business glossary vs business dictionary

Is a business dictionary not the same as a business glossary? They are similar, but not the same. Both of these artifacts have the same purpose, what differs is some of the rules that govern them. Let's uncover what these are.

How is a business dictionary different?

For a quick reminder of the business glossary, check out this article for a quick reminder of what a business glossary is.

Let's look up the noun "report" into a dictionary. I'll look this up in the Merriam-Webster dictionary, though any other dictionary would work. When looking up "report", we're getting the following definitions:

1. a: common talk or an account spread by common talk RUMOR

bquality of reputation //a witness of good report

2a: a usually detailed account or statement// a news report

ban account or statement of a judicial opinion or decision

ca usually formal record of the proceedings of a meeting or session

3an explosive noise

What’s the main thing that becomes apparent? It’s the fact that the term "report" has multiple entries for its definition. Whereas with a business glossary, there is one term, one term and its unique definition. 

Main takeaway

A business dictionary can have multiple definitions for the same term, but the business glossary has 1 unique definition for 1 term.

Governing rules

As I mentioned, both of these artifacts have the same purpose, what differs is some of the rules that govern them. So for the business glossary, a term is unique. If we have a definition for the term "report", we can’t add a new term that’s called the same. We need to create a new term for it such as a "news report" vs. a "dashboard report". Where as for a business dictionary we can have the same term added multiple times.

This difference between the business dictionary and a business glossary becomes very obvious in the user experience. For example, when we are searching for the term "report", in a business glossary we can get 2 search results:

  1. News report
  2. Dashboard report

Each with their unique definition. That's because a business glossary has only one definition for each term, so there’s a one to one relationship.

Searching for "report" in a business dictionary, we would get one search result for "report", but with 2 definitions tied to it. It will then be up to the user to determine which one of the two definition they should use for their context. That's because a business dictionary would have the same term point to multiple definition. So there’s a one to many relationship.

Preference between business dictionary and business glossary

Implementing a business dictionary can be a bit easier. After all, when new terms are added, you don't need to worry about how to differentiate the new term "report" (i.e. news report) from the already existing term, also "report". Then again, you might also now add a new definition that's the same as the old one, only expressed differently. That's of course not good for obvious reasons. 

That's why for the most part I think that a business dictionary can lead to confusion for its end users. Why? Because as an end user, even if definitions are different, you always need to figure out the context and understand which definition for the term you should refer to. 

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On the other hand it can be a challenge to have unique terms so some organizations merry the concept of the business glossary with that of the business dictionary. How so? At the data domain level, or sub-domain level, the same term can only be found once. Therefore the governing rules of the business glossary are prevailing here.

But when one looks at all domains, at the enterprise level, you can find multiple entries for the same term. Therefore at the enterprise level, it's a business dictionary.

I still prefer the business glossary route as it reduces the risks or wrong assumptions and misunderstanding, but I also recognize that certain organizations have different needs and priorities that can be addressed quicker through a business dictionary. 

What about you? What's your preference?

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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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