What to Do When Each Department Uses Different Words to Describe the Same Thing

Thomas Redman:

We’ve all experienced some version of this problem: Ask “how many customers do we have?” and the marketing team provides one answer, sales a second, and accounting a third. Each department trusts its own system, but when the task at hand requires that data be shared across silos, the company’s various systems simply do not talk to one and other.

The problem arises because different systems employ different definitions of key terms. Thus, the term “customer” can mean a potential buyer to the marketing department, the person who signed the purchase order to sales, and the legal entity that it bills to accounting. Then people misunderstand the data and make mistakes. These issues grow more important as companies try to pull more and more disparate data together — to develop predictive models using machine learning, for example.

Specialized vocabularies develop in the business world every day to support new or specialized disciplines, departments, problems, and innovative opportunities. The term “customer” means different things to different departments because, at some point, each required the term to mean something specific to them. Language constantly grows and divides, becoming increasingly subtle and nuanced. But over time, systems don’t agree, which can cause tension and conflict in organizations.