsheets, data bases and the world of cells, columns and formulas, think the world is as in love with excel as you are.

Not so.

And when it comes to making writing easy, excel simply isn't going to cut it.

It seems to offer an acceptable layout for your purposes, but, as you've no doubt experienced, it won't get completed.


Because your business staff have different purposes when it comes to writing those definitions than you have for using them. You need to give them a writing environment that makes it easy for them to do their part.

Excel is not that environment.

Here's a few quick points to explain why excel isn't your friend when it comes to writing definitions:

  • It's an unappealing interface for complex writing – everything's in boxes.
  • It doesn't have clear pages with nicely spaced lines, which makes writing logical and easier.
  • It's more effort to start a new line, and paragraphs don't really work.
  • Cells don't always adjust to show all the text, they can align to the bottom of the cell – it's more work to read and write text blocks.
  • It doesn't offer editing options and track changes easily.

So what should you use?
I can hear your answer – Word!

Sorry, wrong again.

No more word documents

While the difficulties with using Excel, listed above, are largely resolved with word – its layout is great for writing, editing, reading etc, there are still too many issues with using word.

Here's a few:

  • Unless you're able to use a centralised, multi-user document (like a Google Doc) that allows for many editors at once without over-writing, you'll risk having multiple documents and you won't know which is the right one.
  • There may not be a "right" one, there is likely to be many people's opinions on each definition. Or one person's, and that's not great either (see the next point, below). Version control is a big issue!
  • When 25 people have all had their turn at editing your one document, you've probably used up several weeks and you end up with a track changed document that is not only a nightmare to read, it has a million possible choices, everyone's suggestions over-written by the next person's, and even if you can decipher a final definition, you'll send that one round and have a whole bunch of "what about my suggestion of..." Responses.

So what's your next solution?

Perhaps you've got a glossary tool, maybe in Collibra, or Alation. So, you invite business stakeholders to gain a log in to the tool, and hope they'll get to writing their definitions there. Perfect.

...or not.

No more expecting business staff to engage in your DM tool's glossary

While the idea is strong – have everyone using a central glossary tool, writing and discussing definition options in one place (we love this idea!) – this approach is unlikely to work well, and it is likely to take a lot of effort.

Let me be clear: definition writing and glossary building is work and will take effort. There is no easy fix.

But we see too many IT staff assume that because their data management (DM) data catalogue tool has a glossary component built for writing and storing business definitions, that business staff will happily and readily use it, spending their time engaging and discussing definitions using the tool.

This rarely happens.

Here's a few reasons why:

  • To risk stating the obvious too obviously: the glossary in your DM tool lives within a DM tool. DM tools are built to do DM work, in a way that suits data managers. It's not built in a way that works for business staff. It's too technical. It wants to link business terms to data points which isn't as simple as it's made out to be (this topic is a whole other blog post) and causes a lot of problems. Business staff want the process to be easy. It can't always be, but software complexity shouldn't be where they encounter issues.
  • They are speaking (writing) into software, engaging with staff they do not know, talking about complex things via messaging and commenting forms, and it just doesn't serve the purpose of gaining clarity well. It quickly becomes too hard to explain the complicated uses and business process associated with the term, via these formats. They give up. It's not built for purpose and it's too hard.

So, what's the answer?

Getting definitions written

Here's our suggestions for getting your definitions written and your glossary underway.

Accept the time and effort involved Recognise this is a bigger undertaking that just filling out a document. It requires some serious time and thought work. People with differing uses of the term need to understand each other's uses and then come to an agreement about the definition of the term. It can require the explanation of business processes, of lifecycles and other related issues. It's never going to be simple. It's never going to be something done well without live, person-to-person discussion.

Accept you need a community of engaged writers Because of the complexity of many terms, and the need for involvement from across the organisation, accept that you have to build a community of writers and contributors. It's not easy and it can take time to build this community. But, workshops will do this building, if they're engaging and the relevance of the work is clear. It's worthwhile building these communities but it will take your commitment.

Accept you have to be involved The "here, you do it" attitude inherent in the sending round of an excel sheet isn't the right attitude to take. It's lazy and disrespectful. As an IT professional, you should care about the quality and completeness of your definitions and glossary (we wrote about that in this blog). It matters to your job, impacting your ability to do your part of the process well. So accept that you need to be at the workshops, engage with the discussion and understand the difficulties business staff are facing when trying to define each term.

Be respectful, appreciative and understanding While this definition work does affect business staff in the long run, in the short term they will likely not see the value for themselves. So their involvement is an extra burden to their busy days. Be respectful of their time (don't waste it), be appreciative of their involvement (bring snacks to workshops!) and be understanding when they've had enough and need a break, when they can't make it or when something else just has to take priority.

Hire help if you need to Yes, I'm biased here because I get hired to help businesses write definitions and build glossaries. But I, and the team at Intraversed, have the experience and knowledge to get the initial definition writing done much quicker and more successfully than most businesses' internal staff can do. And we do more than just help write definitions. We train your community of writers to write really great definitions, which makes the processes easier and more effective once our engagement is over. It's an investment that just makes sense.

A final note on successful glossaries

It also pays to remember that glossaries are not a set-and-forget thing.

They must be managed if they're to be useful and worth the investment. A definition might be right for now, but a year from now it may need tweaking. New language arises and old language is no longer used. These updates need to be managed in your glossary to keep it reliable for usage in all projects and other communication in the organisation.

So, securing an ongoing budget for glossary management is essential to ensure your efforts at building a glossary are worth it. We've written blogs about justifying your glossary investment here and here.

Want to know more about how we can help you write your definitions & build your glossary?
Contact us and we'll set up a Zoom conversation to discuss your needs and the best solutions for you. Use our contact form here.

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Mark Atkins, Intraversed

Mark Atkins

Mark is a co-founder & Chief Development Officer at Intraversed, helping organisations establish the Intralign Ecosystem, an award winning information management & governance methodology, to achieve reliable information, stable tech spend & greater IT project success.

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