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The path of the glossary champion inside a large organisation is not enviable.
And it carries very little thanks or acknowledgement (in fact, it's a path that tolerates a lot of frustrated sighs from other parts of the business).
Truth be told, just getting onto the path is a troubled journey in itself.
Convincing your business it needs a glossary, and that the glossary needs significant time and financial investment, can feel impossible.
We've been there. We've supported others there. We get it.
The information we've pulled together in this blog is designed to help glossary champions support their position and, hopefully, convince those with the power to approve the glossary that it's a no-brainer for any business that cares about assurance, cost-effective processes and bottom-line success.
Financial benefit is not the only thing that matters. But in business, it's the most important of the things that matter.
If there's not a clear financial benefit to an investment, you're going to struggle to convince a business to invest.
So it's great to know that there is a clear ROI on glossary investment.
We worked with a large organisation to estimate the annual cost of re-writing project requirement glossary entries because existing glossary definitions were hard to find or ambiguous.
When the cost of building a central glossary was offset against those project costs, we could confidently say that this organisation would see an ROI on glossary build investment after 7 months.
That's a pretty short turnaround time.
In research conducted by Robert Walters Consulting and The Newton Group, it was found that 38% of project failures are due to an inability to clearly define information. A further 34% are due to being solution focused over requirement analysis (which involves understanding those requirements accurately – which requires clearly defined language).
How much could your company save if new projects didn't need to re-define any terms and all definition-based issues were eliminated?
We worked with a major Asia Pacific Telco whose CFO could not get a reliable figure when seeking the number of basic phone plans they had active.
In fact, he got 7 very different numbers from the 7 different functional areas involved in counting basic phone plans.
After several years and several millions of dollars spent trying to resolve these figures, my colleagues and I were brought in to find the cause and fix the issue.
We established a working group of stakeholders from across the organisation, through which we discovered seven different definitions used for "basic phone plan". Once a single definition was decided upon, we applied it to the data and data processing involved in the reporting of this metric.
We built a data analytics environment that would apply this definition and thereby supported accurate, reliable and more frequent reporting of this and other related metrics.
The key to remember here is that this organisation had already spent a LOT of money assuming it was a software/IT issue.
But it was a language/communication issue, with impact to business process.
It wouldn't have been resolved with more, or fancier, software.
And it wouldn't have been resolved without standardising language across the organisation.
And more pertinently, if a universal glossary had been established before the reporting systems were built out, and maintained as the basic phone business changed, this organisation would have saved a huge amount of money, time and effort.
Along with the financial risk outlined above, inconsistent language and poor communication presents the possibility of legal, reputational, regulatory and HR risk.
We've seen this risk a lot with clients.
One client risked submitting incorrect figures to regulatory bodies because staff were not consistent or clear about how to calculate those figures.
Another client had internal policies requiring them to provide customers with a certain document within a limited time-period. Because of poor definitions, their reporting on the email process for providing that document was invalid, and this resulted in a continued reliance on physical mailouts despite significant investment in an email alternative.
In both these cases, and so many more, the organisations were faced with significant risk. And even more alarmingly, the issues creating these risks often go unreported to management.
Most senior managers have no idea how much risk exists within their business
An effective glossary, one that is paired with effective information resource management, has the potential to provide mitigation in many areas simply by providing visibility over where definitional discrepancies exist in current business process and reporting.
We've already mentioned the inefficient re-definition process that usually happens at the beginning of an IT project. Poor definition writing in this phase can be the source of project failure or issues with outputs.
But businesses should also consider the cost of inefficiencies in IT projects when staff recognise issues arising from terminology and are forced to slow the project down to rectify them, matching business definitions with the correct reference data.
One of our previous clients was tracking the time project staff spent in meetings to resolve confusion over definition and source of suitable data. This is a useful way to calculate an ROI on glossary investment!
A term that caused such meetings was "brand", one of the dimensions against which the metrics would be presented in a dashboard the project was to build.
Overall, we measured 10% of project cost that could have been avoided had (a) the definition of "brand" been available at the start of the project and (b) the issues pertaining to the many versions of "list of brands" had been visible at the start.
Both these conditions would have been met in an effective glossary.
Every member of management, particularly senior managers, depend on business information when making business decisions. It's extremely important that such information is reliable – without it, business decisions can be disastrous.
Reliable reporting requires organisation-wide language consistency.
It really is that simple.
For example, when senior managers in an insurance company want to know how many policyholders they have, they and their teams first need to define what constitutes a policyholder. Without that, it lands on individuals or functional areas throughout the organisation to decide on whether or not a customer is a policyholder and the result can be gross over- or under-reporting.
Here's an instance of this we've actually seen. A business buys insurance for its staff. It's usually negotiated and purchased as one policy. But when the insurance company needs to report on how many policyholders it has, is this business customer's purchase considered one policy or should each insured staff member of the business be counted as a policyholder?
These two options would represent a significant reporting difference, but in a large insurance company, with tens of thousands of customers, the wrong number may not be noticed at a senior level.
If those senior managers read their report believing the figure to represent one definition, but the reported number represented the other, you've got the groundwork for very risky business decisions.
Senior managers should be very concerned about the quality and comprehension of the information they're using. And glossaries can give a significant amount of assurance that information is reliably understood.
So I'll say it again – reliable reporting requires organisation-wide language consistency.
Reporting issues rooted in language inconsistency can become visible even as the glossary is being established, making glossary establishment beneficial very quickly. It allows the causes of previously unresolved issues to be identified, and as well as bringing to light previously unseen issues.
You can literally see the quality of your information coming into focus.
Businesses also stand to do better in the long term if a quality glossary is established and maintained (let's not forget the maintenance!) because new information issues are less likely to arise. This reduces project failures, tech spend and expensive workarounds for reports that can't be correctly produced by the reporting software.
Over time, that cost saving, and avoiding the inherent risks involved in manually rectifying reports, can add up to better business assurance.
Every business in the 21st century knows that digital disruption could hit their industry fast and render inflexible businesses obsolete.
It's a very real threat and most big businesses won't see it coming till it's already undermining them.
So how can you future-proof your business from digital disruption?
Of course, it'll never be 100% achievable. But when your language is clearly defined, and your IT systems have been securely built around that language, building out new technology to incorporate digital advancements is easier to achieve, more successful and less risky.
Quality glossaries that are well-maintained make businesses more agile in the face of rapid change to systems, processes and outputs.
Information management and governance is an increasing concern for large businesses.
But knowing how to ensure these activities are established correctly and are achieving their intended outcomes is difficult.
A glossary has a huge role to play both in knowing how to begin, and in establishing effective accountability over, information management in an organisation.
Each term in your glossary should have an owner and responsible parties. Using the same hierarchy of accountability for the information associated with key business terms and metrics means your glossary becomes a central platform for IM and governance.
When your glossary tool is seamlessly connected to an IM tool, operated by the business, and designed with best-practice governance as its goal, your governance team has visibility over IM and accountability. And that supports active and effective governance.
Still think comprehensive governance is a "nice but not essential" activity?
We once had a client who appointed a "business owner" to a database of personal information. This individual was responsible for approving the release of data from the system. But this individual was not familiar with the details of the data or the implication of releasing data in different requests, which could be combined to reveal identifiable personal information.
Ownership was applied at a level too high in the hierarchy for the incumbent to understand all the data security requirements of all the data that was owned.
Of course, this owner released data that should not have been released, resulting in a breach of security that could have had significant implications for the business.
What should worry most senior managers is that this breach was not reported. The senior managers in this organisation did not know the risk they were living with, simply because poor IM meant the wrong person owned that data.
What was needed was the application of ownership at a level familiar with the specific data.
Data ownership should have been assigned in line with the ownership of the key term associated with the data in the glossary. That owner would have been familiar enough with the data to be able to write and manage the definition & rules associated with the term (all managed in the glossary). This would include what data was available and issues and obligations associated with data release.
We've conducted a lot of staff interviews in our many years of building glossaries and doing definition work. We've seen a LOT of companies where language management is poor (or non-existent).
Failed IT projects limp along, propped-up by armies of staff, manually fixing reporting issues.
Staff are perpetually thwarted in their ability to obtain the reports they want and need to deliver excellence.
Staff can't engage in the innovation and new development they'd like to deliver for the business.
Sometimes "under-the-table" workarounds are in place, relying on personal relationships forged between staff members. But these are lost when those staff leave.
All this adds up to:
massive staff frustration,
significant under-utilisation of skills and abilities,
loss of enthusiasm and engagement,
higher staff turnover, and
staff who don't care about efficiencies or effective working methods because the company at large has not cared enough about providing them with the environment in which they can excel.
Staff in these kinds of environments can't succeed.
No manager wants to manage a human resources landscape like this. It makes their jobs harder and their success less likely.
And no business is at its best when this is the reality for staff on the ground. It's a huge pit of unseen financial cost, and more importantly, it costs the business innovative growth and competitive advantage.
Your glossary can serve as the starting point for cleaning up and streamlining current and future reporting systems.
When it's well managed, has sufficient investment and is actively used as a central communications tool throughout an organisation, your glossary can transform your employee's experience. They can begin to excel, achieve greater success in their roles and be excited about promoting up through an organisation that believes in investing in solid information foundations for its own, and its employee's, success.
That's an organisation that people love working for.
And organisations people love working for attract the best people.
We've got you covered. Contact us today to discuss your business glossary and get all the information you need to convince your management team they need a really great glossary.Join the discussion on LinkedIn
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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