what is a business glossary

What is a Business Glossary? At times I feel that the answer to this is obvious and that it does not merit its own article. But then I read a blog post, a LinkedIn post, a whitepaper, or even watch a webinar that talks about the Business Glossary, that talks about it incorrectly. That's when I start pulling my own hair.

Some talk about the Business Glossary and the data dictionary, data catalog, business vocabulary, data glossary, business catalog, and many others (I do have a list) interchangeably. They are not all synonyms!

What is a Business Glossary?

Let's cut to the chase and see what a Business Glossary really is. There are a lot of definitions out there about it, which is a bit ironic, but not surprising. I won't go over them, but I do want to mention the one from DAMA and their Data Management Body of Knowledge (DMBoK), that describes the Business Glossary as housing "agreed-upon definitions of business terms and relates these to data.”

I would like to make this even more clear and define the Business Glossary as:

"A collection of business terms with their unique definitions and other useful related information."

It's a trusted and curated source of business terms, with their definitions and quite a few other useful attributes (more on that in a bit). A business glossary is business language-focused and easily understood in any business setting from business boardrooms meetings to technical meetings. It's not meant to define data, but rather to define what each term means from the business' perspective.

Questions such as:

  • What is a customer?
  • What ridership and how is it calculated?
  • What is a patient discharge rate?
  • What is a full time employee?
  • What is a GPA?

These types of questions can be answered by looking for these terms in a Business Glossary. The Business Glossary holds business terms and business concepts for an organization or industry and these terms and concepts tend to be independent from any specific database, software, or vendor.

What else is a Business Glossary called?

A business glossary is sometimes also known as a Business Clavis, as well as Business Semantics and Business Metadata.

These are good alternatives, but the reason why I prefer the term Business Glossary is because most of us are familiar with glossaries in the first place.  (Most likely you've encountered a glossary in reports, contracts, proposals, surveys, or specialized books.) 

I'm not too keen on these three synonyms because "clavis" and "semantics" sounds a bit too academic and "metadata" sounds a bit too IT-centric, too technical. Business Glossary just hits the spot and I recommend anyone starting developing this artifact or using one already, to call it that.

You might also hear of a Business Data Glossary as a synonym or simply Data Glossary. It has the same definition, but I feel that naming your glossary a Business Data Glossary instead of Business Glossary, can create a bit more confusion and misunderstanding between what the difference is between it and a data dictionary & a data catalog.

Remember that a Business Glossary is not meant to define data, but rather to define what a business term means from the business' perspective.

What does a Business Glossary contain?

Besides the business term name and its definition, a sustainable and effective Business Glossary also has a few other attributes (the "other useful information" that's in the Business Glossary's definition). What does are vary from one organization and industry to another, but here is a sample of these attributes:

  • Synonym
  • Acronym
  • Abbreviation
  • Owner
  • Data steward
  • Taxonomy
  • Privacy classification 
  • Descriptive example
  • Usage description
  • Calculation rule
  • Policy
  • Domain
  • etc.

Again, this is just a sample of the attributes that you can include in your Business Glossary, some being mandatory and some optional. I cover all of these, plus more in the "Learn to Create an Award-Winning Business Glossary" online course and which ones should be foundational and which ones are secondary attributes.

I've seen organizations with more than 50 attributes for a terms, others even in the lower 100, so there are definitely a lot of options. Maybe that would be a bit of an overkill, but each organization with their own requirements, right?

What is NOT a Business Glossary?

My biggest pet peeve is how the Business Glossary is used interchangeably with a Data Dictionary and a Data Catalog. They are not the same thing. Most likely I'll write an article outlining the 3, but to keep it short:

A Data Dictionary is a description of a data set or data model.

A Data Catalog is an enterprise-wide asset providing a single reference source for the location of any data set.

Even if they are not all the same thing, they all work nicely together to describe different aspects of metadata.

What are the benefits of having a Business Glossary?

There's another article where I cover 6 main benefits of the Business Glossary, so please refer to it to get all the details, but as a summary, these are:

  1. Facilitating a common understanding of the proper meaning and usage of business terms
  2. Improving communication between employees, different departments, and even between 3rd party entities
  3. Enhances training and on-boarding for new and existing employees
  4. Establishes ownership and sustains data stewardship
  5. Increases trust in data and information by not leaving room for assumptions to be made on business terms
  6. Improves productivity and timeliness of the decision-making process (how many meetings did you have to go through to define "customer" for one report, only to repeat that process again at a later time or for a different project?)

Main takeaways

A Business Glossary is one of the most important deliverables of the Data Governance program and one of the most important and useful artifacts within an organization.

This "collection of business terms with their unique definitions and other useful related information" provides the basis for more accurate and efficient reporting, improved data quality, system and data integrations, overall clearer communication, operational efficiencies, and so much more. 

If you take away anything from this, please take away this:

1. It's an important and very useful artifact to have - but it also needs to be done right, it needs to be adopted by the end users, and cheered by upper management. 

Business Glossary Course

Checkout the Business Glossary Online Course and learn step-by-step how to implement an easy to use and efficient Business Glossary that users will adopt and management will praise.


2. A Business Glossary is "collection of business terms with their unique definitions and other useful related information".

3. It is NOT a data dictionary and it is NOT a data catalog. It's also NOT a business dictionary, but let's go over that another time.


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About the author 

George Firican

George Firican is the Director of Data Governance and Business Intelligence at the University of British Columbia, which is ranked among the top 20 public universities in the world. His passion for data led him towards award-winning program implementations in the data governance, data quality, and business intelligence fields. Due to his desire for continuous improvement and knowledge sharing, he founded LightsOnData, a website which offers free templates, definitions, best practices, articles and other useful resources to help with data governance and data management questions and challenges. He also has over twelve years of project management and business/technical analysis experience in the higher education, fundraising, software and web development, and e-commerce industries.

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