Data Management 20/20: Anatomy of a Business Glossary Definition

The business glossary is simple in concept, but it can be a challenge to structure, define and maintain shared business terminology. Consistent business meaning is important because distinctions between business terms are not typically well defined or documented. Standards exist for naming conventions, abbreviations and other pertinent metadata properties. What are the standards for writing a good business definition?

Less is More

Ludwig Mies van der Rohe was famously quoted as saying “less is more.” He was a strong proponent of minimalist architecture. From his perspective, architecture should provide clarity and simplicity about the structure and its intended use. Extra flourishes and ornamentation are removed to expose the essence of the architecture. We should strive to apply the same principles to business term definitions. Below is a list of some things that should be taken into consideration when developing a business term definition.

A business term definition should not include the following:

  • When, how, or where the term is used
  • Who uses the data referenced by the term
  • How to edit or process the data referenced by the term
  • The format the data stored in or other physical considerations related to the term
  • What hardware or software systems use the data related to the term

In an effort to capture all possible details about the thing being defined, you will often come across terms that embed business rules, policies, processes and other information into the definition. While this is not necessarily wrong, it does add to the complexity of managing a business glossary. A single business policy might affect multiple business terms and business rules. A business rule might change due to some regulatory requirement outside the control of the business. These changes have a cascading effect on the business glossary. If a change occurs, you will have to figure out which terms are affected and hope that you didn’t miss one. It is easier to maintain the glossary if the terms, rules, processes and policies are separated out. A single policy can be associated with multiple rules and a rule can be associated with multiple terms. Programmers like to call this loose coupling. More details can be found in the book Business Knowledge Blueprints by Ronald G. Ross. Most business glossary and data cataloging software provide this association functionality.

To avoid confusion on policies, processes, rules, and definitions, we should start with some basic definitions. A business policy is a statement of intent that drives the scope of business behavior. They set the limits for daily businesss activity. Policies are only guidelines and are not prescriptive, they become the source for the business rules. Business rules are the implementation of the policies. They include the criteria used to enforce operational business behaviors and decisions. A business process describes how a task or event enables work to be accomplished. A business term is a word or group of words that has a limited meaning within a specific context.

Context is Everything

Business terms clarify meaning and meaning is specific to the context in which it is used. Everyone has come across a situation where they thought they understood something only to find out they misinterpreted a word which changed the meaning entirely. It’s a lot like the optical illusion where one person sees a vase and the other person sees two profiles of a face. A light goes on once you see what was once obscured. Neither person is wrong it’s just a different perspective.

Let’s take the business term ‘order’ as an example. An ‘order’ can represent many things depending on how it is used. An ‘order’ may represent the sale of something or the purchase of something. It is important to describe what the term is used for. This helps us understand its function within the business. Do not confuse this with how it works. That would imply process.

Evaluating a Business Term Definition

Building a glossary of terms quickly is usually accomplished by importing a list of terms and definitions from the internet or an industry focused source. This is a valid approach but be cautious. Here is an example of a ‘sales order’ definition that I found while searching the internet. This is a typical example of what you might find.

A sales order is an internal document of the company, meaning it is generated by the company itself. A sales order should record the customer’s originating purchase order which is an external document. Rather than using the customer’s purchase order document, an internal sales order form allows the internal audit control of completeness to be monitored. A sequential sales order number may be used by the company for its sales order documents. The customer’s PO is the originating document which triggers the creation of the sales order. A sales order, being an internal document, can therefore contain many customer purchase orders under it.

In our option, let’s break out the rules, processes, and policies from the definition.


The statement, “Sales orders must allow for internal audit control for completeness to be monitored for regulatory compliance” describes the guidelines of audit and monitoring to be compliant with regulations.


The statement, “The customer’s PO is the originating document which triggers the creation of the sales order” describes how work flows through the sales order creation process.


This series of statements documents rules about actions required in order to audit and monitor for compliance: “A sales order must record the customer’s originating purchase order. A sequential sales order number must be used by the company for its sales order documents. A sales order may contain many customer purchase orders under it.” Whenever you encounter words like must, should, or may, you’re probably looking at a rule.

Business Term

After removing the nonessential details and adding some clarity, we are left with what a sales order is:

A sales order is an agreement used to authorize the sale of specified item(s) offered by the company for purchase.

The important thing to understand is that simply copying and pasting definitions might be an efficient method to build out the glossary, but it might add more ambiguity, which is what the glossary is supposed to avoid.

Structure of a Definition

A good definition can be broken down into component parts. A single definition does not have to contain every component, but it is useful for evaluating the quality of term definitions before you add them to your glossary. The goal is to describe the term’s meaning in a single sentence or phrase. Since this is not intended to be a literary masterpiece, the words used should be what one would expect in common business communication. Of course, proper grammar and spelling are required.

The following table describes the component parts based on concepts found in the book Business Metadata, Capturing Enterprise Knowledge by William Inmon, Bonnie O’Neil and Lowell Fryman. I’ve used ‘order’ as the example and constructed the definition piece by piece.

Generalized Term A general category to which the object belongs. This is called an “IS-A” relationship in programming or a Supertype in data modeling. Be careful not to describe the instance. An order is not a document even though it may be recorded that way.

Example: An order is an agreement between parties.
Important Characteristics Specific pertinent attributes unique to this context. This is called a “HAS-A” relationship. In the example below, order terms might be 15 or 30 days depending on conditions. Documenting the actual number of days would be a business rule that would have to be managed. It is better to document the specific attribute without specific values.

Example: An order is an agreement between parties that has a specified set of terms and conditions.
Function Qualifier Describes how the object being defined is used; this usually involves one or more verbs like USED-FOR. This is important for context. For instance, a service is not a good. Could a service be acquired through an order?  

Example: An order is an agreement between parties that has a set of specified terms and conditions used for selling or purchasing goods.
Specialized Term Refers to the specialized sub-categories below the term being defined. Commonly called a subtype in data modeling

Example: The term being defined is Order, then pertinent specialized terms of interest could be Sales Order or Purchase Order.
Related Term Refers to a term that has relevance to the term being defined but is not a synonym. Dictionaries, indexes and search engines often have a “SEE ALSO” section that lists related terms.

Example: An order is an agreement that has specified terms and conditions used for selling or purchasing goods, see also Agreement.
Synonyms Terms that mean nearly the same thing as the term being defined. One term is always the Preferred Term.  

Example: A Purchase Order may also be referred to as a Purchase Requisition but the preferred term is Purchase Order.

Achieving Measurable Consistency

The evaluation of quality definitions can be streamlined if you have a set of standards. A set of standards also provides a template to start crafting definitions. It is usually easier to start with some criteria than to start with a blank page. In addition, contextual searches are more predictable because the definition implies some consistent structure. This makes automation easier to employ.

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Robert Lutton

Robert Lutton

Robert Lutton runs Sandhill Consultants North America and has been directly responsible for creating an organization that delivers technology, service, products and training in the areas of Enterprise and Data Architecture.

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