Developing a business glossary

A business glossary is a tool which helps document and manage terms which help understand the data used by your agency.

Developing a business glossary can be a first step to improve metadata management. Identifying key terms and classifying them can make it easier to describe and classify metadata elements, and adopt additional management tools in future as needed.

A business glossary can: 

  • encourage shared understanding across users in all business areas
  • increase the data literacy of staff
  • streamline reporting, data analytics and other data initiatives
  • provide an invaluable resource for new users
  • increase trust in data.

Ideally, a business glossary should be:

  • developed collaboratively across business areas
  • overseen by a central group
  • made available to all users
  • arranged logically
  • searchable.

Steps to develop a business glossary

Unless your agency is newly established, the best way to develop a business glossary is from the bottom up, by consulting business areas. The initiative can be managed by a small group, such as an information management team, but should be overseen by a cross-agency senior management group, such as an information governance committee. The committee can approve terms for inclusion or retirement, and promote its use across the agency.

Depending on the resources at your disposal, you might find that limiting your business glossary to a single domain, such as a project, business area, or function, and scaling up to include other domains over time is more manageable. 

1. Decide on the components of your glossary

Deciding what you will record in your business glossary is an important starting point, as it will guide the kind of information you need to gather. A business glossary can record the following types of information about a term:

  • definition
  • type of term
  • relationships to other terms
  • source of term
  • business owner
  • its current status (for example: date of approval, last update, scheduled for review, retired)
  • use in data sources
  • alternative titles, acronyms and abbreviations
  • a unique identifier, such as a serial number.

2. Gather key business terms from across the agency

If you have already developed a metadata framework, you will have examined metadata and classification schemes used by your agency. This is a good starting point for identifying key terms.

You can gather more information by:

  • documenting column headings from key reports making use of important data
  • reviewing functions in general and agency-specific records authorities

You should also consider sending out a questionnaire to business areas, or interviewing key staff. It can be very helpful to come up with a list of questions in advance. The questions will vary depending on the components of your glossary, but could initially be as simple as: 

  • Are there any terms you use that are not well understood by other teams?
  • Are there terms you have seen in agency reports or systems that you don’t understand?

3. Prioritise your terms

Devise a way to prioritise your terms to come up with a manageable list to start with. You could do this by only using terms used in high level planning or reporting documents, such as your Corporate Plan, or terms related to priority projects. You may find, after interviewing staff, that there are a number of critical business terms that are commonly misunderstood or misinterpreted in your agency – addressing these should be a priority. 

4. Describe your terms and agree on meanings

Work with business areas to define, describe and agree on the meaning of terms. If possible, make your draft glossary visible to all staff via an online, collaborative platform to support this process. It may be necessary to bring together staff from multiple business areas to agree on the meaning of terms that are ambiguous or are used differently across the agency. 

It is not unusual to find a single term with multiple distinct meanings. For example, the term ‘retention’ means something different to records managers, information technology specialists, and human resource managers. In this instance, it is important to differentiate between them by using higher level categories (see step 5).

5. Categorise your terms

Once your terms are defined, you can start to arrange them into a meaningful structure, such as a taxonomy, to make it easier for users to browse and find terms. Depending on the amount of information gathered, you may need further input from business areas to classify or categorise your terms. 

6. Seek endorsement

Present your agreed terms and structure to an appropriate governance body, with representation from all relevant business areas for endorsement. Your Information Governance Committee could be the appropriate body but could also choose to delegate this to smaller working groups. Nonetheless, your Information Governance Committee should have awareness and oversight of the business glossary in use in your agency.

The terms and structure should be scheduled for regular review, which can be a cyclical process. The appropriate governance body should be consulted whenever terms are added, modified, reclassified or retired.

7. Present your glossary

You can present your business glossary in something as simple as a shared spreadsheet. Using a table format is advisable, in case you want to migrate the contents into another system down the track, such as a metadata registry. Moving information from a document or wiki will be more difficult.

Most staff should have read only access to your business glossary.

8. Promote the glossary

Your business glossary will only be effective if all staff know about it and know how and why to use it, so publishing and promoting the glossary where it is available to all relevant users is important. 

Consider providing guidance or training to users, through online advice or training sessions. Case studies of what can happen when a term is misunderstood can be very powerful to support guidance or training.

Enlist the help of the information governance committee or other appropriate governance bodies to increase buy-in across the agency. 

Example business glossary

The following example shows the kinds of properties that can be recorded about a term in a business glossary. It is not an exhaustive list. You should record whatever information is helpful for your agency.  

Business term Business category Definition Business term status Business owner Origin
Applicant Individual Grants A person (not representing an organisation) who has applied for a grant from the agency, which has not yet been approved, or was unsuccessful. Approved Director, Grants Management Grants Management System
Signed grant agreement Grants A grant agreement that has been signed by the grantee and the agency under seal and uploaded to the agency’s recordkeeping system.  Under review Director, Grants Management General Records Authority 28
Online visit Publishing Unique external use of our website comprising at least one session in a defined date range.  Draft Director, Communications Google Analytics
Onsite visitor Security People who are issued a visitor’s pass to enter an agency building, who are not staff or contractors. Approved Director, Facilities Agency Protective Security Policy
Date of onsite visit Security The date an onsite visitor was issued a visitor's pass (note: passes are issued for one day only).  Approved Director, Facilities Agency Protective Security Policy

Some other properties you could include are:

  • A unique identifier, such as a serial number
  • Related terms
  • Data sources the term appears in.