What is a Business Glossary? Knowing Your Nouns

Graham Wilson

Graham Wilson

Graham is a business architect with 30 years' experience on Australian and New Zealand government agencies. He is skilled at steering a path between business and IT. Graham has been responsible for guiding business representatives on the architecture of significant government initiatives.

A business glossary defines the meaning of the nouns you use for the objects that exist in your business.

Nouns name things. Specifically, nouns name the (tangible) objects and (intangible) concepts that are relevant to a business. (This article describes both objects and concepts as ‘business objects.’) A business buzzes with the names of its business objects, used freely in every conversation, every report, every meeting. The language of a business lubricates communication and understanding.

Where Confusion Arises

Like any language, a business’s language is rife with different nouns that refer to the same business object, and the same noun used to mean different business objects. On a university campus, ‘student’ might refer to a person actively enrolled in a course, or to a young person who is considering enrolling, or to a person who has graduated and is eligible for the alumni association, or possibly even to a young customer of a local cafe.

The meaning of a noun is often well-understood within the silo of a business unit. There is no confusion about what a student is within the course administration division or the school-leavers outreach team. But when these divisions try to answer the question ‘how many students do we have?’, they have different answers. When the university wants to say how many students it has, which number should it pick?

How to Resolve Issues

The resolution of this problem starts with defining the nouns of business objects clearly and unambiguously. Since we cannot hope to eliminate other nouns used within silos to mean the same business object, the business glossary also identifies acceptable synonyms. For example, ‘client’, ‘applicant’, and ‘licensee’ are synonyms of ‘customer’. Collecting and sharing these nouns, their definitions, and synonyms, is the purpose of a business glossary.

A business glossary is a means of sharing the internal vocabulary of the organisation. It houses the agreed-upon definitions of business terms.[i] A business glossary is fundamental to governing a business’s data effectively.

The business objects that are core to a business (such as ‘student’ for a university) are usually of interest to many parts of the organisation. Typically, these business units develop their own vocabulary for these critical business objects, or at least their own understanding of what the nouns mean. This is fine within their own business silo.

The Key to Data Exchange Across the Organisation

It’s when one business unit goes to share information about a business object with another unit that confusion and miscommunication arise. A comprehensive collection of nouns and their definitions and synonyms, agreed by all interested stakeholders, is the first step in facilitating data exchange and cross-organisation reporting.

As well as helping us to understand and share information, the business glossary permeates an organisation’s entire business architecture. Business architects use a practice called ‘information mapping’.[ii] Information mapping defines the nouns used by the organisation to describe their business objects – in essence, information mapping delivers a business glossary and is the first step in modelling the organisation’s data. Information mapping is the keystone that supports the definition of business capabilities, value streams and organisational structure, as well as (importantly) the relationships between all these items.

Each business capability typically manages a business object. For example, a business has a ‘customer’ business object and a corresponding capability ‘customer management’. With a clear definition of the noun ‘customer’ in the glossary, we are clear about the scope of the ‘customer management’ capability. Also, we can confidently associate ‘customer management’ with the parts of the value streams it supports. It enables us to map the business units that manage or use customer information in some way.

The glossary’s definition of ‘customer’ differentiates that object from ‘partner’, ‘prospect’, and ‘staff member’ business objects (among others). This enables us to clearly distinguish between ‘customer management’, ‘partner management’ and ‘human resource management’ capabilities.[1]

Coping With Change

This precise understanding of business language is crucial when business leaders decide to invest in change initiatives. Clear definitions of the capabilities that will be impacted by an initiative, and cross-mapping of those capabilities to the business objects they manage or use, will greatly clarify the scope and objectives of an initiative. The nouns defined in the business glossary expedite achieving this clarity.

An Operational Backbone

The current trend towards creating digital services is based on the hope that they will improve customer convenience, streamline the delivery of services, and facilitate better decision making. Some proponents argue that digital services can be built and deployed rapidly, using an agile approach, without worrying too much about getting the architectural underpinnings right. Often the last thing on the mind of a digital delivery team is making use of a business glossary to ensure they are using business objects consistently with other capabilities, systems, and services.

However, according to Jeanne Ross, one of the components that successful digitised businesses must build is an operational backbone, “a coherent set of standardised, integrated systems, processes, and data supporting a company’s core operations”.[iii] A business glossary enables that coherence. An operational backbone can only be achieved if it is underpinned by a shared understanding of the nouns used by the business for all of its business objects. Hence, an agreed-upon business glossary is a vital step towards digitising a business.

What is a Business Glossary? The Summary

There are several good reasons for knowing your nouns. A business glossary that defines the agreed and shared meaning of the names of the organisation’s business objects is a critical tool. A business glossary underpins and gives meaning to the organisation’s data. A business glossary enables the precise expression of the business capabilities and how they work together, which in turn forms the basis of sound planning and execution of change initiatives. Finally, a business glossary is an essential requisite to building an operational backbone to enable the business to successfully digitise services and realise desired customer and operational benefits.

[1] Let’s leave aside for now the data modeller’s interest in generalising these business objects to create a ‘party’ object. Since ‘party’ is common language only in a few industries, such as law, you won’t often find ‘party’ in a business glossary or a ‘party management’ capability in a real business.

[i] DAMA-DMBOK: Data Management Body of Knowledge; 2nd Edition; DAMA International; 2017

[ii] A Guide to the Business Architecture Body of Knowledge (BIZBOK Guide); Business Architecture Guild; 2019

[iii] Designed for Digital: how to architect your business for sustained success; Jeanne W. Ross et al; MIT Press; 2019

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