by Julian Goldsmith

Have you variablized your babble?

Aug 06, 20124 mins
IT Leadership

Language can be a tricky thing. One man’s Standard English can be another’s patois.

Here’s an example I have pulled out from a recent press release that was sent to me, to illustrate the problem.

“Cognizant’s engagement will enable Philips to transition the IT organization to a platform and output-based managed services model across multiple business lines and corporate functions, thereby enabling Philips to variablize its cost structure, drive structural savings, and free up resources to create higher value business capabilities.”

If you have trouble working out what this sentence actually says, I share your pain.

And, what on Earth does ‘variablize’ mean?

The passage is chock full of as many marketing buzz-phrases as possible, but it’s short on the actual detail that would make the phrases meaningful.

If any of you CIOs think that it’s just the fluffies in marketing that are unable to express themselves with clarity and concision, beware.

The IT department is at least as famous for speaking in tongues.

The authors of the press release above doubtless had no intention of issuing such incomprehensible gibberish and to them, it probably makes perfect sense, because it describes something they are all very familiar with.

They don’t realise that, to other readers who are not in the loop, it’s a little difficult to decipher.

This is a natural problem which all of us suffer from, without realising it. We all operate in a number of small groups in which we unconsciously share a lexicon of terms. These terms refer to the concepts that define those specific groups.

It’s no easy thing to break out of that way of thinking and to put yourself in the place of someone outside the group, but as managers, CIOs have to be aware of these linguistic boundaries and be able to traverse them.

Not only that, but as IT departments evolve into more business aligned, internal customer-friendly beasts, the whole IT team is going to have to be able to communicate to the rest of the business in a way that it can easily understand.

In any business there are many different groups and learning all of their ways of communicating is probably going to be a tall order, but any effort to translate internal vernaculars into language that outsiders to the group can understand is going to help.

Plenty of people say the IT team needs to learn the language of business, but most are short on how to actually accomplish this.

The Plain English Campaignis possibly a good place to start for advice if you want to tone up your team’s communication skills. A useful writing guide on its site makes some recommendations, which don’t cover face-to-face communication, but the way you write to some extent affects the way you talk. It says:

– Keep sentences short:This helps discipline people to get to the point quickly and avoid tying themselves in verbal knots when dealing with complex concepts. There are a lot of those in IT. – Use active forms: Say someone did something, rather than something was done by someone. Keeping the subject at the front shows everyone what bit in the sentence they need to concentrate on right away, without having to replay it in their heads to make sure they’ve understood it. – Use You and We: Personalise your message and don’t be afraid to name names. It makes it easier to understand who is involved. – Use appropriate terminology: Or rather, avoid terms that no-one else outside the IT team understands. If you can’t translate a term into plain English, it may mean the aspect of your project it describes is such a fine detail that the audience doesn’t need to know about it. – Give instructions: Direct commands are much more easily understood than advisories, so “Back up your data at the end of every day” is better than “Data should be protected by performing back-up routines every 24 hours”. It helps your audience identify what is really important in what you are saying.

No guide is going to help you or your team become expert business-multi-linguists, but any exercise that helps them become aware of when they are speaking in IT-slang is going to set them on the right track.

It should make the necessary translations become habitual and will help you break that stereotype in the business that technologists are incapable of expressing themselves clearly to non-IT colleagues.