There have been several events that have transpired in my current place of business which have created the need for making a common corporate glossary explicit. Perhaps the most notable of these was a migration to a new commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) software system, which essentially manages the heart of the business.
As you would expect, this system has its own terminology, and this has caused the entire business to learn a new vocabulary. Terms that are important to the business are important enough to expend time and resources in tracking them and making sure everyone in the enterprise is “speaking the same language”—literally. We have therefore identified the need for a corporate glossary.
A corporate glossary also sets the stage for “the semantic web,” intelligent search, and real knowledge management: The establishment of a corporate, shared knowledge base where different groups within the organization can learn from the successes of others.
Publisher’s Note: From time to time, TDAN.com republishes article from earlier issues (this one from July 2005) that are still relevant today. Thanks, Bonnie, for allowing me to repurpose this updated article on a topic that is very relevant today. This is not part of Bonnie’s regular series on TDAN.com, Tales & Tips from the Trenches.
This feature will share a case study in launching a corporate glossary. In the process, we will explore the lifecycle of a term and discuss the beginning of a governance process for business terms. I will be exploring our journey to the creation of a knowledge base. The next step after a glossary is to expand and build it into an encyclopedia of sorts. Along the way, we will be looking at infrastructure, lifecycle, architecture, and governance. We have discovered some exciting things in our adventures, and I look forward to sharing these nuggets of knowledge with you.
Purpose and Function of the Glossary
The purpose of the glossary is to provide anyone with the definition of any term or data element name, no matter where they are or what software they are using.
In order to provide this capability, the glossary must be ubiquitous—available from anywhere in the organization, at any time, and always accessible by everyone. It should be easy to use and require as few keystrokes as possible. It should also be able to be modified by not just the subject matter experts (SMEs), but also by anyone in the company. Therefore, our portal is the perfect place for the glossary to reside; it comes up when you click the Internet Explorer icon in the tray.
If anyone is allowed to create or update an entry, some control is needed to reconcile terms cross-functionally with other groups in the organization who may have different uses for a term. This creates the need for governance.
We have all experienced data dictionary initiatives that have been burdened with too much governance. The governance gets in the way of flexibility: The business needs to be able to change the definition when the business itself changes. The resulting situation involves definitions that may have been correct at one point in time, but as things change, they never are in sync with the business as time goes on because it takes an act of Congress to change the dictionary. We have therefore created what we call “Governance Lite” in order to create a flexible structure to accommodate both the need for governance and the need to keep constantly in synch with the business.
Governance Lite works as follows: Anyone in the organization can create a Business Term entry in the glossary. When a new term is created, it has a state of “Candidate.” Anyone can see all candidate terms, and the state will be shown to users of the Glossary.
We have a “Terms Team” whose job is to rationalize and normalize terms. The Terms Team is electronically notified when a new term is entered into the glossary. The team then researches the term with other terms already in the glossary and makes sure there are no conflicts. The team makes sure the wording of the definition is accurate, and that the definition follows the format mentioned in an earlier article – Business Metadata: How to Write Definitions published by TDAN.com (link unavailable). Sometimes, this work may require researching reference documents, and/or contacting line of business SMEs directly. When the definition has been successfully researched, its state is changed to “Authorized.”
The business is alerted to its use of a Candidate term since the term is displayed in the glossary along with its state. The business should take steps to clarify the meaning of Candidate terms whenever they are used, since it is possible that a candidate can have more than one meaning.
“Wikipedia” is an open-source encyclopedia on the internet. What’s cool about it, is it’s the “People’s encyclopedia”—anyone can update an existing entry or add a new one. In this way, everyone can participate in it and “own” it. On the downside, it can be very chaotic, because it lacks governance. We are trying to strike a balance and enable everyone to feel like they can contribute, therefore only applying minimal governance. Where it gets interesting is when someone wants to update an existing entry, especially someone else’s entry. This is when the governance is really needed.
How We Are “Faking” Wiki
Our portal software (we are using Plumtree) has two types of development: custom and straight out of the box. When you use the latter, with a tool called Studio, you can implement stuff very quickly. The tradeoff is you cannot do any custom development. Since we wanted to launch our glossary quickly, we wanted to use the straight out-of-the-box software. We had to then get creative in how we implemented it. Since the “plain vanilla” implementation does not offer versioning, we decided that every time someone wanted to edit an existing term, they can click the “edit” button (even on a term submitted by someone else) and they would be allowed to edit it. The system would create a new term behind the scenes, using a database trigger. So, if they were editing an Authorized term, the dictionary would essentially have both: the older version, which is the Authorized one, and the proposed new one, which would be a Candidate. The “new” one would contain the edited version of the definition. So ,what we are doing is not a true wiki because we need the entries for both before and after the edit in order to apply governance and resolve conflicts.
Suppose a business term has been entered more than once in the glossary, with two different meanings. There are several ways this can be resolved:
- Add a modifier to the term to create a new term. There may be a general definition of customer, but Marketing uses the term differently so you can have a “Marketing Customer.”
- In semantics, there is a notion of “word sense,” i.e., a different “sense” of the word. For example, the word “mole” has different meanings, such as:
- a small furry mammal,
- an indentation in the skin,
- or a spy.
In our glossary, we will be using what I call “enumerated definitions,” meaning a term will have numbered definitions. We have not decided whether the order of the definitions will reflect the most-to-least commonly used definition. I think for now it will be a “first in” type queue—the first definition received will be the first shown. Therefore, every term will have only one “Authorized” entry.
3. Replace the term—discussed in the next section.
Replacing and Merging Terms
The Term Team examines two or more existing definitions for the same term, either from separate submissions by different people or the modification of an existing term. Here are the resolution scenarios:
- One of the definitions looks better than the others: it is more complete, language is more precise, etc. In this case, one term will replace the others.
- Elements of all the candidate definitions can be merged together to create a new definition.
- One definition may be incorrect or may apply to a different term.
In all of these cases, one definition will replace others. The replaced term will have a status of “Replaced” and there is a data element Replaced By which would contain the Term ID of the new term.
Lifecycle of a Term
The states of a term are:
Sometimes it will be determined by the business that a term is not useful anymore and is no longer part of the common business language. In this case, its status will be Retired. We are still setting policies concerning retired terms. Right now, our intention is that if the Term Team uncovers a term that should be retired, the status will be set to Retired, and if no one comments on this or edits the definition, it will cease to be an active part of the glossary and will no longer be displayed to users.
Using the Glossary: How Search Works
The first step in a glossary search is accessing the main portal page by launching the browser. There are two portlets for the glossary, both shown on the main portal page: one for search and one for submission. The search portlet has only one entry area, for the term name, along with the search button. The results window displays one definition with an arrow indicating more rows found if they exist. The results are sorted by the state of the term, so if there is an Authorized definition it will show first. Otherwise, the results are sorted secondarily by date entered, so if there are multiple candidates, the most current will show first.
The submit portlet allows the user to enter a term name and a definition if desired. We want users to be able to submit a term even if they don’t know the definition.
One of the immediate goals of our project is getting the business to be familiar with the glossary and to use it. We are in the process of launching a publicity campaign, which includes a contest, to generate excitement and awareness of the glossary. Every time someone enters a term, their name will be entered into the drawing to win a gift certificate for company merchandise like polo shirts, tote bags, etc.
The purpose of the contest is twofold:
- To collect as many terms from actual businesspeople as we can, and
- To get people familiar with the glossary so they can start using it in their daily work.
The Future of the Glossary: Semantic Web and Encyclopedia
The Terms Team in the background will quietly be collecting synonyms. Eventually we want to display synonyms to the user when the definition is shown. This will require customization, so it will be implemented in a later release. It is our goal at this time to have the display limited to the term name, the definition, and its status. Synonyms and related terms lead to ontological information—terms that can be related and can therefore supercharge searching.
The stage is being set for semantics to empower search. Although the tools are not here yet, it helps to be aware of the emerging standards, such as Resource Description Framework (RDF) and Web Ontology Network (OWL), which will enable related information to be tagged for easy navigation. We see that our dictionary work is preparing us for semantically enabled search capability when it arrives. At the same time, another group is gearing up for the creation of an in-house taxonomy for corporate search. Our glossary will help define the base terms used in this taxonomy.
Our next evolutionary step for our “wiki-glossary” will be a corporate “wikipedia,” like its namesake on the web. We want to be able to enable businesspeople to capture the largely unstructured data that they uncover every day that helps them perform their jobs better. We want to create a way that when people make a discovery of knowledge that helps them, they can enter it in the wikipedia as an entry (sort of like a business term entry but more detailed) and others can search on it. We already have a document library, but it contains only formal documentation on business processes. We would like to capture all the informal knowledge embedded in “carbon-based life forms” so others can benefit.
Everyone knows that most business rules live informally, the large majority in people’s heads. If we can create a very simple tool that makes it easy to capture this informal bed of knowledge, then the corporation will benefit greatly. This is our next step, along with the creation of a “wiki-ontology,” a classification of corporate knowledge that can be grown from the businesspeople themselves.
Generating Business Value
Our glossary is making the business community aware of the meanings of the words they use. We see confusion every day in word usage that often translates into misunderstood business metrics, which can have a drastic impact on decision-making. It is our hope that we can clarify terms so systems and metrics can be understood better, which will eventually have an impact on the bottom line.