Why You Need a Corporate Dictionary

Corporate dictionaries help define the terms and acronyms used through an organization. They can be made in minutes but save countless hours of confusion.

October 19, 2021
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3
min read

You’ve probably heard that you need to put a cover on the TPS report (from eight different bosses if you ever forget). But what exactly is a TPS report? It’s the transaction Processing System, everyone knows that! Or was it the Third Party Solution document. Or maybe it was Technical Product Specification. What about the CPC, AR, PRB, NAS, ERP, and BANT? How about net promoter score, KPI, alpha, persona, account based marketing, red team?

You probably know some of those terms, but you might not know all of them, particularly the ones outside of your functional area. The finance person knows AR means Accounts receivable while the technical product manager knows AR means Augmented Reality. What about accounts receivable at an AR company? You’re probably thinking it should be clear from context. The AR feature on the new phone app with camera filters probably isn’t for billing.

Every company has terms which can be confusing, unclear, or downright opaque

But these are all industry standard terms. What about those terms that aren’t standard? Project names, internal processes, internal tools and systems, abbreviations. . . is it obvious to someone new or the company? New to the team? What about someone from another department joining a cross functional team?

If you build large enterprise software, try asking, “Who is the user?” Consider a company selling a financial analysis tool to financial services companies so their customers can see how their portfolios will grow under different market conditions. The “user” might be the administrators at the financial service company, or the financial planners who use the tool to provide analysis to their clients, or maybe their clients themselves (the individual investors). Think this is just for enterprise software? Who is the user of potty-training products? The parents or the kid? The kid might be the one actually “using” it, but then when it needs to be cleaned, the parents are “using” it (not in a way they’re excited about, but in a way they definitely will).

Photo by Joshua Hoehne on Unsplash

Every company has terms which can be confusing, unclear, or downright opaque. A simple best practice is to create a company dictionary. This could be on a wiki, or simply a shared document. It doesn't take much effort to create. Someone just gets it started and then it grows in a stone soup way as everyone contributes little by little. It will help new employees who are still trying to remember people’s names, let alone the company specific terms. And of course, new employees should be encouraged to add new terms they don’t see there but had to inquire about.

One tip, when you first start this, don’t be surprised if there’s some disagreement about the terms. It won’t be on the project name or meaning of a Customer Relationship Management system (CRM). But there may be some disagreement about a “user” or the purpose of the “Quarterly Quality Review Meeting.” The dictionary didn’t create that disagreement, it uncovered it when you tried to define it. In doing so it helps to resolve the conflict, so everyone is on the same page, literally.

When these items come up that need clarification, involve all appropriate parties. Recognize that each party may have a reason for their interpretation or definition. Changing it can mean work for them, from updating documents to altering processes. Compromise is often needed, or sometimes a higher authority is needed to make a ruling. Be supportive of whomever needs to change their process or behaviors; those who don’t have to change should try to support those who do.

Importantly, the only thing worse than no documentation is documentation which lies. As noted in the famous How To Write Unmaintainable Code “You don't have to actively lie, just fail to keep comments [up to date].” Although written for software it applies to any type of documentation. Some terms may get out of date, for example the name of a former project that’s now retired. That can be left out or placed in a dictionary archive. But worse is a term that has changed its meaning but has not been updated. As new employees are brought onboard, and really anyone, should be empowered to pull the Andon Cord to flag an out of date term and get help correcting it.

Ultimately the corporate dictionary can be created in minutes and with a few people-hours of work, it can be made useful. The question is, do you think this can save you more than a few people-hours of work? It may be from someone learning a term, making conversations flow faster, or preventing people from going down a wrong path based on a misunderstood term. For most companies of more than a few people, the answer is inevitably yes.



By
Mark A. Herschberg
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