When Managing Data Words Do Matter!

Big Data

Words do matter when it comes to managing data and governing it for the good of a company.


Though lately I have seen that phrase more often sprawled across protestors t-shirts, they have never been more important to those of us in the data business.  Words do matter when it comes to managing data and governing it for the good of a company.

Over the past few years, I’ve seen ugly disagreements and dueling PowerPoint presentations between sales and finance over something as simple as discounts and revenue.  And it wasn’t until both sides dissected the meaning of these important words that they came to understand that each had a different view of what made up a discount and what counted for revenue.  

The words they chose mattered.

Having encountered this problem in several companies over the years, I’ve developed a plan for how to minimize the effects of different definitions.

1.  Identify:  

The elements or words that cause the most confusion in reporting and management of a business are the ones that are usually most important for your business to succeed.   Take for example the word – CUSTOMER.  This one word conjures up different meanings for sales, marketing, product development, finance and services.  And for most companies is the most important word to get right in all its variations. 

As you look to identify words, you will find that the ones causing the most confusion are ones that you use every day and often describe your KPIs (key performance indicators).  Words like discount, revenue, opportunity, lead and headcount are ones that immediately come to mind.  Are you sure that you know exactly what each of these means for your business?  Are there others that you can identify?  

2.  Collaborate: 

Gather definitions of the term from the organizations or individuals who have responsibility for using the word in their daily work.  For example, sales people who identify opportunities associated with CUSTOMERS would be important to define what an opportunity with a customer really is. 

Let’s take the definition that sales might provide for “customer.”  To a sales rep, it’s simple: “Customer” means a company that buys what we sell.  But here is where defining a customer clearly becomes an issue.  Is “customer” the headquarters of a company or can it be a subsidiary?  Or both?  For that matter, is it really a company at all.  Perhaps it is the CIO that is important to the sales rep, therefore, the name of that person is the “customer.”  

Defining whether a customer is a company, or an individual, is important and can be considered the core elements of this definition.  However, there are other critical elements to a definition that might need to be considered to ensure a complete definition.  

For example, is a Customer someone who bought within the last 3 years or one who bought any time from your company?  Can a Customer also be a Partner?  For that matter, what is a Partner?

Now, take the marketing view of a “customer” and you can see how this could be confusing.  

Marketing will probably define a “customer” as someone who could purchase your products but may not have done so yet.  As for customer equals company, marketing may like the sales definition of CIO as the customer instead of the company.  

Small differences in the definition can cause large confusion and disagreements when these words are used downstream in reporting or analysis.  

Take the difference between marketing and sales as to “customer.” Marketing may want to only capture the name of the CIO and her email address.  With this information, marketing believes they have captured a “customer.”  

But sales may also need additional or other information about the company — whether it is a subsidiary of a larger company, the address for territory management purposes and perhaps the vertical market to which the “customer” belongs.  

Defining “customer” is important to every company not only to ensure alignment internally across organizations, but also to report externally.  Most companies like to promote the number of customers they have to market analysts, but often do so without very clear definitions.  When the numbers go up or down, this often prompts discussions around the definition of “customer.”

Getting to ONE definition that can be used by your entire company is a task of collaboration and compromise.  

3.  Document: 

Identify the areas of agreement and disagreement in the definitions and write them down.  This is probably the most important step.  Not until you and your teams see the definitions in writing will you be able to really understand how important this clarity is to your reporting within a company.  

A lot of companies today are using tools, such as Collibra (), to help them track the definitions and how they are represented in the systems used by a company.  Not only does Collibra provide the capability to have a “dictionary” of terms, but it also helps you manage those terms as they appear in applications and usage across your organization.  

4.  Integrate:  

This step requires a tight partnership with your technology team.  Make sure that IT can translate the definitions you have agreed to and documented into the systems and applications that use the term. 

Most IT shops today use SAS applications such as Workday or Salesforce.com.   These applications have already defined some of the key data elements that you use, like “employee” and “customer.”  However, you can usually ensure that the applications support your specific definitions, or you can alter your definitions to ensure that the application and definition are aligned.

Your IT department can help with this, but you may have to remind them that this is an important ask.  Remind them, also, that at some point “customer” from one system may need to align with “customer” from another and that, if the definitions are not consistent, the insights you can glean from your data will be very limited.  

5.  Educate:

Your business intelligence teams need to understand how each of the words for which you have identified agreed-to definitions should be used in reporting.  Otherwise, you will have reports talking about “customers” to marketing with information about companies instead of individuals or to sales with information about a subsidiary and not the headquarters. 

In the end, words matter. The sooner you and your organization can identify, collaborate to define, document, integrate into your IT applications and educate your BI teams, the more successful you will be at managing KPIs that make a difference for your company.

Related articles:

Critical Business Data- Measuring What You Manage

6 Keys to Managing Data in a Global World

Data Analytics Driven Marketing for Small Business


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