Have you ever had this scenario – multiple team members from different groups come to you frustrated because the working relationship between their groups is “broken?” Legal is saying they aren’t getting what they need, IT says they are providing what’s asked, and finance doesn’t understand why we are paying our outside vendor for something that the internal IT and legal teams are “supposed to do.” You are responsible for process improvement among these groups so the questions and frustration lands on your desk! This is a common issue. So common, in fact, that this was a big part of a recent Legal Operators webinar I attended. The good news is that the solution may be simple.
Often times, the issue revolves around language and how different departments are using the words differently. Let’s explore the above scenario a bit further. The legal team member says they asked IT to gather all data from a certain “custodian.” The IT team took that to mean all “user-created data” on the network from one certain employee, so that is what they provided. They didn’t, however, gather the items on the person’s desktop nor did they gather records that the person created in third-party systems such as the HR and sales systems that the company uses. The legal team, therefore, asked the outside vendor to collect the “missing” data and that vendor sent a bill for their services. Finance is now wondering why we are paying for collecting data when we have an IT team that does that. The issue is that different teams have slightly different interpretations of the request. Although this scenario is ediscovery specific, this can happen in any interaction between departments. As legal operations is often responsible for process improvement as well as the way legal functions with other departments, the professionals in that group find themselves trying to navigate the terminology. To prevent such misunderstandings in the future, you can proactively solve this problem through a dictionary.
Creating a dictionary can be really simple. It is something I have seen one person start on their own just by jotting down words they hear from different groups. From there, you can share that document and ask people to add to it. If you already have a dictionary of your company acronyms, you can either add to it or you can create a specific “data dictionary” for the purposes of legal and IT working together. Another option is to create a simple word document for a single use at the outset of a project. Which solution you select will vary based on the need you are trying to solve. Here are some considerations when you are building out your dictionary.
What is the goal of the data dictionary? Most commonly I have seen the goal to be to improve the working relationship of specific teams long term. However, you may have a specific project (e.g., creation of a data map or implementation of Microsoft 365) that would benefit from a project-specific dictionary.
Where should it live? This will depend on the goal, but make sure you choose a system that is easy to access for everyone and that doesn’t have a high administrative burden. Choosing a system that the teams are using for other purposes in their daily work will increase the chances of people leveraging this dictionary.
Who will keep it updated? This is ideally a group effort with one accountable person who will make any final decisions on the definitions and own updating in the future. There will be an initial effort to populate many terms and you may want a committee of 2 or 3 people to edit definitions. After this initial effort, you can allow access to everyone to edit the document or you can have representatives from each team. The former allows the document to be a living, breathing document and encourages updating, however, may require more frequent oversight by the master administrator. The latter allows each group to have its own oversight but increases the burden of updating. Whichever method you choose, the ultimate owner of the dictionary should review it quarterly to ensure it is staying up to date.
Who will have access? I recommend broader access over more limited access, especially for the main groups involved. The more people understand each other’s vocabulary, the easier it is for teams to work together. However, you should consider your company’s access policies when making this decision.
What should it include? All department-specific business terms. It is often hard to remember what vernacular in your department is specific to your department as you are so steeped in that language. One easy way to identify these terms is to assign a “listener” from another department in each cross-functional meeting you have for a period. For example, for the next 3 weeks, in each meeting that involves another department, ask one person from that other department to write down any words they hear that are not commonly used in their department. This will give you a good starting point for the dictionary.
Note that. although I am talking about a cross-functional effort in the above, this dictionary can also be leveraged within a department. I have found it very effective to create a legal ops dictionary that includes terms from all other departments that you pick up in your work with those other departments. This can still help your goal of resolving confusion and will allow you to get to a common understanding quickly as you are then better equipped with the language that will make your ask clear to the other team.
Are you using dictionaries in your legal operations department? I would appreciate hearing additional perspectives on how it is working for you. Don’t hesitate to reach out at firstname.lastname@example.org.