What Terms Should I Define First?

How to prioritise your business terms for definition when building a glossary

Mark Atkins, Intraversed


Businesses use a lot of business-specific language. That’s a given.

When building a business term glossary, all that business-specific language needs to be defined. That’s also a given.

And it’s also a LOT of words.

If you (metaphorically) pile all those terms down on the table at your next governance team meeting and expect to work your way through them, one-by-one, you’ll not only overwhelm yourselves with the vista of an unclimbable mountain, you’ll also risk spending your best energy (the energy you’ve got at the start of a project) on defining terms that really don’t matter.

That energy needs to be spent on the tough terms, the central terms that everyone uses and needs.

But even clarifying what those terms are can be a success-killing task.

So what’s the answer? Where can you start to get the best bang-for-buck and most valuable use of your team’s time?

Starting with Governance

I’ve already mentioned your governance team, but in case you’ve not pulled one together specifically for your glossary, you need to.

We actually refer to this team as your Business Term Governance Group (the core members of a broader Business Information Governance team). They’re a team made up of the staff who ultimately own (are accountable for) the terms included in the glossary (and the business processes those terms refer to, where applicable).

This usually means division heads or more senior managerial staff.

Their job is to assign your terms to authors and individuals responsible for ensuring the definition gets written and written well. They’ll approve the final definitions and oversee the ongoing management of the glossary.

So make sure you’ve got your governance team together and they understand why this work is important. You want commitment and buy-in from this team.

Next, Find Where the Issues Are

Once your governance team is assembled, you should have a fairly solid representation of the entire organisation on it. Your next goal is to determine where information issues are being experienced throughout the organisation.

This means, where people cannot get reports they need, spend time hunter-gathering data to deduce the information they need, or are finding reporting to be unreliable. Find out where are work-arounds for reporting being implemented at great cost or effort. Or where are new IT projects starting that need definition work completed in order to ensure project success.

These kinds of issues should guide your prioritisation of term definition work.

It’s useful to identify as many issues as you can throughout the organisation (which can be overwhelming in itself, but senior leaders should want to know this information, if they don’t already, as it’s directly affecting the cost of BAU and the reliability of the information they’re using for their business decision making).

Once you’ve got this list of issues and needs, the governance team can determine which are the most pressing. A priority list can be formed and it will guide the term definition work.

Determine the Terms Associated with the Most Pressing Issue/s

Once you’ve got an issue priority list, you can select the issue/s determined to be most pressing and formulate a list of terms associated with that issue.

A general list will suffice at this stage.

Your governance team should then determine broad ownership of these terms. The Intraversed approach here is to define libraries that loosely align to functional areas of your organisation. Once you’ve established your libraries, terms can be distributed to the most appropriate one.

Accountability over each of these libraries should be assigned to a relevant manager within those functional areas (likely those sitting on the governance team). That accountable person will then assign responsibility for writing the definitions of specific terms within that library. This will be aligned to the responsibility of the associated real world processes to which those processes refer, which is how glossary building and management becomes the foundation for all business information management.

Responsible authors can then assemble teams of SMEs and stakeholders, to help ensure the definition they write is effective, thorough and appropriate.

Note that certain terms will seem universal and it can be difficult to determine appropriate ownership. Terms like “customer” or “product” may be used by just about every sector of the organisation. But remember, ownership doesn’t mean dictatorship over the definition – the whole governance team must approve every definition. So assign an owner willing to take on the tricky business of defining these tough terms.

And believe me, the actual definition writing for such terms can seem almost impossible! But remember, these are the kind of terms that are most misunderstood, which makes them important to define first!

This is the point when companies often use Intraversed’s expert mentorship in definition writing and workshop facilitation. We train and guide governance teams in definition writing skills, stakeholder engagement and successfully clarifying definitions for their most difficult terms.

I know, that can seem alarming.

But don’t let this scare you into trying to find short cuts or adopting a near-enough-is-good-enough approach. Your core terms are central to the whole glossary being successful.

Keep in mind, once you’ve defined the tough, more universal terms, everything else will be far more straightforward.

One Term Definition Leads to Another

You’ll also find that once you’ve established your initial list of terms (associated with the highest priority issue/s), and you’re underway defining the universal terms, you’ll discover something pretty quickly: terms can be clingy – they like sticking together.

In other words, when you start to define a term, you’ll uncover other terms that need to be defined in order to complete the first term’s definition.

Those other terms must be added to your list of terms to define in the first round. The list can grow quickly and with it, the scope of your task.

Again, don’t let this worry you, it’s very normal.

The good news is, defining a term that sits within another term’s definition can help clarify and simplify the original, more complex definition.

Where to Next?

Once you’ve worked through the terms associated with the prioritised issue/s, move to the next issue/s.

It’s likely there will be some cross over of terms, so you’re no longer starting from scratch. Those hard, universal terms that now have completed definitions are likely to relate to this second batch of terms, so things will move much more quickly.

That’s another reason to define the core terms first. They’re the ones that are likely to stretch across issues.

You’ll keep working through your list of issues until you’ve reached the end.

Yes, that’ll likely take you a while and once you’re done, there may still be business terms undefined, which will need to be finished off.

These remaining terms will almost always have obvious ownership and be easy to assign to authors and accountable individuals.

Keeping the momentum is not easy. Remind the definition writing teams that building a glossary is really about building a community – they’re building useful and beneficial, cross-organisational connections.

And just FYI – once the terms have all been defined, you’re not done. That’s only the end of the establishment phase (a sizeable accomplishment, but just the first phase). From this point on, you’re in maintenance mode, and your governance team continues to manage the glossary, ensuring it remains current and accurate, lifecycle management of terms is undertaken, and issues that arise with the glossary are addressed.

We wrote about the benefits of a well-managed glossary here, in case you need convincing.

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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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